Back in the late 1980s when I worked in radio, my broadcast partner Danny Clinkscale was asked by a caller about the possibility of the Yankees acquiring a left-handed hitting catcher. Danny wasn’t optimistic. “Finding a left-handed hitting catcher is like finding the Rosetta Stone,” he said, using a rather creative analogy, while extinguishing the dream of the hopeful caller.
With those words firmly planted in my mind, I remember hearing the news that came in the middle of the 1990 season. The Yankees had acquired Matt Nokes, who only three years earlier had hit 32 home runs as a rookie catcher for the Tigers. In the midst of an otherwise disastrous season, I was ecstatic that the Yankees had acquired a left-handed hitting catcher of such prominence and relative youth.
Little did I know that the Matty Nokes of 1990 was not quite the same as the rookie phenom of 1987. American League pitchers began to realize that Nokes could kill low fastballs, but struggled against curveballs. On a broader level, just about everybody’s offensive numbers received a bump in 1987, not because of steroid use but because of something that appeared to be going on with the manufacturing of baseballs. Nokes would never hit 32 home runs again; in fact, he would never come close, achieving a high of 24 home runs for the Yankees in 1991. He also lacked patience at the plate, a heightened concern for a player who usually batted in the .250 to .260 range That’s not to say that Nokes was a bad offensive player. He hit with real power for the Yankees in 1990 and ‘91, putting together a series of multiple-home run games during the latter campaign. (For what it’s worth, Nokes could hit a low fastball like few hitters I’ve ever seen, sometimes falling to one knee to golf a pitch off his shoe tops.) He just wasn’t the second coming of Lance Parrish or Bill Freehan, as some Tiger fans had been led to believe during the summer of ‘87.
Even more significant problems with Nokes could be found on the other side of the ball. When it came to the defensive skills required of a catcher, Nokes came up short just about everywhere. He moved stiffly behind the plate, making him a liability on pitches in the dirt. He didn’t throw well, hampered by bad mechanics and lackluster arm strength. And just to complete the trifecta, he had little understanding of how to call a game. Yankee pitchers didn’t like to throw to Nokes any more than Tiger pitchers had during his first three major league seasons.
To their credit, the Yankees didn’t give up on Nokes. They hired former big league catcher Marc Hill as their bullpen coach, assigning him the responsibility of working with Nokes one-on-one. A onetime catcher with the Giants, Cardinals and White Sox, Hill had developed a reputation for two attributes: strong defensive fundamentals and a joy of eating. The second attribute didn’t figure to help Nokes much, but the first one fit Yankee needs to a tee.
Working with Nokes on a day-by-day basis, the oversized Hill, who was fondly nicknamed “Booter” by former teammate Willie McCovey, helped the novice catcher improve his mobility behind the plate, his throwing mechanics, and his pitch-calling acumen. Anyone who watched the Yankees faithfully that season–as I did that long, scorching summer–could see the improvement in Nokes by July and August. He had become a passable defensive catcher, which coupled with his offensive firepower, made him one of the few assets during an otherwise dismal season.
So how did the Yankees reward Hill after the season? They fired him, of course. Citing nebulous deficiencies in other areas of his coaching, the Yankees considered those issues more important than his success with his No. 1 reclamation project. Predictable results ensued. The following season, Nokes fell back into all of his bad defensive habits and resumed being a liability behind the plate. His offensive play also fell off, perhaps a by-product of his defensive woes.
Nokes made matters worse by developing an over-inflated opinion of himself. With the Yankees in constant search of a No. 1 starting pitcher, the name of Angels ace Mark Langston made its way through the rumor mill. When Nokes heard the rumor, he suggested to reporters that the Yankees could trade him to the Angels for Langston. The Yankees gladly would have made that deal. But there was one obstacle; no other team in baseball, in fact no one in his right mind, would have made that trade! Of all the people in baseball, only Matt Nokes felt that he had the same worth as Langston, one of the best left-handers in the game.
Unfortunately, Nokes’ value only decreased over the 1993 and ’94 seasons. With his game in full decline at the relatively young age of 31, the Yankees let him go as a free agent. From there he bounced around to Baltimore and Colorado, hanging around as a fringe backup, before extending his career with a cup of coffee in the Mexican League.
When I think of Matt Nokes and the Yankees, I think of what could have been. Instead of providing a link to legends like Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada on the Yankee catching chain, Nokes evoked too many memories of Rick Cerone, Don Slaught, and Ron Hassey. It turns out that Matt Nokes wasn’t the Rosetta Stone after all.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.