Tom Prince doesn't know squat. Everything he knew about squat Prince has forgotten in his 13 years as a backup catcher in the big leagues, where he has squatted, on average, in fewer than 25 games per season. Prince—a 35-year-old Phillie with a lifetime average of .197, backing up an All-Star in Mike Lieberthal—consults the lineup card before each game in the touching belief that one day his PRINCE will come. "But I'm no longer surprised when my name isn't on it," he says.
Inside every backup catcher is a starting catcher waiting to break out. "This is the fourth team that sees me as a backup," Gregg Zaun said one recent Saturday in the Tigers' dugout. "There are still 26 other teams in the big leagues."
One of them, Zaun is certain, will one day do the right thing and recognize his inner starter. "All the backups I know want to start," said Zaun, the unfortunate understudy to such All-Stars as Charles Johnson as a Marlin and Pudge Rodriguez as a Ranger. "We all want to play every day." Seventy-two hours later Zaun was traded to the Royals (five teams down, 25 to go); at week's end he was competing for the starting job with Sal Fasano and Brian Johnson.
"Outside every fat man," wrote Kingsley Amis, "there was an even fatter man trying to close in." It's equally true that outside every obscure backup catcher is an even more obscure beer distributor trying to close in. "If I played any other position, with my skills, I'd have been out of the game a long time ago," concedes Prince. "There's no question about it."
So Prince sees his protective cup as half full. Most backup backstops do. Todd Pratt is unlikely to unseat—or rather, to seat, for it is Pratt who sits on the bench—future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza as the starting catcher for the Mets. But when Pratt reflects that he was out of baseball four years ago and managing a Domino's franchise, he can appreciate what a difference an "a" makes: Working with pizza he earned $5.50 an hour; working with Piazza he'll average 100,000 times that amount in salary over the next two seasons.
"What you are," says backup catcher turned broadcaster Joe Garagiola, "is a well-paid blowout patch."
Is it any wonder that Zaun—a lifetime .236 hitter who readily admits, "There are weeks when I couldn't hit water if I fell out of a boat"—can't conceive of coaching when his playing career is over? "I can't see myself taking a $40,000-a-year job," says Zaun, who will earn more than $500,000 in 2000 and who only last year, at 27, built his dream home in Texas.
All of which is to say that backup catcher is the best gig in baseball, right? The pay is ridiculous, the hours are short and the job security is comical: 37-year-old Tom Pagnozzi sat out all last season after surgery for a torn right rotator cuff and was still able to select, over the invitations of three other teams, the World Series champion Yankees as his employer for 2000. "Believe me, I'd love to be a dynamite shortstop," said Pagnozzi one day at the Yankees' camp in Tampa, standing a few yards and several psychic miles from teammate Derek Jeter. "For one thing, I wouldn't get these every day." He rolls up his sleeve to reveal, on the inside of his right biceps, three brown-and-purple bruises, the size and shape of bullet wounds, left by foul tips. "I'd love to be 28 again. I'd love to have a strong back again. But at my age, and in my health, to back up Jorgie [Posada] on the New York Yankees?"
Better still, when a backup catcher's days as an occasional player are over—and they never are, or how else to explain the Expos' Charlie O'Brien, who turns 40 next month and is widely regarded as the Johnny Benched of backups?—he's well-equipped to be a big league coach or manager. Skippers Bruce Bochy of the Padres and Gene Lamont of the Pirates were No. 2 number twos in their playing days. Prince would like to manage someday ("When I can physically no longer get behind the plate," he says), though Zaun would prefer "something low stress, like working in the media."
Backup catchers have excelled in broadcasting. Bob Uecker hit .200 over six seasons and then made a career of his lack of career, appearing with Johnny Carson scores of times to talk about how, for instance, he once missed the World Series with hepatitis. "The trainer injected me with it," says Uecker. Garagiola also found greater fame behind the mike than behind the plate. "I started 100 games for Pittsburgh in 1952," he recalls. "Of course, we lost 112. But the job prepared me for the Kiwanis-Rotary-Blue and Gold banquet circuit."