"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Tag: Catchers

Observations From Cooperstown: Cervelli, Scranton, and Cactus Jack

Francisco Cervelli, who was struggling to maintain sea level against Double-A pitching, has looked competent as a major league hitter, but it is his catching skills that draw the majority of my praise. After watching Cervelli catch two games against the Orioles last weekend, I came away thoroughly convinced that he’s a keeper. From a defensive standpoint, Cervelli does everything you want a catcher to do. He squarely sets his target, and as he receives the pitch, he frames the ball skillfully, holding his glove in place in order to give the home plate umpire a longer look. (In contrast, some Yankee fans might remember the way that Matt Nokes jerked his glove back toward home plate, which is just about the worst way to frame pitches.) Cervelli moves smoothly and quickly behind the plate, allowing him to backhand wide pitches and block those thrown in the dirt. On stolen base attempts, Cervelli comes out of his squat quickly and follows through with strong and accurate throws to second base.

On the offensive side, Cervelli will probably never hit with much power, but he is patient at the plate and willing to take pitches to the opposite field. If Cervelli can mature enough offensively to become a .consistent 270 hitter who continues to draws walks, he will become a very good backup catcher. That might sound like an example of damning with faint praise, but solid No. 2 receivers have become like gold in today’s game. There are only a handful of standout backup catchers in either league: Chris Coste in Philadelphia, Henry Blanco in San Diego, Kelly Shoppach in Cleveland, and Mike Redmond in Minnesota. Cervelli has a chance to become the Yankees’ best backup catcher since a fellow named Joe Girardi, who last played a game in pinstripes in 1999. Yes, it’s been that long…

As uneven as the Yankees’ play has been through six weeks, they haven’t experienced the same kind of schizophrenia displayed by their Triple-A affiliate, the Scranton Yankees. The Scrantonians began the International League season by winning 23 of first 28 games, and they did so by clubbing the opposition with a powerhouse offense. Then came Scranton’s recent four-game stretch. Through Wednesday night, Scranton’s offense had failed to score a run in 44 consecutive innings—a simply remarkable run of futility. The Triple-A Yankees have suffered four consecutive shutouts, in addition to six scoreless innings left over during a previous loss last Saturday. Suddenly, Scranton’s record is a more earthly 23-10.

So what happened? As with the major league Yankees, injuries have hit Dave Miley’s team hard. Second baseman Kevin Russo and outfielders Shelley “Slam” Duncan and John Rodriguez, representing a third of Scranton’s starting nine, are all hurt. And the healthy players are slumping, none worse than third baseman and former No. 1 pick Eric Duncan. Duncan was wallowing in an oh-for-33 hammerlock before finally breaking out with a double on Wednesday. The slump, which dropped Duncan’s average from .309 to .206, probably cost Duncan what little chance he had of a promotion to the Bronx.


Card Corner: The Left-Handed Catcher


No, this man will not be the next catcher signed by the Yankees. As much as the Yankees’ catching corps has been overwhelmed by injuries, they’re not that desperate. Close, but not quite.

Contrary to appearances, Larry Haney was not a left-handed throwing catcher. It only looks that way in this 1969 Topps card. In contrast to the way that Hank Aaron and Dale Murphy achieved baseball card glory by being featured in reversed negative photographs, Haney earned only a momentary glimpse of trading card fame. In 1957, Topps released an Aaron card that showed the eventual home run king in a left-handed batting pose. And then in 1989, Upper Deck issued its Murphy card with a similarly wrong-handed pose, again the result of the photo negative being accidentally reversed.

Haney never received as much attention as either of these more celebrated cases, in large part because of his mediocre status as a good-field, no-hit backup catcher. There might have been another factor at play here, as well. Some collectors might have thought that Haney was trying to gain some notoriety by intentionally wearing a left-handed catcher’s mitt and pretending to play the position with the wrong hand. Yet, a conversation with former Topps president Sy Berger, who visited the Hall of Fame several years ago, revealed otherwise. Topps simply made a mistake in its photo processing; Mr. Haney had nothing to do with the “error.” In fact, the 1969 card features the same photo that was used by Topps in the 1968 set. Only that time Topps had the image right.

In many ways, Haney was the Jose Molina of his era. A lifetime .215 hitter with no power, Haney excelled at the defensive side of the game. For his career, he threw out 39 per cent of opposing basestealers. The Oakland A’s thought so much of Haney’s catching skills that they acquired him three different times, including twice during their world championship run from 1972 to 1974.

Originally signed by the Orioles in 1961, Haney played sparingly in three seasons for the Birds. After being taken in the 32nd round of the 1968 expansion draft by the Pilots, Haney appeared in only 22 games for Seattle, but did stake two claims to fame in the Great Northwest. He hit a game-winning home run in his first major league game. Later on, he set a Pilots team record for catchers by committing two errors in one game. Such uncharacteristic defensive pratfalls probably played little influence in the Pilots’ decision to trade him on June 14, 1969 (just before the old trading deadline), as they shipped the veteran receiver to the A’s for second baseman John Donaldson. From there, Haney went to the Padres’ organization (but never actually donned the lovely brown and yellow of the Pods), then came back to the A’s, spent a brief time with the Cardinals, came back to the A’s yet again, and finished his career with the Brewers in 1977 and ’78. Long since retired as a player, Haney worked for years as a scout for the Brewers—who used to be the Pilots, the same team featured on that 1969 Topps card.

Coincidentally, Haney was involved in another card error, albeit of a different kind. His 1975 Topps card displays an in-action photograph of an Oakland catcher awaiting a throw at home plate, but it’s not Haney in the picture. It’s actually former A’s catcher Dave Duncan, who had long since been traded away to the Indians as part of the George Hendrick-Ray Fosse swap.

So for a guy who had a mostly unremarkable career as a backup catcher, that’s two significant error cards. At least the card collectors will never forget Mr. Haney.

Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for MLB.com. He can be reached via e-mail at bmarkusen@stny.rr.com.

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