If you don't take your hands off me...." Houston Astros rookie
catcher Mitch Meluskey finished his thought with a right hook to
outfielder Matt Mieske's left eye, leaving a gash that required
four stitches to seal. It was last June 11, and Mieske had
harangued Meluskey for being late to batting practice. Whether
or not Meluskey was justified in taking a swing, slugging a
seven-year veteran in front of teammates and a few dozen
10-year-old autograph seekers hardly enhances the image of a
"Did I feel bad about it?" Meluskey mused last month while
sitting in a sandwich shop in his hometown of Yakima, Wash. "Yes.
Just when some of the veterans were starting to think, Maybe this
kid isn't so bad, this happens."
Compared to Meluskey, Sisyphus had it easy. The June punch isn't
the only thing that has made it hard for him to earn his peers'
respect. A baseball rookie is expected not only to accept the
customary salmagundi of wedgies, hot feet and loosened salt
shakers but also to know his place--especially around the batting
cage. Three years ago at the Astros' spring training complex in
Kissimmee, Fla., a coach sent Meluskey, then a 23-year-old Double
A catcher in his first big league camp, to take BP at the end of
a workout session. He arrived to find Astros mainstays Jeff
Bagwell, Derek Bell, Sean Berry and Craig Biggio taking their
cuts. When Meluskey began to strap on his batting gloves, the
veterans barked at him, "What are you doing? Go shag flies or
something!" The next day he found his clothes stuffed in the rear
stall of the clubhouse bathroom.
Ever since that incident Meluskey has been stuck with these
labels: impetuous, cocky, disrespectful. His subsequent behavior
reinforced the tags. Meluskey pulls a Paul O'Neill after
unsuccessful at bats. He's never timid about speaking his mind.
("Baseball needs to test for steroids," declares the 6-foot
200-pounder. "[Other players] are at an unfair advantage.")
Finally, his self-esteem is Reggie-esque. "I'm not Johnny Bench,
but I know I can play this game," the switch-hitting catcher
He can indeed. After sitting out most of 1999 while recovering
from surgery to tighten his right shoulder capsule, Meluskey
entered spring training in 2000 behind catchers Tony Eusebio and
Paul Bako on Houston's depth chart. But by April he had performed
so well that the Astros traded Bako to the Florida Marlins. By
midseason Meluskey was getting the lion's share of the starts.
In 337 at bats he hit 14 homers, drove in 69 runs and was the
unofficial leader among National League rookies in batting
average (.300), on-base percentage (.401) and slugging percentage
(.487), numbers that helped earn him a fifth-place finish in the
Rookie of the Year voting. Had Meluskey not stolen away to South
Padre Island, Texas, during the All-Star break, he would have
taken a call from Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox telling him
that he was replacing injured New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza
on the All-Star roster. (The Chicago Cubs' Joe Girardi went
Overshadowed by Meluskey's punch was his improvement behind the
plate. Says Bagwell, who got a prime view from first base, "As
the year went on, Mitch did a better and better job of managing
the staff, and the pitchers responded to that." Righty Scott
Elarton, who had refused to throw to Meluskey in the minors, was
12-6 last season with Meluskey catching.
Meluskey also did a better job of managing himself. Shortly after
the Mieske scuffle, Astros management received a letter from an
incensed Enron Field fan who had heard Meluskey shout "f---!" to
himself after an at bat. Manager Larry Dierker summoned the
catcher to his office, benched him for two games and warned, "If
you're going to play for me, you're gonna have to change your
Since then the only Astro that Meluskey has fought is Meluskey.
He has kept his mouth closed, letting the steam come out his ears
and off his bat. "I remember watching him during a stretch when
he lined out about eight times in a row, and he did a nice job of
remaining calm," says Bagwell. "Mitch is becoming a lot more
mature on and off the field."
In Yakima in the off-season Meluskey sleeps in the room he slept
in growing up. On this night he cuddles up with Charlotte Joko
Beck's Everyday Zen, a guide to work and relationships. One
passage reads, "If anger is what you are, experience it.... The
other side of anger, if we experience its emptiness and go
through it, is always compassion." Meluskey interprets: "Emotions
are good in life, but you can't let them engulf you."
Maybe this kid isn't so bad after all.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE
Meluskey is never timid about speaking his mind, and his
self-esteem is Reggie-esque.