To Catch a Mocking: Cubs Backup Backstops Beleaguered, Beloved
Asked to name his favorite Cubs player as a young child, my brother once responded: “Jim Sundberg.” Now, I’ve always believed that this was either a Freudian slip or his young mind not fully understanding the difference a vowel makes. He was only six, so his choice of the part-time catcher over the MVP second baseman is somewhat understandable.
Then again, he was neither the first nor the last to have an affinity for one of the guys who put the C in Cubs every fourth game or so. When the boys of George St would gather for our daily summertime baseball games, my next-door neighbor routinely insistent on being Rick Wrona. It didn’t matter to him that the guy only played 58 games for the Cubs over 3 seasons, Wrona was the man.
Like the backup QB, the second-string catcher is typically one of the most popular guys in town. Of course, he’s also quickly forgotten once his tenure with a given club has ended. That’s certainly the case with Josh…what’s his name? McGowan? McNown? Oh, here it is right here: Samsonite! I was way off.
Whatever his name, many fans swore the dude walked across Lake Michigan last year while they screamed for Jay Cutler to be crucified. Now the former Bears backup can’t even tread water in Tampa Bay.
But that’s another story for a different blog. Now, what was I saying about the Cubs? Ah yes, catchers. With the not-at-all-unexpected news that the Cubs have non-tendered John Baker, I wanted to look at some of the guys who’ve crouched in the shadows, both literally and figuratively, at Wrigley over the years. And just so there’s no confusion, “over the years,” means “in my memory.”
Baker, author of one of the coolest Cubs highlights in recent memory, would have been the perfect extra on a team that was capable of winning 90 games. A guitar-strumming goofball who never took himself too seriously, Baker provided a little fun to a team whose comedy has typically come with tragic underpinning. If only he could hit .200.
The Cubs did fans a solid recently when they brought Henry Blanco back in the role of quality assurance coach. I’m not really sure what that means, but I imagine him checking to see that cups, shin-guards and helmets are properly secured and that bats are all maintained to each player’s specifications.
Aside from those mundanities, I assume he’ll work with the Cubs’ existing catchers, advising them on different nuances of the game and on the importance of selecting the right forearm tattoos. And despite the fact that it’s super fun to anglicize his name, I’m sure Hank White will be an asset when it comes to communicating with the team’s Spanish-speaking contingent.
Blanco’s played for the Cubs from 2005-08, a tenure that was sandwiched by that of Paul Bako. This guy, who played for 11 teams in a 12-year career just looked the part of a backup, didn’t he? Bako always seemed to me like the guy who shows up when the lady calls for a plumber in one of those late-night Cinemax movies. Not that I’ve ever seen that kind of thing, but I’ve heard about them from friends.
I wonder if Gary Pressy could have played a little “bowmp-chicka-bow-wow” on the organ for Bako’s walk-up. Sadly, that’s probably going to remain a mystery.
Steve Christmas was a gift that no one really wanted, though he did deliver a 2-RBI double in his only hit for the Cubs in 1986. Dioner Navarro, on the other hand, used his .300/.365/.492 13-HR season in 2013 as a springboard to a 2-year, $8 million deal in Toronto. Fans in Chicago will long remember Navarro for the three bombs he blasted on May 29th, 2013 against the White Sox in a Cubs win at Wrigley.
Ron Hassey had a nice little stint with the Cubs in ’84 after coming over with Rick Sutcliffe, though his 19 games backing up Jody Davis represent less than 2% of his career. Koyie Hill’s fight with a table saw and subsequent comeback provided a human-interest story that every national broadcast saw fit to revisit ad nauseam.
Steve Lake began and ended his career with the Cubs, actually playing more games for them than with any other team in his 11-year career. Mark Parent played parts of two seasons on the North Side and now serves as Robin Ventura’s bench coach just a few miles south.
Hector Villanueva spent some time with the Cubs, as did Matt Walbeck, Jose Reyes (no, not that Jose Reyes, this Jose Reyes) and Sandy Martinez. And who could forget Anthony Recker, Todd Pratt, or Robert Machado? Oh, you did? Huh. I gotta be honest, I expected that from him. But from you? I’m disappointed.
Next, you’ll tell you don’t recall Butch Benton, Brian Dorsett, or Blake Lalli.
Speaking of, what’s in a name? That backup catcher we call Jose, by any other name would catch as sweet (somewhere, my Shakespeare prof just rolled over in his grave). That said, I’d like to leave you with some fun facts about Cubs catchers over the last 3+ decades.
Since 1980, 13% (7 of 54) of the men who’ve squatted in the dirt at Wrigley for the Cubs have been named Mike or Michael. Of that crowd, only 14% (1 of 7, Michael Barrett) ever cold-cocked an opposing catcher after he emphatically slapped home to signify a successful scoring slide.
The Houston Astros and Wu-Tang Clan may feel they’ve cornered the market on this nickname, but the cadre of erstwhile Cubs catchers might beg to differ. Nearly 17% (9 of 54) have a surname that starts with B. That number jumps to 26% (14 of 54) when you add in first names that start with B. Crazy, right?
Other than Wrona, only one Rick has strapped on a chest protector for the Cubs since 1980 and he too falls at the end of the alphabetical list: Wilkins. Is it just pure serendipity that these two played for the team in immediate succession or was something more calculated afoot?
It just wouldn’t be an article about Cubs history if it didn’t involve some mention of historic futility, so I looked back to see how many playoff appearances this group made. I utilized a highly unscientific method that included — to varying degrees of import — my mind, a calculator, and tally marks on a piece of scratch paper. I came up with 20 guys who had at least appeared for the Cubs in a season in which the team made the postseason.
That almost sounds good until you realize that you have to look at that not just in terms of the number of seasons the Cubs have played, but in the scope of actual player-seasons. When viewed through that lens, you’re looking at 20 out of ~148 seasons, or 13.6% total.
And that’s where the “beleaguered” portion of my title comes from. Most of these guys toil in relative obscurity throughout their careers with little to show for it beyond creaky knees and balky backs. They may be idolized by kids on the sandlot that don’t know any better, but it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that ring.
No offense to my brother or neighbor, but I’m guessing Sundberg and Wrona would rather have hardware than adoration. Perhaps that will change for a guy like Raphael Lopez or whoever is backing up Kyle Schwarber at that point. In the meantime, I’ll while away the time vacillating between the feelings of joy and sorrow this collective of catchers has generated.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to drape a towel over my head and strum my six-string.
Note that the totals and percentages include starters and backups alike.