As Benny Distefano sees it, you can never have too many hyphens. So when the Pirates recalled the first baseman-outfielder from Buffalo last September, he offered to add the word "catcher" to his collection. As Pirate manager Jim Leyland puts it, "His attitude was: anything to stick in the big leagues."
Anything, indeed. Distefano, 27, who was mired in the Bucs' farm system for the better part of seven seasons, had never caught before and was unaware that only two lefthanders—the Cubs' Dale Long in 1958 and the White Sox's Mike Squires in '80—have done so in the majors since 1902. Nevertheless. Distefano squatted away September in the bullpen and the following month went to the Instructional League to play the position every day. "Basically," says pitching coach Ray Miller, "Benny worked his butt off." After reporting to camp early, Distefano worked 13 innings in three exhibition games and won the final spot on the roster. "I don't think I did a bad job," he says modestly. "He did a good job," counters catcher Junior Ortiz. "Especially for a lefthander."
Ah. Ortiz's lefthanded compliment raises the question. Why can't a lefty catch as well as a righty? Surprisingly few baseball minds have ever given the topic any thought. "There must be something to it," says Leyland. "But I haven't figured out what."
Long's biggest concern before he caught his two innings in '58 was finding a lefthanded catcher's mitt; he couldn't, and had to use his first baseman's glove instead. Though that problem has long since been solved, Long doesn't expect to see a southpaw catch regularly in this century. "It's going to take a lefthanded Jim Hegan or Johnny Bench just to break the thinking," he says. "Joe Anybody won't do it."
One Joe Anybody—Distefano—disagrees. Still, he hears the grumbling of critics on the right. They were quick to warn him about the difficulty of throwing to third base when a right-handed batter was in the box and to caution him that most of his pegs to second base would sail to the left, something he has indeed experienced. "Lefthanders throw a slider at any distance," says Long. "I don't know why God gave that to us, but He did." Distefano's biggest disadvantage, though, is the fact that he is one of a kind. At the turn of the century, the vast majority of batters were righthanded, so the prejudice against lefty backstops made some sense. Now the circumstances have changed, yet in baseball, as in politics, traditions—no matter how bullheaded—often die hard.
Distefano suffered a bruised shoulder in the Bucs' final exhibition game and spent two weeks on the disabled list before rejoining the club on April 26. With catcher Mike LaValliere out at least until July following knee surgery, Distefano may soon get his shot. "He's not going to be the next Bill Dickey," says Leyland. "But I'd use him."
That's all Distefano asks. When he returned home to Brooklyn last winter and ran into some of his Lafayette High School teammates, including Reds pitcher John Franco, he took some teasing about his catching. "They all thought it was a joke," he says. "But I guess it ain't so funny now that it's put me in a big league uniform."
Distefano wants to prove a lefthanded catcher can make it in the majors.