July 31 – Happy Birthday Mike Figga
One of the things I enjoy most about authoring this blog is finding out that even the most short-term and unsuccessful Yankee players have interesting stories. Today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant, a catcher named Mike Figga, is a great example. Back when “Boss” Steinbrenner either had to make or approve every decision that needed making in the entire organization, three catchers started the season on the Yankees’ 1999 roster. By that time, Jorge Posada had taken over the starting job behind the plate from Joe Girardi and with those two guys battling for innings, everyone wondered why on earth the Yankees also kept Figga. The “everyone” included interim Yankee manager, Don Zimmer, who was skippering New York that year while Joe Torre recovered from his cancer surgery. When a New York Times reporter following the team asked Zimmer why Figga was on the roster, the irascible “Popeye” responded with some questions of his own. “Can he hit big league pitching? I don’t know. Is he a big league catcher? I don’t know. Why don’t I know? Because I’ve never seen him catch in the big leagues? That interview took place six weeks after the ’99 season started and the only game-time action Figga had seen on the field up to that point was warming up Yankee relief pitchers in the bullpen.
There were two reasons Figga was on that roster. He was out of minor league options and he was born in Tampa, FL. If you wanted to play for the New York Yankees, it didn’t hurt to be from Tampa, which was Steinbrenner’s adopted hometown. The Boss loved Figga and had always hoped he would one day become the Yankees’ starting catcher, but Posada had outplayed him in the minors. Instead of trying to trade or release him however, the Yankee owner instructed Brian Cashman to put him on the big league roster.
So before every game, while Posada or Girardi was walking to home plate with the catcher’s gear on to start that day’s game, Figga, carrying his gear in a big bag, took the long walk out to the Yankee bullpen. Finally on May 22 of that season, with Joe Torre back at the helm, Figga was inserted into the first game of a double header against the White Sox as a defensive replacement for Posada in the ninth inning of a blowout 10-2 Yankee victory. Then, in the second game of that twin-bill, Torre pinch-hit Shane Spencer for Girardi in the bottom of the seventh and replaced him with Figga to start the eighth. Those turned out to be the only two games Figga appeared in as a Yankee during that ’99 season and he didn’t get a plate appearance in either of them. Two weeks later, with his team trying to keep pace with the Red Sox in the AL East, Steinbrenner finally relented and let Cashman put Figga on waivers. He was claimed by the Orioles but Figga’s story doesn’t end there.
Steinbrenner was born on Independence Day. The Orioles happened to be in town on his birthday that year and Baltimore started Figga behind the plate. Late in the game, with the Yankees nursing a 3-2 lead, Figga belted a double to extend what turned out to be the Orioles game-winning rally. As Figga’s ball sailed over Bernie Williams head in center field, I guarantee Cashman’s cell was already ringing and I’m equally certain the first four words he heard when he answered it were “I told you so.”
Figga played 41 games for Baltimore that year and then never appeared in another big league game. He shares his birthday with this former Baltimore manager who was also a star outfielder on five straight world champion Yankee teams.