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Nine Wonderful Days in the Life of Todd Alan Pratt, Backup Catcher

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series [1] in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

Being a catcher is a tough gig. The hours of squatting are bad enough, before considering foul tips, overenthusiastic backswings, and collisions at the plate. But being a backup catcher? That’s even tougher. Now you get all of the above, but with minimal job security. There’s job portability, granted — most every team is interested in catching depth all the time — but that often translates to bouncing between Double-A and Triple-A affiliates, hoping for invites to spring training, perhaps even ones that come with actual playing time, and maybe the occasional cup of coffee on a big-league roster, which will likely begin with your employer already looking for your replacement.

And so backup catchers dot franchises’ all-time rosters: pitcher whisperers who can’t hit, hitters whose teams won’t admit they can’t catch, veterans just hanging on for the lottery ticket of another Florida or Arizona spring, journeymen rewarded with a week in the Show before becoming coaches or instructors. Backup catchers arrive when rainouts have crammed the schedule with too many games in too few days, in June when injuries and exhaustion are mounting, and in September when rosters expand. Most of the time they depart with little notice — they’re the oh-by-the-way player move noted on the telecast during a slow moment in the bottom of the second.

When Todd Pratt [2] was 29, he was working at a Florida instructional school and managing a pizza parlor. He was out of baseball after playing 102 big-league games over 11 pro seasons as the property of six organizations, and it would have taken a truly heroic optimist to predict his future would include star turns on baseball’s October stage, cult-hero status and years of reasonably secure big-league jobs.

Somehow, that’s what happened.

But let’s go back to the beginning. The Red Sox drafted Pratt out of high school in ’85, sending him to the New York-Penn League’s Elmira Pioneers. It didn’t exactly go well — he hit .134. But his defense was enough to keep him bumping around the lower levels of the Boston system (with a brief departure as an Indians’ Rule V pick) and earn a spot with New Britain, in Double-A, in ’88. Which is where he stayed for three seasons. Insult to injury: His 1990 baseball card identifies him as Todd Pratts.

The Red Sox were grooming Pratt as a player-coach, with New Britain manager Butch Hobson [3] bringing him to Pawtucket for the ’91 season. When a knee injury felled Eric Wedge [4], Pratt got a chance to change the narrative. Inheriting the starting job, he hit .292 with decent power. A call-up beckoned … except in August Pratt broke his hamate, the bone whose sole remaining anatomical function is to sideline baseball players. Instead of a September stint at Fenway Park, Pratt became a six-year free agent. He signed with the Orioles, was taken in the Rule V draft by the Phillies, lost a bid to back up Darren Daulton [5], and found himself back in Double-A.

This time he hit, earning another ticket to Triple-A. There, he hit some more — and finally arrived in the big leagues. Pratt played 77 games over three seasons with the Phillies, and called being introduced for the ’93 World Series his greatest thrill in baseball. (He never appeared in a game.) After the strike, he signed on with the Cubs, but hit only .133 and was non-tendered. The Mariners signed him, but only as spring-training depth — a particularly dreaded rung down the backup-catcher ladder. Released at the end of March 1996, he walked away from the game.

Or at least a certain distance away. He became an instructor at Bucky Dent [6]‘s Florida baseball school — the one with the annoying replica Green Monster — and worked for a Domino’s Pizza franchise. Contrary to later legend, he never delivered pies — he was a manager — and resisted the idea that the gig was some low point or failure. “There’s nothing wrong with managing a pizza parlor,” he’d tell reporters later, adding that the 1997 Super Bowl and its thousand orders in three hours was the hardest he ever sweated in his life.

The year was, however, a turning point. As Pratt told the story later, instructing teenagers made him realize some things about his own catching mechanics — and, one senses, a break from the grind was exactly what he needed. When the Mets called Pratt’s agent looking for pitchers, they learned the catcher might not be done with the game. Pratt decided he’d take a gamble on one more spring training, signing a minor-league deal for 1997.

(Here, an unfortunate alternate interpretation of that turning point is necessary, one you were probably expecting given the era under consideration. Pratt was named in the 2007 Mitchell Report, with Kirk Radomski saying that Pratt told him in ’97 that he’d bought Deca-Durabolin from another source, then bought steroids from Radomski in 2000 and 2001. Pratt, by then retired, rebuffed invitations to talk with investigators.)

While Pratt is mostly remembered as Mike Piazza [7]‘s caddy, he was a Met a year before Piazza’s arrival. In fact, the trade for Piazza was yet another roadblock the Mets seemed hell-bent on throwing in Pratt’s way. In ’97 he lost the job as Todd Hundley [8]‘s backup to Alberto Castillo [9], then arrived at midseason and homered off future teammate Al Leiter [10] in his first at-bat. In ’98 Hundley was sidelined, but Pratt lost out to Castillo and Tim Spehr [11]. He almost quit, but was talked out of it by Triple-A manager Rick Dempsey [12].

1998 is the year Pratt represents in our A Met for All Seasons series, but it’s probably not one he looks back on with much fondness. He had to have wondered if he’d been better off not taking Dempsey’s advice. First there was the Piazza trade, and then the Mets’ late-summer acquisition of the decidedly less-than-immortal Jorge Fabregas [13]. Pratt didn’t forget the disrespect: Interviewed from his unlikely perch atop the world a year later, he said that “there was a lot of frustration and hurt last year the way I was treated. They kept bringing one catcher after another in here and I kept getting sent out. I mean, it’s hard to forget.”

Playing time might have been lacking, but fans warmed to the man known as Tank for his solid stature and run-through-anything mindset. Pratt was the most enthusiastic cheerleader on the Mets bench and a sunny, mildly goofy presence in the clubhouse. At Wrigley Field, he first met new acquisition Billy Taylor [14] on the mound in the bottom of the 10th, with Cubs on first and second, nobody out and the Mets clinging to a 4-3 lead with Sammy Sosa [15] coming to the plate. No biggie: “Hi, I’m Todd — whaddya throw?” said catcher to pitcher. (Taylor got Sosa to ground out on a slider.)

That mild resurgence would have been victory enough, but glory was on the way. The next year, Pratt became Piazza’s backup without having to endure a trip to the minors or the importation of rivals. He hit .293 in 71 games. Then, in the ’99 NLDS against the Diamondbacks, Piazza’s injured thumb ballooned to mammoth proportions after a bad reaction to a cortisone shot. Pratt went 0-for-4 in Game 3, a 9-2 Mets win, then took the field again for Oct. 9’s Game 4. The Mets led the series 2 games to 1, but a D-Backs win would force them to face Randy Johnson [16] in Phoenix.

I was at that game, up in the right-field mezzanine with Greg, Emily and Stephanie, and it was a doozy: a duel between Leiter and Brian Anderson [17], Benny Agbayani [18] driving in Rickey Henderson [19] for a 2-1 Mets lead, Armando Benitez [20] giving the lead back by surrendering a double to Jay Bell [21], Melvin Mora [22] gunning down Bell to avert further harm, a muffed flyball by Tony Womack [23] that helped the Mets tie things up.

In the 10th, Pratt came to the plate with one out against Arizona closer Matt Mantei [24]. In his previous at-bat, he’d failed to bring in a run from third with one out, tapping back to Mantei. This time, Mantei started him off with a curve in the dirt. Pratt guessed the next pitch would be a fastball. He was correct — and it was right over the middle of the plate.

What followed was equal parts majesty and slapstick. The contact was loud, and Pratt windmilled the bat behind his head, giving a little hop in hopes of speeding the ball on its way. As he ran to first, his eyes at first intently followed the flight of the ball. But then they jumped to Steve Finley [25], the Diamondbacks’ acrobatic centerfielder, a serial robber of balls sent insufficiently high above fences.

Up in the stands, we were watching Finley too, well aware of what he could do. Finley’s first step was awkward, but he got to the fence just as Pratt’s drive reached it, and he was in the right place, his glove questing above the wall for a ball that our willpower refused to push even a measly extra few inches towards Main Street in Flushing and safety. But Finley didn’t get much elevation, and came down on the warning track, glancing reflexively into his glove. Pratt, having just rounded first, all but stopped, looking out at him. Finley looked away from his glove, his expression unreadable [26], lowered it, and then … hitched up his pants.

For years I marveled at what I thought had happened — that Finley, for a moment, was the only person in the park who knew that the ball was not in his glove, that Pratt had homered, and that the Diamondbacks’ season was over. But that wasn’t the case — the fans in Shea’s right-field extremities, where the stands arced back into fair territory, could see that the ball had dropped behind the fence. Those weren’t particularly desirable seats, but those in them were the first to know what the rest of us were so desperate to discover.

Todd Pratt [27]

In excelsis Tanko.

As Finley began his dejected trip to the dugout and winter, Pratt sailed around the bases, fists pumping, while various Mets capered gleefully in every conceivable direction — John Franco [28]‘s somehow jubilant tiptoeing still makes me laugh 21 years later. In the stands, everybody was hugging everybody, and Greg hoisted me into the air like a ragdoll. (Memo to self: My blog partner, though gentle, is strong.) It was bedlam, the happiest of pandemoniums, and somehow even happier because it was the understudy who’d aced the aria and been showered with bouquets.

On Oct. 17, Pratt would be front and center again, with the Mets scratching and clawing to stay alive against the hated Braves during a marathon NLCS Game 5 [29], played in a miserable chilly rain. I was there again, in the farthest reaches of the left field upper deck with Emily and her dad, in seats with no view of the Diamondvision and angled so that Shea’s announcements and music registered mostly as thuds and echoes. (By way of compensation, many of those around us had pocket radios, with the voices of Bob Murphy [30] and Gary Cohen a welcome murmur around us.)

Pratt batted fifth in the Mets’ epic 15th-inning comeback. He followed Shawon Dunston [31]‘s legendary leadoff at-bat, the one that took 12 pitches and nearly six minutes to yield a desperately needed single; Matt Franco [32]‘s pinch-hit walk; and Edgardo Alfonzo [33]‘s sacrifice. Bobby Cox [34] ordered Kevin McGlinchy [35] to intentionally walk John Olerud [36], which was only sensible; Pratt strolled to the plate with a slight smile — almost a smirk — on his face. The first three pitches missed the mark, McGlinchy threw a strike, and then the fifth pitch was outside for a game-tying walk. Pratt, having done a singularly useful bit of nothing at the best time possible, flung the bat skyward in delight and steamed for first. He was there four pitches later, when Robin Ventura [37] drove McGlinchy’s final pitch over the fence for a season-saving grand slam.

Ventura, of course, would make it to Georgia but not to second base, because an overjoyed Pratt scooped him up shy of that station, hoisting him not unlike the way Greg had heaved me airborne eight days earlier. Before being intercepted, Ventura gestured insistently for Pratt to go the other way, but the Tank wouldn’t be denied, and in the replay you can see the moment where Ventura, held helplessly aloft, gives up and concludes, “Well, this works too.”

Pratt would have other moments — practically leaping into orbit when Piazza capped the 10-run inning against the Braves [38] with a tracer off Terry Mulholland [39] the next summer, and starting Game 1 of the 2000 World Series. His time with the Mets ended with a regrettable whimper, as the team became enamored of Vance Wilson [40] and sent Pratt to the Phillies in exchange for anonymous backstop Gary Bennett [41] in July 2001, a trade somewhere between pointless and insulting [42]. He’d spend four full seasons with Philadelphia, one with the Braves (an odd and unwelcome sight) and then retire after spending 2007’s spring training with the Yankees. By then he was 40, which is about 360 in catcher years. The kid who’d been ticketed for a life as a minor-league coach without escaping Double-A had spent 14 seasons in the big leagues, was guaranteed an ovation for the rest of his life in Flushing, and would live on forever in highlight reels.

It’s a satisfying story, one that those of us in the stands found even sweeter. Even a fringe big-leaguer is literal orders of magnitude removed from a sandlot star — Todd Pratt was a world-class athlete in ways few of us can imagine. But his boundless, Golden Retriever exuberance about baseball made that distance feel smaller. We wanted to scoop Robin Ventura up and carry him on our shoulders as a conquering hero; the Tank felt the same way, and nothing was going to stop him from doing just that.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962 [43]: Richie Ashburn [44]
1964 [45]: Rod Kanehl [46]
1966 [47]: Shaun Fitzmaurice [48]
1969 [49]: Donn Clendenon [50]
1970 [51]: Tommie Agee [52]
1972 [53]: Gary Gentry [54]
1973 [55]: Willie Mays [56]
1977 [57]: Lenny Randle [58]
1978 [59]: Craig Swan [60]
1981 [61]: Mookie Wilson [62]
1982 [63]: Rusty Staub [64]
1990 [65]: Gregg Jefferies [66]
1991 [67]: Rich Sauveur [68]
1992 [69]: Todd Hundley
1994 [70]: Rico Brogna [71]
1995 [72]: Jason Isringhausen [73]
1996 [74]: Rey Ordoñez
2000 [75]: Melvin Mora
2002 [76]: Al Leiter
2003 [77]: David Cone [78]
2005 [79]: Pedro Martinez [80]
2008 [81]: Johan Santana [82]
2009 [83]: Angel Pagan [84]
2012 [85]: R.A. Dickey [86]
2013 [87]: Wilmer Flores [88]