Results tagged ‘ catcher ’
Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant was a back up catcher during his days in pinstripes. Many have served in that role through the ages. The current guy in that position, Chris Stewart, was a surprise choice at the very end of the 2012 spring training season, a move that ended the popular Francisco Cervelli’s two-year hold on the same job. The first backup catcher in franchise history was Jack O’Connor. Known as Rowdy Jack, he was already 37 years old when he spent the 1903 season backing up Monte Beville behind home plate. O’Connor batted just .203 that season but that was nine points better than Beville hit. Benny Bengough was the Yankees’ first long-term second catcher. He started his pinstripe career in 1923 behind Wally Schang on the depth chart and finished it eight seasons later behind Hall-of-Famer, Bill Dickey. Dickey’s longtime backup was the Norwegian receiver, Arndt Jorgens, who spent all eleven of his big league seasons in that role. Yogi Berra’s backup during the first half of his Yankee careeer was Charley Silvera. Elston Howard took over from him and gradually took over the starting catcher’s job from Berra. During the fabled 1961 Yankee season, the Yankees had three catchers, Howard, Berra and Johnny Blanchard all hit more than 20 home runs in the same season. Former Yankee Manager, Ralph Houk had been a backup catcher for New York during his playing days and the team’s current Manager, Joe Girardi, ended his Yankee playing days in that supporting role behind Jorge Posada. Some of the better known Yankee backup catchers included Rick Dempsey, Fran Healy, and Ivan Rodriguez.
I can clearly recall when today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant took over as the Yankee backup receiver. It was during the 1967 season. Elston Howard had broke completely down physically that year and the Yankees inserted his backup, Jake Gibbs as starting catcher and brought up Frank Fernandez from their farm system to become the new number two receiver. The native of Staten Island held onto that backup role for three seasons until Thurman Munson arrived in the Bronx in 1969. Fernandez was then traded to the A’s. He was decent defensively and had some power in his bat, hitting 12 home runs for New York in 1969 and then 15 for the A’s a season later. He also had a keen batting eye. His biggest problem was that when he did swing the bat he usually missed the ball. Frank averaged about one strikeout every three times at bat during his Yankee career and averaged just .199 during the six seasons he played in the big leagues.
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In 1985, a 24-year-old rookie from Montebello, California named Mark Salas surprised just about everyone by hitting .300 as the starting catcher of the Minnesota Twins. Yankee owner, George Steinbrenner, always looking for a good left-hand-hitting catcher who could take advantage of his home Stadium’s short right field porch, took notice of the kid. Two seasons later, he approved a mid-season deal that brought Salas to the Bronx in exchange for the Yankees disgruntled veteran knuckleballer, Joe Niekro.
The Boss ignored the fact that Salas had followed up his stellar rookie performance by hitting just .233 in his sophomore season with the Twins. He also didn’t pay attention to Salas’s below average defensive skills behind the plate. After all, even though Salas had lost Minnesota’s starting catching job to Mark Laudner, he was hitting a robust .379 in his back-up role at the time of the trade and he was a much better hitter than Joel Skinner, who had been serving as the Yankees second string catcher that year.
So Salas came to New York and was forced upon Lou Piniella, who was not a thrilled recipient. The Yankee skipper was struggling to keep his 1987 club in first place at the time and growing increasingly frustrated by having every decision he made as manager second guessed by “the Boss.” When it became apparent that Salas was not very good defensively and he stopped hitting too, Piniella wanted Skinner brought back up from Triple A, where he had been sent to make roster room for Salas. Steinbrenner refused to approve the move. So Piniella decided to refuse to accept any more of Steinbrenner’s phone calls, which served as perfect fodder for some creative back-page headlining in the New York City tabloids.
Eventually, Skinner was recalled and Salas was sent down to Columbus. The Yankees finished that ’87 season in fourth place in the AL East race with an 89-73 record. Salas finished his only half-season as a Yankee with a .200 batting average and then got traded to the White Sox with Dan Pasqua for pitcher Rich Dotson. His big league career would end after the 1991 season. He finished with 319 lifetime hits and a .247 batting average. He then went into coaching.
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This native Venezuelan emerged from the Yankee farm system when catchers Jorge Posada and Jose Molina both were hurt during the 2009 season. Cervelli did a surprisingly terrific job, hitting .298 in 42 games and earning the praise of the Yankee pitching staff for his work behind the plate. I use the word surprisingly because at the time, Cervelli seemed to handle big league pitching better than he did minor league stuff. That’s what I most liked about him. He seemed to step up when the pressure got more intense and that caused the expectations I had for the kid to rise up as the 2010 season approached.
Francisco got off to a rough start in 2010 when he was beaned on his birthday in spring training and suffered a concussion. When he returned he was wearing a new bulkier batting helmet that protected him better but also made it look like his head had shrunk. The new oversized lid also seemed to be making him a better hitter. When Posada got hurt early in the year, Cervelli took over as starter and had his batting average in the high .300’s well into May. I still remember blinking my eyes a couple of times when I checked a box score of a Yankee Red Sox game I missed that month and saw five RBI’s next to Cervelli’s name.
But the bat cooled off and more disappointingly, so did Francisco’s work behind the plate. The passed balls, errors and horrible throws started appearing in bunches and it convinced me that the kid was not yet ready to be a full-time catcher.
Give him credit though. Cervelli refused to give up on the notion that he and not Russell Martin, Jesus Montero or Austin Romine would be the next great Yankee behind home plate and he spent the winter of 2010 working like mad to get in the better physical shape he knew it would take to compete against that trio. But the injury bug hit him again during the 2011 exhibition season when a foul ball off his own bat fractured his foot. By the time he got back into action, Martin had not only solidified his hold on New York’s starting catching position, he proved to be an iron man back there and did not take many games off. As a result Cervelli played in just 43 games in 2011 and his season ended in early September when he suffered yet another concussion and missed the rest of the regular season and the Yankees’ two postseason series.
He arrived at New York’s 2012 spring camp knowing he was not going to push Martin out of his starting role and that he was going to have to compete with Austin Romine to keep his job as Martin’s backup. Everyone including Cervelli and me was shocked when Yankee GM Brian Cashman traded for San Francisco Giant back-up catcher, Chris Stewart just before Opening Day 2012 and Cervelli ended up getting sent back to Triple A for almost the entire regular season. Francisco actually broke into tears when Manager Joe Girardi gave him the news of his sudden demotion.
But Francisco hung in there. Even though he had a bad 2012 season down on the farm, he came to the 2013 Yankee spring training camp knowing Russell Martin was gone, Hal Steinbrenner was trying to cut the team’s payroll and he’d have his best opportunity ever to win New York’s starting catcher’s job. He actually did beat out Stewart and Romine for the position and was off to a decent regular season start, when a tipped foul ball broke his hand in a late-April game against the Blue Jays. Compounding his inability to stay injury free was his involvement in the now infamous Miami-based PEDs dispensing clinic investigation and subsequent 50-game suspension.
With New York’s off-season signing of Brian McCann emphatically disintegrating any shot Cervelli had of becoming the team’s starting catcher, the just-completed Yankee 2014 spring training season was most certainly his one-last opportunity to prove to New York’s management that he could play a valuable role as the ball club’s back-up catcher. He was certainly up to the challenge. Despite constant questioning about his role in the Biogenesis scandal and incessant rumors that the team had him on the trading block, Cervelli put together one of the best exhibition season performances of any of his teammates and started the regular season as McCann’s back-up.
Cervelli shares his birthday with this former Yankee outfielder.