Art Howe was a fine man with the misfortune to be rather seriously miscast as manager of the New York Mets. But his finest act might have come on Oct. 3, 2004, in his final inning at the helm. (Which also happened to be the final inning in the history of the Montreal Expos, and the endpoint for various other histories. I'll get to all that.)
Joe Hietpas had been called up from Binghamton in mid-September as an emergency catcher, though 2004 was so horrible that most any position could have been considered manned on an emergency basis. He was 25, and known as a defensive whiz, but an indifferent hitter if you were in a kind mood. (Seriously. Look at his minor-league stats and see if you can call the offensive glass one-eighth full.) Here he was nonetheless, waiting for the backup catcher to get injured, waiting for his shot in the Show. Waiting. And waiting some more.
I got used to seeing Hietpas on TV and from the stands as the season sputtered to an end — he'd be right there in front, leading on the dugout railing, staring at the field. It went from vaguely comic to decidedly tragic: Couldn't Art find a place for Young Joe, the Forgotten Catcher? Some absurd blowout, some extra-inning tilt, some something? Nope. The second half of September went crawling by, and still that dugout rail separated Joe Hietpas from where he wanted to be.
On the last day of the season, I was there in field-level seats with Greg and Laurie, saying farewell to a hideous Mets season, farewell to never-again Mets Todd Zeile and John Franco, farewell to a well-intentioned but unfortunate choice as Met manager, and farewell to a franchise treated like a stepchild by the sport that should have done right by it. But what I really wanted was to say hello to Joe Hietpas.
Hietpas had warmed up pitchers between innings before — a routine duty for backup catchers, but one made particularly cruel by his situation. But this time, in the top of the ninth, he was staying. At the last possible moment, Joe Hietpas was getting his shot. He'd catch Bartholome Fortunato, raising his own curtain as the Mets lowered the curtain on the season. It was 8-1. Fortunato got in a bit of trouble, and I briefly entertained ridiculous imaginings: The Expos would spit in Bud Selig's eye by scoring seven runs, staving off their own extinction, Greg and Laurie and I wouldn't have to say farewell to baseball quite yet. And sometime in extra innings Hietpas would bat — and crack one over the fence to send us all home.
Why the heck not?
Nah. With two men on Fortunato gathered himself, struck out someone named Josh Labandeira and struck out Maicer Izturis and then got future friend Endy Chavez to ground out, Keppinger to Piazza. John Franco's Met career and Todd Zeile's career and Art Howe's Met tenure and the Expos were history. As, in all likelihood, was Joe Hietpas.
Hietpas got a baseball card the next spring, a rather optimistic declaration from Upper Deck SPX that he was an SPXciting Rookie, and went back to the bus leagues. Where he offered a mathematician's degree of proof that he couldn't hit: .216, ,194, .130 and .185 in tours of duty over two years with Binghamton and Norfolk. With Paul Lo Duca and Ramon Castro hitting up a storm for the big club, it was obvious his fate was to be the Mets' Moonlight Graham.
So Hietpas tried what more than a few guys who get called into the office and told the grim facts try: He said something along the lines of “Hey skip, I can pitch.”
Only he actually kind of could: It didn't go so well for one inning with the Tides in '06, but down at St. Lucie last year, Hietpas put up a 2.47 ERA in 43.2 innings. He didn't strike many guys out, and he gave up a lot of hits, but hey, he didn't walk a lot of guys, either. And then there he was today, cleaning up after a parade of Met minor-league pitchers. In a Met uniform again. Pitching.
At this point, it's time to ignore some inconvenient facts. Like the fact that he was wearing 92. Or is in A ball with his 29th birthday soon to arrive. Or that his stuff was consistently up in the strike zone, and hit all over the place by Braves borrowed from minor-league camp, with only the unlikely glovework of Fernando Tatis and boneheaded Atlanta baserunning saving him from ugly results.
Never mind all that. It's March, whatever the Red Sox and A's are doing on the other side of the world in the nighttime. March is the time for ignoring inconvenient facts, and letting yourself imagine: Late summer '09, Hietpas trots in from the Citi Field bullpen as the latest middle reliever to get a shot as the Mets try to defend the title they won in saying goodbye to Shea. (I know, we're imagining a lot. Stick with me.) He throws an OK inning, and as he's sitting on the bench Reyes and Wright and Beltran and Teixeira and teammates start hitting rockets everywhere. A close one has turned into a rout, and Willie's decided not to burn up the bullpen for this farce. Hietpas goes to the bat rack. Borrows somebody's lumber. Finds a helmet. Steps into the on-deck circle. Then walks up to the plate.
“You know Keith,” Gary says with the first hint of arch in his voice, “he was drafted as a catcher.”