It's 3 p.m. on a May afternoon at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, an hour before batting practice, four hours before the Phillies will take the field to play the Milwaukee Brewers. "Where are Jordan and Ducey?" somebody asks in a nearly empty Philadelphia clubhouse.
"Where do you think?" answers an attendant. "Down in the cage."
To be a pinch hitter, the job being performed by Kevin Jordan, Rob Ducey and a host of other anonymous practitioners of this sweaty-palmed, knock-kneed art, is to be a member of baseball's Breakfast Club. Talk to a major league pinch hitter, and he'll offer a version of this sentiment: "As a pinch hitter you have to work twice as hard as a regular player."
Pinch hitters sneak in extra licks whenever they can because they get only one at bat per game. They take extra fielding practice because, on occasions when they remain in the game after pinch-hitting, they could be asked to fill in at one of several positions. (During his seven-year career Jordan has played every infield spot except shortstop, and 13-year veteran Ducey has manned each outfield position.) They track every pitch because an opportunity to bat, if it comes at all, may present itself unexpectedly. All the while they hope against hope that no matter how well they perform in this role, one fine day they will be released from it.
Or they might be just plain released. When second-division teams start to trim their rosters, pinch hitters are usually the first to go, and even contenders treat them like pawns in a chess game. Witness the National League East-leading Phillies, who on June 6 gave Ducey his walking papers to make room for a power hitter from the minors; six days later Ducey hooked on with the division's last-place club, the Montreal Expos. Philadelphia's move surprised Ducey only slightly. Even when he contributed four pinch hits as the Phillies amassed a .297 pinch-hitting average (way above the league's average of .218 and second to the Atlanta Braves' .315), Ducey admitted he pored over box scores, paying particular attention to what other lefthanded-hitting reserves were doing. "When you're a 36-year-old bench guy like I am," he says, "you have to know what's out there."
What's out there is a cocktail of sweat and adrenaline, mixed in a tall shaker of obscurity. "When you're playing Wiffle ball in the park," says outfielder David Dellucci, one of a fearsome foursome of Arizona Diamondbacks pinch hitters, "do you ever hear anyone say, 'Hey, I want to be the pinch hitter'? It's a role that no one wants."
Then, too, the pay isn't spectacular, at least by the standards of pro sports. On an inflated New York Mets 2001 payroll, utilityman Lenny Harris, a 14-year veteran whose 142 career pinch hits through Sunday placed him eight from tying Manny Mota as baseball's alltime leader in the category, is earning $1.1 million. The highest-paid pinch hitter, at $1.5 million, is Arizona's Greg Colbrunn. He's been in the majors for 10 years and was a regular first baseman for the Florida Marlins in 1995 and '96.
A pinch hitter is like a field goal kicker: He's often asked to help his team in a make-or-break situation. Pinch hitters, though, also have to be capable in the field. "That's why pinch hitters fade in and out pretty quick," says Phillies bench coach Greg Gross, a superb pinch hitter in his playing days (143 pinch hits, third on the alltime list, during a career that lasted from 1973 through '89). With most teams carrying 11 or 12 pitchers now, Gross adds, "they don't have the luxury of keeping someone around who can't take the field."
The first pinch hitter is believed to have been Cleveland Spiders catcher Jack Doyle, who was sent up to hit for pitcher George Davies in a game against the Brooklyn Bridegrooms in 1892. He singled, and thus was born an art. The names of the great pinch hitters, cold-blooded creatures who thrived under the pressure of the late-inning at bat, hold a mystical place in baseball history. There was Moose McCormick of John McGraw's New York Giants, who used to hold up the game for three minutes while a trainer massaged his legs, and Frenchy Bordagaray, a grandly mustachioed Brooklyn Dodger. They were followed by, among others, Dusty Rhodes, who made his name with the New York Giants; Jerry Lynch of the Cincinnati Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals; Smoky Burgess of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago White Sox; Gates Brown of the Detroit Tigers; George Crowe of the Cardinals; Dave Philley of—who else?—the Phillies (and the Baltimore Orioles); and Rusty Staub of the Mets.
The patriarch of pinch hitting is Mota, now a Los Angeles Dodgers coach and mentor to the Dodgers' crack pinch hitter, Dave Hansen. "When I stood up there as a pinch hitter, I honestly believed I was the best hitter in the game," says Mota, who claims never to have taken a called third strike as a pinch hitter in his 20 big league seasons. "That's the only attitude to have."