I love backup catchers. And it’s not because they are star players; most backup catchers are merely there to absorb the beating that comes along with catching a tiny white ball in 20lbs of armor when your starter needs a rest. I get it. But it’s one of those thankless jobs in professional baseball that is vital to a team.
Hey, someone has to catch. And I’m not talking about Pedro Feliz.
If I was smarter, I would have learned the position. Because other than being able to pitch lefthanded, it seems that catchers are always in demand. There are mountains of catchers in the minors just biding their time until they get the call. For example: the Phillies Chris Coste, a 33-year-old minor league catcher who finally made it to the bigs in 2006. Or, you could look at our own roster and Steve Holm.
Holm is a 28-year-old rookie catcher. He played 7 years in the minor leagues before making his way to San Francisco this year and he’s done quite well so far. You might remember this game but it’s possible that yesterdays game against the Rockies is even more impressive. Holm was the scheduled starter to give Bengie Molina a rest but after batting practice he got sick with flu-like symptoms and threw up a couple of times. Holm couldn’t go and Molina started instead but Holm was called up in the bottom of the 9th inning, down by 1 run with 2 outs, to hit against Rockies closer Brian Fuentes with a runner on first.
Holm bashed a double to the deepest part of the yard and tied the game at 2-2. I was reminded all over again why backup catchers can be so fun to watch, especially when they come through. It’s great to see maybe the most unappreciated guy on the team get his time in the sun. Holm caught for another inning before the Giants took the lead for good in the 10th.
After Holm’s heroics I started thinking about my favorite Giants backup catchers during my lifetime and I came up with the following list.
My Top 5 Favorite Giants Backup Catchers
5. Damon Berryhill, 1997, .257/.335/.359 OPS+ 84
There really isn’t a good reason why I ever liked Damon Berryhill other than I pulled his card out of a box of 1989 Topps baseball cards. This was the period of time when the baseball card market was flooded with baseball cards and everything was super cheap. I think I bought an entire box of these cards for less than 10 dollars. This was also during the same time period when they still packaged baseball cards in that weird waxy paper, memories. Anyhow, Berryhill played his last professional season for the Giants in 1997. He signed with the A’s at the end of the year but never got another major league AB. Godspeed, Damon.
4. Brent Mayne, 1998, .273/.359/.360 OPS+ 95
This was the first year for Brent Mayne in San Francisco and he basically split time with Brian Johnson. It wasn’t Mayne’s best year — in ’99 he would post a career high OPS+ of 110 for the Giants while getting the lions share of starts — but he was a backup catcher and he did a decent job. I don’t know why I liked Mayne so much but he always seemed to carry this air of intensity around with him when he played. I think it was because he face always looked the same, a little pissed off. He was just tough looking — a prime requirement for a backup catcher — and he had a nice line-drive-producing swing.
3. Rick Wilkins, 1996, .293/.366/.510 OPS+ 134
Has anyone, ever in the history of baseball, lived off one season as much as Rick Wilkins? Wilkins went crazy in 1993 for the Cubs and hit (.303/.376/.561) with 30 HR’s, power numbers that were unheard of for a catcher. Wilkins never came close to matching his ’93 season again but he did bounce around with various teams for the next 8 seasons, the Giants being one of them. Wilkins’ ’96 line was solid but it came at the cost of early-90′s Giants catching staple, Kirt Manwaring. Wilkins started the year with Houston and was traded to the Giants in exchange for Manwaring. In part time play Wilkins hit 8 bombs and slugged over .500, great numbers from your backup. The Giants would release him halfway through 1997.
2. Yorvit Torrealba, 2002, .279/.355/.397 OPS+ 103
The first and only farm system developed Giants backup catcher on my list. 2002 was a great season — if you black out the World Series — and Torrealba caught the eye of many Giants fans. He backed up Benito Santiago but Torrealba held his own at the major league level at the age of 23 and had many Giants fans hoping he would be the future backstop. It never really happened because the Giants never committed starting playting time to Yorvit. He was eventually traded to Seattle with Jesse Foppert for Randy Winn. It wasn’t any secret that Torrealba left on bad terms with the Gigantes and he always seems to kill us when we play him.
1. Brian Johnson, 1997, .279/.333/.525 OPS+ 123
Come on, seriously, you knew who would be numero uno. After a ’96 season in which the Giants looked miserable, the team made the playoffs in ’97. The Giants, short on catching depth, traded their top catching prospect — I guess it goes to show how prospects often don’t develop — Marcus Jensen to the Tigers for little known catcher, Brian Johnson. The former 1st round pick Jensen never amounted to anything but ask any Giants fan anywhere about Brian Johnson and they’ll be sure to talk about this game.
It went a little something like this
Bottom of the 12th, Giants Batting, Tied 5-5, Mark Guthrie facing 8-9-1 Mark Guthrie replaces Todd Worrell pitching and batting 7th B Johnson Home Run (Line Drive to Deep LF-CF) 1 run, 1 hit, 0 errors, 0 LOB. Dodgers 5, Giants 6.
It’s one of the greatest moments of the mid-to-late-90′s Giants resurgence. The walk-off shot by Johnson tied the Giants with the Dodgers for first place with 7 games left to play in the regular season. The Giants won 6 of 7 and advanced to the playoffs. Hitting a walk-off shot against the Dodgers in a must win game? Doesn’t get any better. Sadly, Johnson would never have the same success in the majors as he did in that half season with the Giants in ’97 but he’ll always be remembered by Giants fans for that shot on a sunny day in September.
I rarely post pictures on this blog, but I think it’s carved in stone somewhere in Giants Law ™ that anytime you talk about Brian Johnson, you have to show this picture.
Looking at this picture I swear it feels like he’s still rounding 3rd base on that September day when the Giants were on top of the world.
If it’s one thing I know, it’s that I love backup catchers.
Comment Starter: Who’s your favorite Giants backup catcher? C’mon, share those feelings!