Tom Prince doesn't know squat. Everything he knew about squat
Prince has forgotten in his 13 years as a backup catcher in the
big leagues, where he has squatted, on average, in fewer than 25
games per season. Prince--a 35-year-old Phillie with a lifetime
average of .197, backing up an All-Star in Mike
Lieberthal--consults the lineup card before each game in the
touching belief that one day his PRINCE will come. "But I'm no
longer surprised when my name isn't on it," he says.
Inside every backup catcher is a starting catcher waiting to
break out. "This is the fourth team that sees me as a backup,"
Gregg Zaun said one recent Saturday in the Tigers' dugout. "There
are still 26 other teams in the big leagues."
One of them, Zaun is certain, will one day do the right thing and
recognize his inner starter. "All the backups I know want to
start," said Zaun, the unfortunate understudy to such All-Stars
as Charles Johnson as a Marlin and Pudge Rodriguez as a Ranger.
"We all want to play every day." Seventy-two hours later Zaun was
traded to the Royals (five teams down, 25 to go); at week's end
he was competing for the starting job with Sal Fasano and Brian
"Outside every fat man," wrote Kingsley Amis, "there was an even
fatter man trying to close in." It's equally true that outside
every obscure backup catcher is an even more obscure beer
distributor trying to close in. "If I played any other position,
with my skills, I'd have been out of the game a long time ago,"
concedes Prince. "There's no question about it."
So Prince sees his protective cup as half full. Most backup
backstops do. Todd Pratt is unlikely to unseat--or rather, to
seat, for it is Pratt who sits on the bench--future Hall of Famer
Mike Piazza as the starting catcher for the Mets. But when Pratt
reflects that he was out of baseball four years ago and managing
a Domino's franchise, he can appreciate what a difference an "a"
makes: Working with pizza he earned $5.50 an hour; working with
Piazza he'll average 100,000 times that amount in salary over the
next two seasons.
"What you are," says backup catcher turned broadcaster Joe
Garagiola, "is a well-paid blowout patch."
Is it any wonder that Zaun--a lifetime .236 hitter who readily
admits, "There are weeks when I couldn't hit water if I fell out
of a boat"--can't conceive of coaching when his playing career is
over? "I can't see myself taking a $40,000-a-year job," says
Zaun, who will earn more than $500,000 in 2000 and who only last
year, at 27, built his dream home in Texas.
All of which is to say that backup catcher is the best gig in
baseball, right? The pay is ridiculous, the hours are short and
the job security is comical: 37-year-old Tom Pagnozzi sat out all
last season after surgery for a torn right rotator cuff and was
still able to select, over the invitations of three other teams,
the World Series champion Yankees as his employer for 2000.
"Believe me, I'd love to be a dynamite shortstop," said Pagnozzi
one day at the Yankees' camp in Tampa, standing a few yards and
several psychic miles from teammate Derek Jeter. "For one thing,
I wouldn't get these every day." He rolls up his sleeve to
reveal, on the inside of his right biceps, three brown-and-purple
bruises, the size and shape of bullet wounds, left by foul tips.
"I'd love to be 28 again. I'd love to have a strong back again.
But at my age, and in my health, to back up Jorgie [Posada] on
the New York Yankees?"
Better still, when a backup catcher's days as an occasional
player are over--and they never are, or how else to explain the
Expos' Charlie O'Brien, who turns 40 next month and is widely
regarded as the Johnny Benched of backups?--he's well-equipped to
be a big league coach or manager. Skippers Bruce Bochy of the
Padres and Gene Lamont of the Pirates were No. 2 number twos in
their playing days. Prince would like to manage someday ("When I
can physically no longer get behind the plate," he says), though
Zaun would prefer "something low stress, like working in the
Backup catchers have excelled in broadcasting. Bob Uecker hit
.200 over six seasons and then made a career of his lack of
career, appearing with Johnny Carson scores of times to talk
about how, for instance, he once missed the World Series with
hepatitis. "The trainer injected me with it," says Uecker.
Garagiola also found greater fame behind the mike than behind the
plate. "I started 100 games for Pittsburgh in 1952," he recalls.
"Of course, we lost 112. But the job prepared me for the
Kiwanis-Rotary-Blue and Gold banquet circuit."
Indeed, the backup who can laugh at himself may dine out on
rubber chicken for the rest of his life. "A catcher has to have
a sense of humor," says Zaun, the nephew of former Orioles
catcher and cutup Rick Dempsey. "For one thing, all eight of
your teammates are facing you on every pitch. No matter how bad
it gets, you have to keep a lighthearted manner because everyone
is reacting off you. Plus you're going to take three or four
foul tips in back-to-back games, and your teammates will be
laughing at you. And you can't blame 'em, because it is funny.
It hurts"--whereupon Zaun reveals a yellow bruise that
completely covers the tattoo that completely covers his left
shoulder--"but you have to laugh."
If catching is baseball's least glamorous position, then backup
catching is too absurdly unglamorous for words. You're forever a
Pip (born backup to some Gold Gloved Gladys Knight) or a Pipp
(starter-in-exile, stampeded by an Iron Horse). "In an ideal
world," says Zaun, who won a World Series ring with the Marlins
in 1997, "I'd catch 100 games a year and lead a team to the World
Series. I already have a ring, but I want to be a direct reason
for my team's success." Until then, he reasons, "backup catching
is still a big league job, it's still a privilege, I'm still
being paid to play a kid's game."
He'll still take his job over yours any day. And he knows 29
other guys who'll back him up on that.
COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. ALL DRESSED UP AND NOWHERE TO GO Though ready and willing, reserve receivers Prince (far left) and Zaun had only 99 at bats between them in '99.
If I played any other position, with my skills, I'd have been out
of the game a long time ago," concedes Prince.