The phrase "good-hitting catcher" was once almost an oxymoron. Most catchers were expected to concentrate on calling a game and throwing out base stealers; hitting was their last priority. Only two catchers in history (Bubbles Hargrave in 1926 and Ernie Lombardi in '38 and '42) have won batting titles, and only one earned the home run title ( Johnny Bench, who did it twice, in '70 and '71).
This season, however, a surprising number of catchers are making an impact with their bats. The best known is the Dodgers' Mike Piazza, who at week's end was leading the National League with a .357 average. But two underpublicized and underrated catchers have also emerged as probable All-Stars. The Mets' Todd Hundley had 20 homers and 59 RBIs through Sunday, leading all major league catchers in both categories, and the Mariners' Dan Wilson led American League catchers in RBIs with 49 and was tied for second in homers with 11.
Hundley and Wilson go back a long way. They grew up less than 10 miles apart just outside Chicago; they played high school baseball against each other ("We were big rivals, we weren't the greatest friends," says Wilson); they were also standout hockey players, and each still dreams of playing for the Chicago Blackhawks—Hundley at center ("I would pay them for a chance to play in the NHL," he says) and Wilson at goalie. And even with their new emphasis on hitting, neither player gives up a thing on the defensive end of the game's most difficult position.
Hundley, the son of former major league catcher Randy Hundley, was a good-field, no-hit prospect when Mets general manager Joe McIlvaine first spotted him in 1986. "Todd and [ White Sox catcher] Ron Karkovice are the best defensive catchers I've ever scouted," says McIlvaine, "but if you had told me then that someday Todd would hit 20 homers in the big leagues, I'd have said you were crazy."
Back then Hundley was a 17-year-old switch-hitter, and, at 145 pounds, "I was so small, it was scary," he says. The Mets took him in the second round of the '87 draft, but they might have worried when he hit .146 with one homer in 103 at bats his first year in Class A ball, at Little Falls, N.Y.
"That park had a 420-foot fence in rightfield, and here's this little guy trying to pull everything batting lefthanded," says Mets hitting coach Tom McCraw, who was the club's roving minor league hitting instructor that year. "The reason he has become such a good hitter is he's using all of the field now, from both sides of the plate."
But it took time for Hundley to stop trying to pull everything and to fill out to his current 190 pounds. He didn't hit a lick in brief trials with the Mets in 1990 and '91, then batted .209 in '92 and .228 in '93, his first two full years with the team. For four years he heard from the New York media and members of the organization: This guy is never going to hit. "You hear it so often," says Hundley, "you start to believe it. But it started to turn around in '94." Three months into that season he became the Mets' everyday catcher, and while his batting average still languished at .237, he showed he could hit with power, finishing with 16 homers. Last year he hit .280 with 15 homers.
Like Hundley, Wilson was told for most of his early career that he would never hit much. He hit nine homers last season, and that was the most he had hit at any level, including three college seasons at Minnesota, where he was a 3.0 student in mechanical engineering. Wilson was a first-round pick of the Reds in 1990, and in two brief stints with Cincinnati in 1992 and '93 he batted a combined .257 with no homers in 101 at bats. But Mariners manager Lou Piniella, who managed the Reds from 1990 to '92, liked Wilson's defense and saw that he had potential as a hitter, so he got the Reds to include Wilson in a November '93 deal that sent Bobby Ayala to Seattle for Erik Hanson and Bret Boone.
Wilson has almost perfect throwing mechanics. This season, with Wilson behind the plate, Mariners opponents had been caught stealing a remarkable 43.9% of the time through Sunday. But what will probably get Wilson to the All-Star Game this year is his bat. "Like Todd, I'm physically stronger than I used to be," Wilson says. "And I'm getting to know the league. I've done a lot of work on my hitting, and it's nice to prove people wrong. It takes away the sting. But even my wife asks me, 'What's the deal with all these homers?' She's been all over me."
Young and Gifted