If you don't take your hands off me...." Houston Astros rookie catcher Mitch Meluskey finished his thought with a right hook to outfielder Matt Mieske's left eye, leaving a gash that required four stitches to seal. It was last June 11, and Mieske had harangued Meluskey for being late to batting practice. Whether or not Meluskey was justified in taking a swing, slugging a seven-year veteran in front of teammates and a few dozen 10-year-old autograph seekers hardly enhances the image of a first-year player.
"Did I feel bad about it?" Meluskey mused last month while sitting in a sandwich shop in his hometown of Yakima, Wash. "Yes. Just when some of the veterans were starting to think, Maybe this kid isn't so bad, this happens."
Compared to Meluskey, Sisyphus had it easy. The June punch isn't the only thing that has made it hard for him to earn his peers' respect. A baseball rookie is expected not only to accept the customary salmagundi of wedgies, hot feet and loosened salt shakers but also to know his place—especially around the batting cage. Three years ago at the Astros' spring training complex in Kissimmee, Fla., a coach sent Meluskey, then a 23-year-old Double A catcher in his first big league camp, to take BP at the end of a workout session. He arrived to find Astros mainstays Jeff Bagwell, Derek Bell, Sean Berry and Craig Biggio taking their cuts. When Meluskey began to strap on his batting gloves, the veterans barked at him, "What are you doing? Go shag flies or something!" The next day he found his clothes stuffed in the rear stall of the clubhouse bathroom.
Ever since that incident Meluskey has been stuck with these labels: impetuous, cocky, disrespectful. His subsequent behavior reinforced the tags. Meluskey pulls a Paul O'Neill after unsuccessful at bats. He's never timid about speaking his mind. ("Baseball needs to test for steroids," declares the 6-foot 200-pounder. "[Other players] are at an unfair advantage.") Finally, his self-esteem is Reggie-esque. "I'm not Johnny Bench, but I know I can play this game," the switch-hitting catcher says.
He can indeed. After sitting out most of 1999 while recovering from surgery to tighten his right shoulder capsule, Meluskey entered spring training in 2000 behind catchers Tony Eusebio and Paul Bako on Houston's depth chart. But by April he had performed so well that the Astros traded Bako to the Florida Marlins. By midseason Meluskey was getting the lion's share of the starts.
In 337 at bats he hit 14 homers, drove in 69 runs and was the unofficial leader among National League rookies in batting average (.300), on-base percentage (.401) and slugging percentage (.487), numbers that helped earn him a fifth-place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting. Had Meluskey not stolen away to South Padre Island, Texas, during the All-Star break, he would have taken a call from Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox telling him that he was replacing injured New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza on the All-Star roster. (The Chicago Cubs' Joe Girardi went instead.)
Overshadowed by Meluskey's punch was his improvement behind the plate. Says Bagwell, who got a prime view from first base, "As the year went on, Mitch did a better and better job of managing the staff, and the pitchers responded to that." Righty Scott Elarton, who had refused to throw to Meluskey in the minors, was 12-6 last season with Meluskey catching.
Meluskey also did a better job of managing himself. Shortly after the Mieske scuffle, Astros management received a letter from an incensed Enron Field fan who had heard Meluskey shout "f—-!" to himself after an at bat. Manager Larry Dierker summoned the catcher to his office, benched him for two games and warned, "If you're going to play for me, you're gonna have to change your attitude."
Since then the only Astro that Meluskey has fought is Meluskey. He has kept his mouth closed, letting the steam come out his ears and off his bat. "I remember watching him during a stretch when he lined out about eight times in a row, and he did a nice job of remaining calm," says Bagwell. "Mitch is becoming a lot more mature on and off the field."
In Yakima in the offseason Meluskey sleeps in the room he slept in growing up. On this night he cuddles up with Charlotte Joko Beck's Everyday Zen, a guide to work and relationships. One passage reads, "If anger is what you are, experience it.... The other side of anger, if we experience its emptiness and go through it, is always compassion." Meluskey interprets: "Emotions are good in life, but you can't let them engulf you."