Sports Nut

Last Man Crouching

The cushy life of the backup catcher.

Zaun: He’s equally inept from either side of the plate

I’ve always had an unhealthy obsession with the welfare babies of sports. As a kid, Terry Bradshaw didn’t amaze me. My hero was Steelers backup Terry Hanratty, who nabbed two Super Bowl rings while completing three passes. God bless the Jack Haleys, Joe Kleines, and Chuck Nevitts of the NBA who sit like installation art at the ends of benches, earning fat paychecks without taking off their warm-ups. Hockey? Who could forget Steve Janaszak, the no-minute backup goaltender on Team USA’s 1980 Miracle on Ice squad. I can still see him looking cool on the bench, a white towel wrapped around his precious neck for warmth.

But these superior athletes can’t match the feats of the ultimate sports freeloader: the backup catcher. Backup catchers are harder to kill than cockroaches and just as unsightly. The fraternity is the athletic equivalent of Skull and Bones: Once you’re in, you’ve got membership until you’re 40 or bat below .180. And sometimes even that won’t get you bounced. The Backup Catcher Society has helped Tom Prince (.208 batting average and a .331 slugging percentage, eight points higher than pitcher Rick Rhoden’s) and Chad Kreuter (.237, 54 home runs in 2505 at-bats) “earn” $4 million and $8 million respectively. Sure, that’s chicken feed compared to Bonds and Sheffield, but it’s more than they’d make as PE teachers.

The society’s sitting president is Gregg Zaun. He’s got the bloodlines for the job: Zaun’s the nephew of Rick Dempsey, a starting catcher with the .233 batting average of a backup. “Uncle Rick said that if you want to play in the majors, you have to be a left-handed hitting catcher,” he told the Montreal Gazette. So, Zaun learned to switch-hit. A switch-hitting backup catcher is like an uncoordinated 7-footer in the NBA—somebody always figures they can use one.

Zaun, though, can’t hit either way—he’s in his 10th year in the big leagues and has topped 30 RBIs only once. He also can’t field. In 2002, Zaun threw out only five of 44 runners who attempted to steal. OK, his elbow was screwed up, and he was getting a divorce, but I expect more for $1.2 million a year. Still, Zaun is a hot property: A few days after the Expos cut him this spring, the Blue Jays pounced. They’re the seventh team he will disappoint.

The society’s entry requirements are murky. Some guys, like Kreuter, who hit 15 home runs for the 1993 Tigers, trade on one good year for a decade. Most grow into backup status. Pat Borders, for instance, won two World Series as the Blue Jays’ starting backstop before depreciating into once-a-week material. Occasionally, a young catcher is born with a backup’s soul. Bob Montgomery was on the Red Sox opening day roster for the entire 1970s, yet he never had more than 254 at-bats in a season.

The other qualifications for society membership are intangible. It helps to be white, have a receding hairline, own a dirty pair of shin guards, and possess a world-weariness that belies the reality of the easiest job in sports. Despite their noticeable lack of skill, fans love the weak-hitting, glass-armed shlubs. The backup catcher is the equivalent of Dad’s comfy chair, or those treasured broken-in loafers. We love them enough that we watch with joy as a backup catcher parlays second-bananadom into a show-biz career. Joe Garagiola turned his crappiness into gigs commentating at dog shows and hosting Today. Bob Uecker gave us Major League and, more importantly, Mr. Belvedere.

The painless life of the backup catcher is as old as the sport itself. Back in the pre-DH days, there was no cushier job in Christendom than third-string catcher in the majors. Skippers would allow the starters to catch 140 games; the understudy would grab the rest. Loath to use their last catcher as a pinch-hitter, you could count on a manager not to rouse the third-stringer even in a 15-inning game. In 1950, Yogi Berra’s heyday, Yankees’ backup catchers Charlie Silvera and Ralph Houk combined for 34 at-bats.

The third-string catcher exists now only in faint memories and on Bobby Cox’s playoff roster. The notion of the “personal catcher,” though, has kept many an unqualified backstop overemployed. Some fragile pitchers need a backstop all their own, a guy who knows when to call for a curveball or where to hold his glove so the umpire will call a strike. Someone named Henry Blanco earned a cumulative $2.8 million in 2002 and 2003 as Greg Maddux’s caddy; batting .204 and .199, Blanco barely hit better than his master. Boston’s Doug Mirabelli earned over $800,000 last year to carry a butterfly-net-sized glove to wrangle Tim Wakefield’s knuckler. Alas, there are downsides to hitching your wagon to a star pitcher. In 1976, Bruce Kimm served as Mark “The Bird” Fidrych’s catcher during his sensational rookie year. When Fidrych’s arm nearly fell off, Kimm’s career fizzled. Last year, Chan Ho Park got off to a miserable start. The Rangers weren’t going to cut the underperforming millionaire—instead, they booted his manservant, Chad Kreuter.

Many lifelong backups do better yoking themselves to a fellow catcher. After nursing Bob Montgomery along for eight years, Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk took his backup-catcher charity program to Chicago. In the early 1990s, Ron Karkovice had a comfy gig as Fisk’s backup, playing whenever the White Sox needed someone to throw the ball to second base on the fly. But when Fisk went to seed, Karko was pushed into the starting lineup. Between 1992 and 1996, he hit .237, .228, .213, .215, and .220. This unfortunate exposure to playing time meant Karkovice was done at 34, an age when backups are just approaching their earning potential.

For most reserve catchers, the money is too damn good—and the work too easy—to contemplate retirement. Ex-Met/Cardinal/Blue Jay/Yankee/Giant Alberto Castillo is riding the bus in AAA Omaha. Oh, how the not-mighty have fallen. At 34, you would think Castillo (.219 in 343 games with a .287 slugging percentage, 36 points less than Rhoden!) would give up the ghost. After all, he must have salted away some of the $2.5 million he’s stolen while playing this great game so poorly. Pat Borders hasn’t quit either, though he hasn’t had more than 34 at-bats in a major league season since 1998. This week, the grizzled 40-year-old was rewarded with a call-up to the Mariners.

All backups take their cue from Elrod Hendricks, the patron saint of erstwhile catchers. Hendricks nailed the role so well he never left. Best known to baseball purists for getting in a minor league fight with Pat Jordan, recounted in Jordan’s A False Spring, Hendricks spent a brief period as a starter, a few years as Mike Cuellar’s personal catcher (then an occasionally activated bullpen catcher), and for the past two decades he’s been the Orioles’ bullpen coach. At 63, the man still wears shin guards on special occasions. He has survived a stadium, Arthur Lee Rhodes, and Cal Ripken’s streak. Four years ago, I saw him hitting on the ladies at the Boston Sheraton. Ever the backup catcher, he still seemed to be going 0 for 4.