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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Catcher

Travis d’Arnaud [1] once said something for de facto public consumption maybe only I caught. Perhaps Travis would appreciate my use of the past tense of catch in the previous sentence. He’d probably appreciate more “will catch” in the sentence that begins the next paragraph of his career, wherever it’s written.

The exchange to which I allude transpired in May of 2014, when the Mets communications staff still invited bloggers who covered the team not as a job but as a self-imposed adventure to come around and visit [2] a few times a year. We were non-traditional media, so it seemed like a very progressive policy (which makes it odder to think it’s a policy that is now in the past tense). But we were simply media in the eyes of anybody who was directed to treat us as such.

One of those people was d’Arnaud, in what was supposed to be his first full season as starting catcher for the New York Mets. “Supposed to be” implies he wasn’t. True enough, as d’Arnaud was on the DL and thus not playing a full season. By that measure, we’re still waiting for Travis d’Arnaud’s first full season as starting catcher of the New York Mets.

Travis’s inactive status that night made him fair game for our PR minder, who saw him standing around in his shorts and t-shirt and asked him if he could take a few minutes to talk to these bloggers. Sure, Travis said, in that way I noticed ballplayers had of evincing cooperation when there was no polite way of withholding it. Besides, he was sitting out that night’s game. What else did he have to do?

We gathered around d’Arnaud somewhere behind the dugout and asked general, genial questions. We were media but we were fans. I don’t know that Travis knew the difference, or that it mattered. I always tried to snap into professional mode in these situations, using second-person rather than first-person to refer to the Mets. I also tried to think of questions a player hadn’t already been asked myriad times.

I know, I thought — he’s the starting catcher. The young starting catcher. Travis was 25, touted as one of the next big things in the Met scheme, somebody who was going to lead us (I mean them) out the endless morass that had enveloped the franchise for a half-decade. The Youth of America in Stengelese. I imagined Kim Wilde serenading them [3]. Young Lagares; young Wheeler; young Familia; young Harvey recovering from Tommy John; the recently promoted young deGrom; young Syndergaard down on the farm; and young d’Arnaud, who was attached to Syndergaard in the trade that was supposed to help transform Met fortunes. R.A. Dickey to Toronto for an enormous fireballer and a stud catcher. The least we could get for our beloved Cy Young winner was a bright future.

We hadn’t seen Noah Syndergaard yet, at that moment honing his craft at Las Vegas, which makes him sound like a card sharp in the making, but we’d been witness to d’Arnaud’s earliest major league development dating back to the previous August. We couldn’t wait to get a look at him. He was one of those minor leaguers, all fresh and new when all about us felt old and stale. The mission of the summer of 2013 was to shove aside the latest veteran catching placeholder — John Buck —with all deliberate speed and make room for d’Arnaud. Td’A, as we’d taken to abbreviating him, came up on August 17 and gave us a glimpse [4]. He registered his first hit on August 20, his first homer on August 25. On September 13, in the last game Ralph Kiner would ever broadcast, d’Arnaud singled home Lucas Duda in the twelfth inning to d’Liver a 1-0 win over the Marlins [5].

The hits were the milestones. The catching was implicit. It’s always like that, isn’t it? For three decades leading up to d’Arnaud, we idolized Carter, Hundley, Piazza and Lo Duca not for how they filled their job titles but for what amounted to what they did while moonlighting. They’d slug, we’d cheer. They’d squat, they’d get up, they’d squat again, they’d nurture a different pitcher at the beginning of every game, probably another few before the game was over, all while an umpire kept a hand on their shoulder, an umpire they couldn’t tell to kindly remove his paw because they had to curry his favor in case their mitt moved a centimeter in the wrong direction while receiving pitches that dart hard and unpredictably.

And you fume when they go into a slump.

The pitcher is “1” in your scorecard, the catcher “2,” which hints at the institutional afterthought nature of the position. Vice president of the battery. The guy who has to throw the ball back to the guy whose throwing is the only throwing we’re really interested in…unless the catcher is forced to throw somewhere besides the pitcher’s mound, in which case we are lightning-quick to judge when the catcher isn’t lightning-quick to the base where a lightning-quick runner is taking off toward quite possibly because the pitcher didn’t hold him on sufficiently.

Catchers take all sorts of hell behind the plate. They are made to wear more equipment than anybody else in the game, and even then they are left vulnerable. D’Arnaud was on the DL in May of 2014 because he suffered a concussion from absorbing a backswing. Baseball’s grudging acknowledgement of the fact that this happens fairly often was to spin off a shorter version of the disabled list just for that. “You were whacked in the head with a violently thrust piece of lumber? Take seven days and get over it.” Until that very year, it was considered admirable for opposing baserunners to crash into the catcher in quest of a run. A rule was implemented to stop doing that and we instinctively grumbled that the game was being ruined.

This was the world d’Arnaud entered willingly. The Phillies liked him enough to draft him in the first round out of high school in 2007. The Blue Jays liked him enough to insist he be a primary form of payment for Roy Halladay in 2009. The Mets were the next to like him three years later. We, the Mets fans, liked the idea of replacing Josh Thole, who left for Canada with Dickey. Not all that long before, we loved the idea of Thole halting a parade of Lo Duca successors.

On May 22, 2014, nine nights since his concussion (the third of his professional career), Travis d’Arnaud hadn’t yet done enough to either douse optimism that he would be the answer at catcher nor have us wondering if maybe the Mets’ first-round pick from 2012, Kevin Plawecki, loomed as a better long-term bet. It was too soon. D’Arnaud’s progress was stalled by injury. He’d be back in there within a week, though. He remained 25. His rookie status was intact. We were all comfortable talking in the future tense with him.

My ask to d’Arnaud was about something that inevitably loomed around catchers’ availability: day games after night games. It was one of the few concessions to the demands of catching that your regular starting catcher wasn’t expected to strap it on — you name it, catchers strap it — less than sixteen hours after having strapped it off. Day games after night games, we learned around the turn of the millennium, were why God made Todd Pratt. You bought a ticket to the matinee, you accepted that you were likely to draw the understudy. You can debate who represented the heart and soul of Bobby Valentine’s Mets, but there was no question Piazza, who passed 30 at the end of his first summer in New York, was its formidable bulk. Star or no star, Piazza’s bulk needed a blow now and then. So did Carter’s, belonging as it did to a ten-year veteran when the Mets got him, back in the day after night. “Ladies and gentlemen, the role of catcher in today’s production will be played by Ed Hearn” wasn’t your idea of dream casting, but 162 performances across 181 days required flexibility from personnel and audience alike.

D’Arnaud, on the other hand, was a rookie raring to go with every curtain. In light of the precedent that benched even the best of catchers (especially the best of catchers), what did he think about not catching day games after night games?

He didn’t seem think much of the question, to be honest, because Travis kind of stared at me and told me he wasn’t sure he understood what I was getting at. So I posed it again with a few fewer syllables. The recovering concussion patient took a beat and answered cordially but still gave me the impression that I was asking something that didn’t make much sense to him. Catching daily, he told me, was what he planned to do. “It’s part of my art,” he said.

His art. That stayed with me forever after as Travis d’Arnaud got back to catching. What’s the phrase we use for masks, chest protectors, shin guards and everything else a catcher straps on? The tools of ignorance. Pitchers, we say admiringly, have repertoires, whereas catchers, we chuckle, have ignorance. They would have to be a few degrees shy of a GED to want to do what they do. Just watch two of them shake hands in retirement.

But they embrace it. Piazza did. Carter did. D’Arnaud surely did. He saw it as something more than the logical outcome of a hypothetical trade school education. It was his art. He would create from behind the plate. He’d sculpt a pitching staff for us. He’d use the diamond as his palette. As the catcher, he was the only one who was always looking over the entire canvas that was the field.

At the end of his first more or less full season, Travis showed up down-ballot in the 2014 Rookie of the Year voting. The winner was Jacob deGrom, whom d’Arnaud caught regularly while Jake’s award case was coming into focus. The Mets were set at catcher at the outset of 2015…and then groping around for a replacement when Travis took a pitch off the pinky finger of his right hand — as a batter barely two weeks into the new season (making you wonder whether catchers aren’t the ones who ought to have a hitter designated in their stead). We were introduced to Plawecki, who did what he could, and waited for d’Arnaud. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Getting hurt seemed to come naturally to Travis, though catching will certainly make a person more “injury prone [6]” than walking around upright not proactively courting aches and pains. He was back in his chosen position on the same night Wilmer Flores legendarily confounded expectations, both by enduring in a Mets uniform and tugging at the Mets wordmark when he won the July 31 game from the Nats. D’Arnaud embroidered himself into the story of that dramatic weekend sweep over Washington when he was captured on cell phone camera by Mets fans as he pulled out of the parking lot between the Saturday and Sunday contests. The fans were shouting enthusiastic sentiments at Travis. Travis, in the same earnest tones I remembered from our brief encounter, replied with comparable enthusiasm [7]. “Let’s take this shit,” he told them regarding their admonitions to grab the division from the Nationals. And when they informed him they wanted to see some October baseball, Td’A clarified their ambitions for them:

“November.”

Them he understood and that he made good on. The Mets played November baseball in 2015, having won two postseason series in October, each of them featuring d’Arnaud power, all of their games anchored by their starting catcher of pennant record. Piazza, d’Arnaud’s childhood idol, had to grab a couple of blows in the 1999 and 2000 postseasons. Td’A, like Lo Duca, Carter and Jerry Grote, caught every inning.

We and Travis d’Arnaud will always have that. Everything after 2015 was a little less storied. More injuries, more trips to the DL until the DL became the IL. The longest of them was almost all of 2018 for Tommy John surgery, a procedure named for a pitcher that’s usually applied to a pitcher. Travis the catcher caught the UCL bug in his right elbow. The Mets went on not well without him. Eventually, similar to when they were forced to face life after David Wright despite David Wright still residing on their 40-man roster, the Mets couldn’t wait any longer for Travis d’Arnaud. As 2019 approached, they sought a veteran catcher. The one they’d had since 2013 wasn’t likely to be ready by Opening Day.

Come March 28, Wilson Ramos [8] the 2015 Nat was catching deGrom. Td’A was activated April 7, having been tendered a contract over the winter to serve as backup catcher. D’Arnaud, now 30, had never performed the part of an understudy. Whatever he thought of this iteration of his art, he didn’t appear well suited for it. Playing sporadically, no facet of his game seemed healthy. By Saturday night [9], giving Ramos a night off before a day game, Travis was exposed as not ready for prime time. Balls got away. Runners got to second. For bad measure, he himself got thrown out trying to stretch a single into a desperate double. Fans booed en masse like whatever was wrong at the moment was solely the fault of the former top catching prospect.

He wasn’t helping, but the loss wasn’t entirely on him. It was one game of a career that was supposed to have gone better than it had. In the end, it was one game too many. Had the Mets come to the conclusion they reached by Sunday morning, deciding to deciding to designate Travis d’Arnaud for assignment [10], he wouldn’t have to have heard the boos. He didn’t deserve them. He caught the only game the Mets have ever played in November, a World Series game.

Without d’Arnaud, the Mets won their day game after a night game Sunday [11], 5-2. Ramos started and shepherded Steven Matz [12] to seven solid innings versus the Brewers. D’Arnaud’s successor as backup, Tomás Nido [13], pinch-hit and doubled in a pair of insurance runs. The Mets got on the board in the first inning shortly after Pete Alonso tripled deep to left. As he attempted to field the ball, Ryan Braun felt something wet. It was a beer that had escaped the M&M’s Sweet Seats. The brief shower didn’t appear malicious. Replays showed a fan thought he’d be cute and try to catch Alonso’s near-homer in his cup.

I’d like to think he was pouring one out for Travis.