Sunday, June 22, 2014

Ron Hodges Leads a Bevy of Backup Backstops

Ron Hodges spent a dozen years with the Mets, but most of them were spent on the bench.

Most Mets fans know that Ed Kranepool played 18 seasons in New York, spending his entire major league career in a Mets uniform.  But only one other player spent as many as a dozen seasons with the Mets without ever wearing another big league uniform.  And that player spent more time on the bench than he did on the field.  It seems like there was always someone in front of him on the depth chart, but that doesn't mean he wasn't one of the more valuable players on the team.

Ron Hodges was a Met from 1973 to 1984, beginning his career on the "Ya Gotta Believe" Mets and playing his final game just as the Mets started to believe in contention once again.  During his first three seasons in New York, Hodges served as Jerry Grote's backup.  Once Grote was supplanted behind the plate, John Stearns became the team's No. 1 catcher.

The late '70s and early '80s saw Stearns and Alex Treviño splitting time as the team's catcher, with Hodges serving as the club's third option.  Finally, once injuries took Stearns out of the picture and a blockbuster trade for slugger George Foster removed Treviño from the equation, Hodges became the Mets' starting catcher in 1983.

Hodges' 11th year in the majors produced his first season with 300 or more plate appearances.  But by then, Hodges was 34 years old and wasn't nearly as mobile behind the plate or as productive with the bat (0 HR, 21 RBI) as he was as a part-timer from 1973 to 1982.  Rookie Mike Fitzgerald took over the gig behind the plate in 1984, relegating Hodges to the bench and eventually his release following the '84 season.

Ron Hodges didn't play much in his twelve seasons as a Met, but he did endear himself to fans with his patience at the plate and his grittiness behind it.  Despite a .240 career batting average, Hodges reached base at a .342 clip, making him one of just four players in Mets history to have an on-base percentage at least 100 points higher than his batting average.  The others are Wayne Garrett (.237 BA, .348 OBP), John Olerud (.315 BA, .425 OBP) and Robin Ventura (.260 BA, .360 OBP).

In addition to being half of the "my career OBP is 100 points higher than my lifetime batting average" club, Garrett and Hodges were also instrumental in one of the most pivotal defensive plays in club annals.  On September 20, 1973, with the Mets needing a win over the first place Pirates to move to within half a game of the division lead, the two teams squared off in an extra-inning affair at Shea Stadium.  Garrett started the game at third base, while Hodges began the game on the bench.  But in the tenth inning, manager Yogi Berra inserted Hodges into the game and moved Garrett from third to short.  Three innings later, with Richie Zisk on first, Bucs' rookie Dave Augustine lifted a long fly ball to left field that just missed being a crushing two-run homer by inches.  Instead, it bounced high off the wall into Cleon Jones' glove.  As the Mets' shortstop, Garrett cut off Jones' throw to the infield and fired a strike to Hodges, who tagged out Zisk to prevent the Pirates from taking the lead.  Hodges' tag saved the game (and perhaps the season) in the top of the 13th inning, just minutes before his run-scoring single gave the Mets a thrilling extra-inning victory.  True to his title as backup catcher, Hodges remained on the bench for the rest of the 1973 season, with Jerry Grote starting every game during the Mets' amazing run to the NL East title.

Hodges was the Mets' elder statesman of the backup catching crew, but there have been some others who have been produced some memorable moments.  Below are five of the backup catchers whose names became part of Mets lore.

Duffy Dyer

After a one-game tryout with the Mets in 1968, Duffy Dyer was the Mets' third-string catcher in 1969.  But back-to-back doubleheaders in mid-August created the need for just the second start by Dyer on the season.  Dyer capitalized on the rare opportunity, hitting a three-run homer to turn a 2-0 deficit against the San Diego Padres into a 3-2 lead, which was also the final score.  The Mets were nine games behind the first place Cubs entering the game.  They were eight games out after Dyer's well-timed blast led the Mets to victory, a win that began a stretch in which New York won 36 of 46 games to overtake Chicago.

Dyer played with the Mets until 1974, but like Hodges, he was only the team's No. 1 catcher in one season (1972).  Dyer was a member of two pennant-winning teams, but never caught a game in the Fall Classic.  His sole postseason appearance in a Mets uniform came as a pinch-hitter in Game 1 of the 1969 World Series, grounding out for starting pitcher Tom Seaver.  Dyer batted .219 in 375 games as a Met, but had his brightest moment as a Met very early in his career.  That bright moment helped steer his teammates toward their improbable first World Series championship.

Mackey Sasser

Just prior to the beginning of the 1988 season, Mackey Sasser was traded by the Pittsburgh Pirates to the Mets.  Sasser played five seasons in New York, beginning his career with the Mets backing up future Hall of Famer Gary Carter and ending it as the No. 2 guy behind the team's soon-to-be single-season home run leader Todd Hundley.  In between Carter and Hundley, Sasser was the team's No. 1 catcher for one year.  And in that one-year opportunity, Sasser did something with the bat that no Mets catcher had done before him and only two Mets catchers have done since.

In 1990, Sasser played 100 games for the Mets, finishing the year with a .307 batting average.  In doing so, Sasser became the first catcher in team history to bat over .300 in a year in which he played more than half the team's games behind the plate.  (Since then, only Mike Piazza and Paul Lo Duca have been able to duplicate Sasser's feat.)  But Sasser's infamous inability to throw the ball back to the pitcher without double and triple pumping caused the Mets to look past his productive bat and look forward to Hundley as the team's top catcher.  Rick Cerone and Charlie O'Brien split catching duties in 1991, and Hundley took over the job in 1992.  Sasser finished his Mets career with a .283 batting average in 420 games.

Todd Pratt

If starting catcher duties were determined by overexuberance, then Todd Pratt would have had a steady job for his entire career.  Pratt was a Met from 1997 to 2001, never collecting more than 160 at-bats in any of his five seasons with the team.  But he was always the first player to celebrate a key hit produced by one of his teammates.  Pratt's premature celebration in Game 5 of the 1999 NLCS caused Robin Ventura's game-ending drive over the right field wall to forever be known as the Grand Slam Single.  And who can forget Pratt jumping for joy outside the Mets dugout on June 30, 2000 after Mike Piazza's three-run homer capped a miraculous ten-run inning against the Braves?  But Pratt's biggest moment as a Met allowed his teammates to celebrate one of his titanic blasts.

With Piazza sidelined with a thumb injury, Pratt temporarily took over starting duties for the Mets as the 1999 NLDS returned to Shea Stadium for Game 3.  With New York needing one win to wrap up its first postseason series victory in 11 years, Pratt stepped up to the plate with one out in the bottom of the tenth inning in a 3-3 tie.  Arizona had their closer, Matt Mantei, on the mound when Pratt lofted a high fly ball to straightaway center field, 410 feet from home plate.  But Gold Glove center fielder Steve Finley mistimed his jump, allowing Pratt's blast to clear the wall just over Finley's glove.  The homer gave the Mets a 4-3 win and a date with the Atlanta Braves in the League Championship Series.  To this day, it remains the only postseason series-ending home run hit by a Met in team history.  And it was by far, the most memorable of the 18 home runs hit by Pratt in his five-year career in Flushing.

Ramon Castro

Ramon Castro was never the team's top catcher in his four-and-a-half years with the Mets.  In his first year with the team in 2005, he was the backup catcher to all-time team legend Mike Piazza.  He then backed up Paul Lo Duca in 2006 and 2007, and was Brian Schneider's caddy in 2008 and 2009.  Castro had a powerful bat, and it was that bat that provided his two biggest moments as a Met.  Neither moment helped the Mets make the playoffs, but both blasts did give fans hope that the team would be playing in October.  Of course, one of those long fly balls didn't exactly leave the park.

On August 30, 2005, with the Mets competing for a wild card spot after three consecutive losing seasons, New York welcomed wild card leader Philadelphia to Shea Stadium for the first game of a critical three-game series.  The Mets trailed the Phillies by a game and a half entering the series opener, and trailed them, 4-3, going to the bottom of the eighth inning.  But Castro's three-run homer off Ugueth Urbina gave the Mets a 6-4 lead, and allowed the Mets to pull to within half a game of the wild card lead.  The Mets failed to make the playoffs in 2005, just as they failed in 2007.  But Castro did everything he could to try to push the Mets toward October in the latter year.  New York was down by a touchdown after Tom Glavine allowed seven first-inning runs to the Florida Marlins, but the Mets scored a run in the bottom of the first and loaded the bases with two outs for Ramon Castro.  A grand slam would have cut Florida's lead to 7-5, and Castro almost granted Mets fans with their wish, but his deep fly ball off Dontrelle Willis settled into the glove of left fielder Cody Ross just shy of the left field wall.  Castro hit 33 home runs in nearly five years as a backup catcher for the Mets.  The team's history might have been very different had he hit 34.

Omir Santos

Here's the only backup catcher of the five that technically wasn't a backup.  Omir Santos was a Met for just one season (2009), but because of an April injury to starting catcher Brian Schneider, Santos was afforded the opportunity to catch for the Mets.  With Schneider out, Santos was supposed to split his playing time with Ramon Castro.  Instead, he parlayed one memorable moment into becoming Schneider's backup, causing Castro to become expendable after nearly five years with the team.

In the month following Schneider's injury, neither Castro nor Santos started more than four consecutive games for the Mets.  On May 23, when the Mets visited Fenway Park to take on the Boston Red Sox, it was Santos' turn behind the plate.  The Mets were trailing by a run going into the ninth inning and were down to their last out when Santos hit a two-run homer off Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, or so he thought.  Originally, the umpires ruled that the ball hit off the top of the Green Monster and came back into play, forcing Santos to settle for a long double.  But after further review, the ball was correctly ruled to be a home run, giving the Mets a 3-2 lead, which the bullpen held on to after the Mets infield made several stellar defensive plays in the bottom of the ninth.  A week after Santos' heroics, Castro was traded to the Chicago White Sox.  Once Schneider returned from the disabled list, the right-handed hitting Santos became part of a catching platoon with the lefty-swinging Schneider.  Santos ended up leading all Mets catchers in games played in 2009, but he was never the No. 1 guy behind the plate in his only year with the team, a year in which he produced 22 extra-base hits and 40 RBI in just 281 at-bats.  Of course, one of those extra-base hits and two of those RBI were slightly more memorable than the others.

A big tip of my Mets cap goes out to Mike Geraghty, who suggested the idea for this piece in honor of long-time Mets backup catcher Ron Hodges, as today is Hodges' 65th birthday.  If you haven't done so yet, you can follow Mike on Twitter at @IguanaFlats.  You'll be glad you did.


Mike Geraghty said...

Nice article Ed. I always liked Ron Hodges. I first started following the Mets in 1973 when I was 7 and Hodges, even though he wasn't a started, was a guy I liked. He tried hard when he played and batted left-handed like I did, so I was drawn to him and alwaysliked him. As a matter of fact, there has always been something about Mets backup catchers that I found intriguing. Guys like Duffy Dyer, Junior Ortiz, Ed Hearn, Barry Lyons, Charlie O'Brien, Vance Wilson and the like always seemed to be guys that tried really hard whenever they were in the lineup, something that gave them an endearing quality to me. Then again, I always seemed to like the a lot of the underdog players anyway, and the Mets have had more than their share over the years, something that seems to make me like the team even more.

Anyway, thanks for the great article and for the mention!

Ed Leyro (and Joey Beartran) said...

Thanks for giving me the inspiration and motivation to write it. I also bat left-handed like Hodges, but I always associated myself with Sasser because he wasn't perfect. In fact, he was pretty imperfect for a catcher. (Not being able to throw the ball back to the pitcher - yeah, that's pretty imperfect.)

I rooted for Sasser hard, and am pretty happy that I found a way to sneak him into a post.