During the season's first weekend, catcher Eddie Taubensee was congratulated on re-signing with the Reds by a guy who knows a thing or two about negotiating a contract extension. " Mike Piazza came up to the plate," says Taubensee. "He said, 'Congratulations, Eddie.' " Piazza wasn't being condescending, though he certainly could have been. The money Taubensee would make on his new deal—$4.4 million over three years, which includes a one-year club option—was chump change compared with the $15 million per year Piazza was demanding from the Dodgers at the time. "I can't comprehend what he's going to get," says Taubensee. "But I'm very happy."
That's because the new contract gave the 29-year-old Taubensee a sense of security to go with his big payday. In 1995 the Reds were apprehensive about giving Taubensee, a part-timer throughout his major league career, the full-time job, so they brought in veteran Benito Santiago to share the work behind the plate. Joe Oliver was signed as a free agent in '96 and again in '97 for the same reason. The knock on Taubensee has long been that he can't handle a staff. Last year veteran pitchers Dave Burba and John Smiley made no secret of their preference for throwing to Oliver. But this season Oliver, Burba and Smiley are gone, and Cincinnati skipper Jack McKeon, a former catcher, puts little stock in the argument that a struggling pitcher's problems can be traced to his battery mate. "That's bull," he says. "Who has the ball?"
So in spring training McKeon told Taubensee—a .264 career hitter in seven major league seasons—not to look over his shoulder. He has responded by leading all National League catchers in batting (.359 at week's end) and, thanks to an amazing .465 average with men in scoring position, has driven in 32 runs, more than any catcher except Piazza (36) and the Braves' Javier Lopez (34).
Taubensee has also become a better back-stop. "Now that he's going good, he works harder," says McKeon. "A lot of other guys think they know it all."
Taubensee has also gone out of his way to spend time with his pitchers away from the park, getting a better feel for their personalities. Now he has a good idea of what he should say to each one when things are going badly. "A guy like Mike Remlinger likes you to come to the mound and really pump him up," says Taubensee. "But guys like Stan Belinda and Pete Harnisch just want you to come out to break the [other team's] momentum."
The 6'4" Taubensee is a soft-spoken Texan whose wife, Rene, has often traveled with the team. The couple has two sons, Justin, almost 2, and Benjamin, four months. "The responsibility of being a father and husband has carried over to the field," he says. "Being a catcher is a lot of responsibility, too, and now I know I can handle that."
Until Taubensee's emergence with the Reds, it looked as if his baseball legacy might be that he was the guy the Indians gave up to get Kenny Lofton from the Astros in '91. Since that trade, Lofton has been an All-Star four times. Now Taubensee deserves a spot in the midsummer classic as well. "He's an All-Star catcher in my book," says McKeon. "He certainly won't be voted in, but he deserves to be there."