Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Book Chat: With Tim Brown, Author Of "The Tao of the Backup Catcher"


The Tao of the Backup Catcher: Playing Baseball for the Love of the Game

By Tim Brown, with Erik Kratz

Twelve; hardcover, 304 pages; $30.00; available today, Tuesday, July 11th

Tim Brown has covered baseball for more than thirty years, including when he covered the Yankees in the 1990s for the Newark Star-Ledger. He has written two New York Times bestsellers, The Phenomenon, with Rick Ankiel and Imperfect, with Jim Abbott.

Brown's new book, which he co-wrote with Erik Kratz, is The Tao of the Backup Catcher. He takes you through Kratz's path through a 19-year professional baseball career as a backup catcher playing for 14 teams, which included a memorable stint with the Yankees in 2020. There are also incredible stories of other backup catchers just like him, who spent years performing one of the most unique rolls in sports with no guarantee of what the future might hold.

I had the opportunity to talk to Tim Brown on Monday, and here's our conversation (edited for length and clarity):

Jason Schott: Let's start off with Erik Kratz's wild journey through baseball.

Tim Brown: Well, let's see, the book comes out on All-Star Game day, which I think is awesome because hardly anyone in this book sniffed being an All-Star; I think the timing is perfect. At its most basic, The Tao of the Backup Catcher chronicles the journey of Erik Kratz, you know, a forever backup catcher, and the journeys of a lot of guys like him, but I think, Jason, what it's really about is all of us, and who we are when the reality doesn't quite match up to the intentions and the dreams, and how we conduct ourselves then, and what it takes to be a good friend and a good teammate, part of something bigger than ourselves, who we choose to be in all of those times.

JS: I was touched by the stories of how Erik grew up, like his father, Floyd, would come home from long days of work and take the kids to play, and they had his bottle of water and Snickers bars ready for him. Please tell me more about his father.

TB: His dad was a meat cutter, just a blue collar, show up every day kind of guy, and this is why Erik is the way he is, and why Erik's sisters are the way they are, and why Erik's children now are becoming the way they are. Small town and you show up, you get your job done, and you work like someone's watching, even if no one is, and this is what got Erik, you know, he was not on his varsity team a junior initially, but he kept showing up, you know, who knows where it leads from there. Very loving, faithful family, you know, his Mom and Dad met in church, and they spent a lot of time there. Dad taught youth group, whatever we call those things now; used to call them catechism in my day, but I don't think the Mennonites call it catechism, and you know, they just had very strong values that they instilled in their children about work ethic and how you treat people. That was his dad; they still are to this day. 

In fact, I was just back in Philadelphia for a wedding, and went to the Reading Street Market there and visited the Godshall's Market where Erik's dad worked forever and still works to this day, and said hi to some of the guys there, and they were all very excited that Erik's book was coming out. It's just a very sort of friendly, good-spirited community, and I really enjoyed it. I think it's pretty cool, pretty idyllic, right, you know, you ride your bike to school and you fish in the little lake down the street and dinner's on the table and everyone treats each other with dignity and respect, and who knows where that leads you, hopefully to hitting .360-something for the Yankees, like Erik did.

JS: That's the thing that comes through, is that Erik took that mentality from his father, of the everyman, and brought it to playing baseball.

TB: Well, whatever he was going to do, this was what it was going to look like, probably. Look, we talk a lot about backup catchers, it's a very honorable position in a lot of different ways, but again, you hold up the numbers of a backup catcher to the rest of the roster or number-one catchers and you get in your head, perhaps you get jaded, well, that he's not a very good player, but the fact is Erik Kratz went to a small little high school and a small little college and got picked 866th in the Draft, and got released a thousand times, and still played in the big leagues, and I think that there's an awful lot to be said whatever work ethic and belief and etcetera that his Dad sort of showed him the way, along with his Dad's brother and his whole family, it's just who they are.

JS: The part on him playing in the Dominican Republic was intense, but it was a critical part in his journey, as he ended up on the Pittsburgh Pirates soon after it.

TB: I was going to say the Dominican Republic teaches life skills, if nothing else, and certainly provides at-bats and playing time to some, but by then, Erik already had a couple kids and a wife, and moved everybody down there for a few months and then tried to keep his head underneath whatever was going on, but I just think it showed his dedication. I think anyone who goes to the Dominican Republic seeking whatever it is you're seeking, at-bats or innings or, you know, a few extra dollars, you know, some eyeballs on you from some scouts down there, I think that that's really critical. I do think more critically, you know, guys all the time down there go 0-for-10 and they're cut, or Managers go down there and they lose nine of their first ten and then they're fired, so it's the sort of trial by fire that's pretty rare in baseball these days, and they take that season down there in the winter season so seriously, and I think Erik really enjoyed  his time down there, but that's the kind of spirit he is, where different is good.

JS: You mention his wife and kids moving down there with him. His wife, Sarah, is a big part of this story because he had such a peripatetic life in baseball, where he wouldn't know where he would be catching month to month, so it shows her fortitude.

TB: She's really, for me, the semi-hero of this story because I'm not sure that there would be an Erik Kratz without Sarah. I think she provided so much to him in terms of support and encouragement, you know, by the time he was bouncing all over the country - I went back, okay, so this is a guy who played for 14 different organizations over 19 years and he was the subject of about 120 transactions, and for most of those, not only was he married, but he had three kids, and he was raised in a very tight family, as was Sarah, so family was very critical to them, and he was not going to live this out by himself, so Sarah was with him almost every step of the way, and that meant loading up the family Civic and driving to wherever Erik was, you know, a thousand miles at a time with a bunch of little kids who weren't even eight years old yet, and Sarah became very adept at navigating those situations and she had boxes that were numbered and, depending on what climate he would be going to, she would have the boxes delivered, and she just had this thing down to a science, man. She would get to the new town and settle in and get everything arranged, and that may last three weeks, Jason, and then you're up and out again and you're canceling utility bills, you're trying to get your security deposit back, and in the meantime, Erik's off chasing a different dream wearing a different uniform and dragging a duffel bag with a logo from two transactions ago on it.

JS: And she told him to get a jersey from every stop along the way.

TB: You know, she has a real knack for that sort of thing, so he has bags and bags of jerseys and hats and all of the stuff that, like if the game was beating you down, you felt like it was abandoning you, you would just walk out, storm out, be unhappy again, like 'I can't believe this is happening,' and yet, she would remind him, 'hey, stop to look around and pick something up that honors your time there, no matter how short - never played in a Red Sox game, has a Red Sox jersey, not certain he was ever with the Red Sox on the road, has a gray Red Sox jersey. She always had a mind for the journey and being in the moment, being where your feet are, and I think that helped to warm Erik's relationship with such a crazy career.

JS: To take the Yankees as an example, I forgot he played two games with them in 2017, and was part of 10 to 15 transactions with them before his longer, memorable stage in The Bronx in 2020.

TB: What I really love is that he's one of the great Yankee hitters of all-time, minimum 32 plate appearances. His average as a Yankee, .367 hitter as a Yankee, Jason, not too many guys who could do that; you know, it's after the 32nd plate appearance is where things get dicey, I think. I think he really loved because, since he basically grew up just outside of Philly, and loved, loved that experience, and certainly as the days were winding down, that experience with Deivi Garcia played really big with him. You know, by then, he had certainly embraced everything about the Yankees, and I think he, even down to the last game he was, well, involved in, he was standing in the bullpen, the third catcher on a two-catcher roster, watching Aroldis Chapman give up that home run in the playoffs down in San Diego (in the Division Series against Tampa Bay in the "bubble"), but yeah, the Yankees were important to him, and I think he's very proud of his time there because, not only did he play well enough to become a backup catcher/occasional pitcher for the Yankees, but they would have him back, and I think that spoke a lot to who he was as a guy on top of his value as a second/third/fourth, wherever you want to list him, catcher. 

JS: The Yankees were like a constant towards the end of his career, and his hometown Phillies were like that for him in the beginning.

TB: Obviously, you know, 45 minutes, let's see, northwest of Philadelphia is a little town called Telford, and it's Mennonite country, and the Kratzes are Mennonites, and it's a beautiful, beautiful part of the world there, so the fact that this tight-knit family, tight-knit community could get on the highway and watch probably the best player to ever come out of Telford, Pennsylvania, in a Philadelphia uniform was pretty cool. You know, he basically had become, served two periods in his life as number-one catcher, first time when "Chooch" (Carlos Ruiz) got suspended for PEDs, and Erik had an April to himself and I think hit about a buck 50 (.150), and then the second time was when he was with Milwaukee late in that 2018 season when the Brewers went to the NLCS, but I think as a guy who sort of identified with the Phillies, who went to Phillies games, who every time he walked into the stadium was blown away by the green of the grass and these big players and all that was really important to him, certainly one of the highlights of his career.

JS: And what a time, that was when the Phillies were still in that period where they won the World Series, and he got to catch Roy Halladay, right?

TB: He caught all those guys, and he admitted to being quite intimidated by Halladay. The first time, I think, he had caught him in a game, they're out in the outfield, Kratz was sort of backed up against the foul line, and Roy Halladay's standing out in center field, and all he could think about is trying not to throw a ball into left-center field over his head or bounce it past him or whatever, he just thought about how mad Halladay was going to be if he had to chase a ball behind him or something. Yes, those guys, and they were sort of tipping over, they had come out of that big period for them, and they were tipping over into being sort of an aging team, but still had those studs, (Cole) Hamels, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and I think Erik learned a lot catching those guys early in his Major League career, still a little bit later in life, but early in his Major League career.

JS: You write that it was Kevin Towers, and then later Theo Epstein, who zeroed in on the intangibles of a backup catcher.

TB: Right, Theo has this reputation of being sort of the computer-head dude, but I think a lot of people forget that he grew up baseball-wise under Kevin Towers, who was not, and so, you know, Theo, if there was a 26-man roster, 25 guys would fit this analytical model. When he started out, 26 guys would start that analytical model, but by the time he had sort of gone through Boston and experienced building rosters there, and then into Chicago and building rosters there, he realized that that last guy, the backup catcher, was going to have to exist outside of that analytical model because he was going to have to be a good dude, he was going to have to be a father figure, a big brother, a priest, a therapist, a drinking buddy, all those things that don't line up at the bottom of a spread sheet, and you know, a manager has 25 guys to worry about - if you can give him one fewer guy, then great, and that's what Theo, in the book, I talk a lot about the David Ross situation, where he had to accepted this role of being a backup catcher, and Theo was really instrumental in getting him to that decision, and he went down to Atlanta, learned how to kind of lead from behind, and then became so instrumental, particularly in Chicago, where he helped lead them to a World Series.

JS: You mention when he was with Boston in the 2013 playoffs that he hit a big home run, and in the postgame afterwards said something like, "I'm not a good hitter, I'm not supposed to hit."

TB: That was one of my favorite press conferences of all-time. It had been sort of this mantra through the postseason, like 'what are the Red Sox going to do with the bottom of their order, they're just not producing, it's like a dead zone back there,' it came up in that press conference where David had a big double and put the Red Sox on the precipice of winning that World Series, and someone asked him about the back end of that batting order, and he said 'the thing about it is we hit there because we're not very good hitters.' It sort of captures the spirit of all of these backup catchers recognizing who they are. This is, it doesn't mean you stop trying to be a good hitter, but you really emphasize the parts of things that you do very well, that's win games in the 21 hours around the game. 

You know, one of the things I was really sort of obsessed with for weeks at a time while I was writing this book was the notion that these backup catchers show up every single day ready to play knowing they're not in the lineup, but you know, the number-one catcher could have gotten the flu or had a family emergency or sprained an ankle on the hotel floor or something, so ready to play, prepared, meaning scouting reports and all this stuff, and how many days in a row you or I could show up, primed to play baseball, prepared, ready to go, physically, emotionally, mentally, all those things, and then not play? How long you can do that before you just go, 'I'm wasting my time here,' but the best of these guys never stop doing it every single day knowing they're not playing, being the guy, and you know what, once in awhile, and you're prepared, so I love that part of it, and that was the part that David talked a lot about.

JS: That's the thing that surprised me was that, even though this book is co-written with Erik and about his story, you work in a lot of recognizable names like Eddie Perez, who was Greg Maddux's personal catcher, Vance Wilson, who played for the Mets in the early 2000s, and Josh Paul, who played for the Angels and had an unfortunate moment. How important was that to have Kratz as the overriding story, with these filtered in?

TB: I thought it was important, as much as I loved Erik's story, I really thought what would appeal to the reader was not so much a story about one backup catcher, but all of the backup catchers, more about the culture of backup catchers because then I start to grab onto that crossover element of stay-at-home mom or dad, or the teacher or people who think, you know, 'geez, I'm not really in the boxscore today, I didn't get my uniform dirty today, I guess I didn't contribute anything,' but what I'm trying to convince people, if they think about, is this is about all of us, this is about being the best 'you' you could be given your circumstances.

JS: How did this book differ from the ones you wrote on Jim Abbott and Rick Ankiel?

TB: Let's see, well, I was writing about people who were famous, right, people who were known in the game; this was more of a conceptual book. It was sort of sitting in me for years, where, you know, 30-some years covering the game, and I always loved that untold story in the corner of the clubhouse. You know, the superstars, the stars, we got to know them early, I think that I just enjoyed the other end of things a little bit. You know, I was constantly reminding myself that the worst guy on the worst team in baseball probably has a street named after him somewhere in Ohio or, this is a fantastic athlete who, just measured against these superstars, doesn't look so great, right. Erik Kratz had a .209 batting average, doesn't look so great, but this is an incredible athlete, and with a story to tell. 

It just appealed to me. I just like the feel of it, I thought it felt like life, like the thing that we're all trying to survive. You know, I think, in a lot of ways, the Jim and the Rick story were similar, but it was focused in on one person, one personality, one story, and in this one, I think I was able to tell a lot of different stories about a lot of different guys and, hopefully, bring it all back to how the reader feels about himself, and what to do with disappointments that are bound to come up in life...You take whatever that dream was and, every single day, you re-evaluate, right.

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