By IAN WILSON
It’s a thankless job, short on accolades and glory.
The medals are bruises and the trophies come in the form of approving nods from the mound.
Author Tim Brown didn’t just focus on catchers for his book with Erik Kratz, The Tao of the Backup Catcher. Instead, he examined the guys who don’t get regular at bats or crouch behind home plate every day. It’s these second-string and third-in-line backstops who are the true glue guys in a major-league organization – players like Kratz, who began his professional career with the Medicine Hat Blue Jays in 2002 before donning a mask for nine MLB teams.
Kratz serves as the ambassador for this unheralded role of backup hero, but Brown’s book is also about countless other men who strapped on the gear and endured years of anonymous toil as pitcher whisperers and unregistered team psychologists.
One of those other subjects is Bill Plummer, the backup catcher on Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, who went on to serve as the Triple-A Calgary Cannons manager for three seasons in the late 1980s.
In Chapter 10 of The Tao of the Backup Catcher, Brown introduces us to Plummer. Here’s an excerpt from that chapter, which is called Where Johnny Bench’s Gold Gloves Came From:
Trouncing the National League as the Big Red Machine in the 1970s, the Cincinnati Reds were accustomed to the occasional rudeness. They were hated — and, as likely, feared — in all the usual places: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles.
The grumbling from the bleachers, from the top decks, from otherwise nice folks who’d seen about enough of the powerful Reds and their garrulous manager, would start early and last the night.
From the top of the order, Pete Rose. Boos. Ken Griffey. Boos. Joe Morgan. Boos. Tony Perez. Boos. The crowds would stay at it, through George Foster, Cesar Geronimo, and Dave Concepción.
That was when the backup catcher knew it was his turn, when the folks at Shea Stadium, at Wrigley Field, at Dodger Stadium, realized they’d missed someone.
Johnny Bench wasn’t playing?
Batting eighth, No. 9, catcher Bill Plummer.
Not angry, exactly. Certainly not fearful. More like the people were disappointed. Bill Plummer got plaintive boos.
“I didn’t blame them,” Plummer said decades later. “They came to see John.”
If the home team was going to get whipped, and they often were, then its fans would have preferred Johnny Bench do the whipping.
The Reds in the 1970s were a supremely talented baseball team. For all or parts of eight of those summers, Plummer understudied the greatest catcher in baseball history.
In such circumstances, a young man tends not to look too far ahead. It’s a fine dream, to be the next Johnny Bench, for as long as that lasts. It probably works best, however, when you’re not lockering next to the actual Johnny Bench, rooming on the road with the actual Johnny Bench (while suspecting the actual Johnny Bench wasn’t pleased about that), applauding from the dugout every time the actual Johnny Bench won a Most Valuable Player award, and wishing the actual Johnny Bench luck at the All Star Game every July. Also, Plummer was a year older than the actual Johnny Bench.
Then you play when they tell you to play, be grateful for it, and try very hard not to snore in the hotel room.
The actual Johnny Bench needed his rest.
The Reds manager, Sparky Anderson, told reporters then of Plummer, “He’s a man. He doesn’t like what he does. Nobody would like being a caddie. But he handles it.”
To which Plummer pointed out, “Complaining doesn’t change anything.”
He granted then, “You feel like your talent has rotted. It’s like you haven’t played tennis for two months and you try to play and stumble all around. This game’s the same way, except you’ve got fifty thousand people watching you and a guy gets you out although you feel like you’re better than he is.”
Reading back those words so many decades later, Plummer drew a chuckle from deep in his chest.
“It sounds like a good excuse,” he said. Even though, he added, it might also have been true.
There are many paths to becoming a major- league backup catcher. None is simple. All require sacrifice. Some of those jour-neys are daring. A few are a little sad, others unconventional. All are personal. Every once in a while, a season might end in a locker room soaked in champagne, as some of Plummer’s seasons did, and then in the back of a convertible circling Cincinnati’s Fountain Square, and then it would be a part of him forever.
He’d fought for that job. He’d earned it, over and over, starting on a Little League field 138 miles north of Sacramento, in the town of Anderson. His Little League coach arranged the boys in a semi-circle after practice one day and noted the absence of a catcher. Bill got the hint, said, “I’ll do it,” just like that, and never really got out of the habit.
(Bill’s father, also Bill, pitched in the Pacific Coast League, where one of his managers — Red Killefer in Seattle — had been a teammate of Ty Cobb. When young Bill was growing up his dad not only went to every game but served as announcer and scorekeeper.)
Plummer did some pitching and played shortstop on the back halves of doubleheaders, but mostly he was a catcher from that afternoon in Anderson to the day he stopped playing, twenty- three years later.
He signed with the St. Louis Cardinals a month after his eighteenth birthday. Enough went well in his first few minor- league sea-sons that in 1967, five days after Thanksgiving, the Chicago Cubs claimed Plummer in the Rule 5 draft. Tall and lean and just twenty years old, Plummer had shown some power the summer before in Class-A Modesto, where his manager had been Sparky Anderson. By rule, Plummer would have to spend the entire 1968 season in Chicago or be offered back to the Cardinals. A long- term play like carrying an A-ball catcher was burdensome for a twenty-five-man roster. In any case, the decision would be made well above the club-house level and likely to the detriment of the men hired and fired for winning and losing baseball games. Therefore, Plummer kept his distance from Leo Durocher, lest the acerbic Cubs manager take out on him the anxieties brought on by a chronically short bench.
“He called me ‘hey you’ a lot,” Plummer recalled. “I was kind of a mystery man.”
It turned out not to be a problem.
Of the 1,453⅓ defensive innings the Cubs played over 163 games that season, Randy Hundley caught 1,385 of them in 160 games, both major league records. (Randy raised a son, Todd, who caught in the major leagues for fourteen seasons, most of those as a No. 1.) Five men split up the 68⅓ innings Hundley left open. Plummer caught two of those innings. He batted twice and otherwise became proficient at catching relief pitchers in the bullpen, throwing batting practice, and staying out of the way.
In January 1969, Plummer was told he’d been traded. It seemed to him a decent break. He liked Chicago and the Cubs well enough and he’d learned plenty about the major leagues, mostly by watching and listening, except there wasn’t much baseball opportunity to be had there. Hundley was just twenty-six and seemed determined to work every day.
With some eagerness then, Plummer asked where he was headed. Cincinnati, he was told. Oh, he said. Johnny Bench was twenty-one, the National League’s Rookie of the Year the season before, and already an All Star.
Bill Plummer became, in that moment, forever a backup catcher.
As a Red, from his age twenty-three to thirty seasons, Plummer averaged about forty games and 110 at-bats. He batted .186. He stayed in shape by running around the ballpark a couple times every after-noon, then catching all the pitchers who wanted to throw on their days off, then trying out some of that new Nautilus equipment folks believed was revolutionizing the fitness industry. Some days he’d play tennis with the writer who covered the team for the Dayton paper.
“Never could beat him,” Plummer said.
The opportunities were rare. He’d never know if in those seasons he could have been a No. 1 catcher on another team, if he was among the top couple dozen catchers in the league, if regular playing time would have made him better or not. Not that he gave it a lot of thought. By the time players won the right to free agency, Plummer was in his late twenties and presumed to be a career backup.
He played more often than he had in Chicago, still warmed up a lot of relievers, and still threw his share of batting practice. He added the duties of manning the bullpen phone and breaking in Bench’s new mitts. At least once a season, Bench would flip Plummer some-thing fresh and stiff out of a box, and Plummer would hand over the mitt he’d been using in the bullpen. Bench won ten Gold Glove Awards. Plummer won none. But to the gold he contributed a few ounces of sweat, spit, and leather softener.
If you’re going to have to stand behind someone, it may as well be the best who ever did it.
Bench was inducted into the Hall of Fame in the summer of 1989. That year, Plummer was the third-base coach for the Seattle Mariners.
“John,” Plummer said, “was always really good to me.”
Plummer is in team pictures with four National League pennant winners and two World Series champions, for which he contributed somewhere between a little and plenty. In them, he is surrounded by a few who helped raise him and some he helped to raise. He learned that playing baseball was not always — or only — about playing baseball, not for everybody, not every day. And he learned the measure of a backup catcher is in what he does with that.
With twenty-four others at a time, he was at the center of the baseball universe. He watched Anderson manage in the big leagues only a few seasons after he’d played for him in the minor leagues. He watched the Big Red Machine grind up baseball games. Those were Bench’s teams, and Pete Rose’s, and Joe Morgan’s, and George Foster’s, and Tony Perez’s, and Dave Concepción’s, and Sparky’s.
They also were the teams of Plummer’s prime, spent as the twenty-fifth man on a twenty-five-man roster, except on the rare days when he was one of nine.
Once, in 1974, he’d hit two home runs in the same game off Philadelphia Phillies left-hander Steve Carlton, who was by then about halfway to the Hall of Fame. They were his only two home runs of the season. The Reds lost the game.
“I probably put Carlton in a slump, wondering who that guy is,” Plummer said with a laugh.
He just made him mad, turned out. Four days later Carlton shut out the Houston Astros.
Once, in 1975, on a night when none of Rose, Perez, Foster, Bench, or Concepción could muster a hit, he’d doubled against the San Diego Padres with one out in the eighth inning, spoiling a no-hit bid by Randy Jones.
And once, in 1976, he’d driven in seven runs in a game. He’d drive in twelve in all his other games that season. The Reds did win that game.
“I had some good days,” Plummer recalled. “Not very many.”
He added, “That’s what the job is and it’s learning to deal with it. I mean, if you’re going to be a backup catcher, I picked a great team.” After eight seasons in Cincinnati, and a week before opening day in 1978, he was released. He’d been a squirt of grease in the Big Red Machine, the finest era for a franchise born nearly a hundred years before.
Most of the time it was not the goal and sometimes not quite the reality, but a man, a catcher, allows the life to carry him along until one day there’s another man, also a catcher, who looks just like he did a decade or so before. Same innocent, determined eyes. Same pliable body. Same idea about the job being temporary, manageable for as long as it takes him to win it outright, same dedication to the process, because there’d still be time to be the next Johnny
Bench. His name was Don Werner. He was twenty-five years old. He played in fifty games in 1978, all in service of the days Bench did not catch. He hit .150. Sometimes backup catchers hit .150.
Plummer went to catch for the Seattle Mariners. The guy he backed up was not an All Star and never would be. The Mariners lost 104 games. Plummer played one season after that, in the minor leagues. He was the No. 1 catcher. He hit .255.
Decades later, during a fifty-six-minute conversation in which I meant to learn about the man who backed up Bench for eight of Bench’s fourteen All-Star seasons, Plummer used the word process forty-three times, and made it clear he wasn’t talking about just the baseball.
“Well, I think there’s a lot of lessons you learn, but, I mean, the process, when you’re going through it, that is your job and you have to do it,” Plummer said.
“There were some days I didn’t like it. I’m sure all of the backup catchers have told you that, right? And there’s some days you get frustrated and you get to the end and a guy wants to throw a bullpen, and you’ve already been catching bullpens for a couple hours. But you’ve got to get back there and get the best out of them. Those are all processes.”
The end is reached through the process. Today is endured and honored through the process. The process strips away some of the emotion, some of the disappointment, all of the choices, and none of the outcome. What remains is the preparation, the energy, the lineup card, the job, and the final score. What remains is how a per-son feels about themselves when the job and the day are done, no matter the final score.
After so much had come and gone, Plummer, who has rings to show for the championship memories, said he was actually prouder of the hours only a few ever saw or knew of. He was back to talking about the process, how he stuck to it because it was good for his career and also because it had become his nature. He wasn’t a backup catcher only by profession, but in general disposition.
Somebody else could have posted a .186 batting average in those eight seasons and swung hard enough to hit a dozen home runs. How many would block a rogue slider at two o’clock in the after-noon and rave about the bite on that slider and not rub the wrist that was swelling by the second and then catch thirty-five more wrist- jolting pitches?
There were parts he was really proud of.
“Just that I was a good defensive catcher,” Plummer said. “I thought I got the most out of the starters and relievers, when I did get an opportunity in the big leagues. I knew, because I’d played every day in the minor leagues, then going from being an All Star in Triple-A to not getting an at-bat in the big leagues until July is hard. You know what I mean? It’s completely different. You’re kind of wondering what’s going on. You had to process all that and you had to say, ‘OK, this is where I want to be. This is what I want to do. I’m going to stay. If it works out this way I’m going to do everything I can to be the best I can on the field and help my pitching staff.’
“That’s how I looked at it. I think because of my defensive prowess, guys wanted to throw to me. They knew I was going to block every pitch in the dirt. I didn’t care if they threw ten in a row there. I’m going to block it. They knew that, too. So it’s just the process of me when I had the opportunity, I wanted to be friends with them and I wanted them to throw what they wanted to throw.”
And the championships? The Reds played in forty- two postseason games from 1970 to 1977, when Plummer was often their primary backup catcher. Plummer played in none of those games. Not an at-bat. Not an emergency inning. Not a mop-up moment under the lights. Most nights he watched from the bullpen.
Still, he’d worked and given himself over to the bigger ideals and become one of them, a Cincinnati Red when there wasn’t any better collection of ballplayers in the world. He’d also become one of them, a guy behind a guy. A catcher behind a catcher.
“I still think what I gave to the game the most was to make guys better,” he said. “To help them.”
After long enough, and when it’s set in deep enough, a person does not turn off the habits of most of a lifetime.
He continued in other ways, another forty-some years by the time he was coaching in a summer collegiate league in Northern California, thinking like a catcher, conducting himself like a catcher, absorbing the game like a catcher, and giving as much of himself as he could, like a backup catcher.
He was practicing raising pitchers, one of them his own son, who became a college pitcher, among other delights. Because that’s what backup catchers do. They become third- base coaches and pitching coaches and hitting coaches and bullpen coaches and roving instructors and managers, and Bill did that, too, all of those things, wherever there was a bucket of balls and a ballplayer who needed another way.
He managed teams in the minors, then in the majors, sometimes in independent ball, and others in Mexico. His life went on like that in professional baseball for decades. When those parts were over, he went home and became a coach again, nearing eighty, helping to raise a few more young men. A few more pitchers and catchers, probably, making them better. That survives as the legacy, unless you’d become one of his students, and in that case he was just a guy who helped.
“Well, you knew he cared, for one,” said Phil Nevin, an infielder-outfielder turned catcher turned ballplayer. “He saw a lot in what I could potentially do.”
A big, tough guy who was sure he had most of the answers on a baseball field, if not all of them, Nevin started all over one uncomfortable February. Living with doubt for the first time can be a lonely experience. But Nevin had Plum.
“I thought he was awesome,” he said. “I mean, we really bonded with it.”
Nevin needed to be better, a fact that by the spring of 1996 might have been surprising. He was twenty-five years old. Three years before he’d been college baseball’s best player and then was drafted first overall by the Houston Astros. He reached the big leagues at twenty-four in June 1995, was traded to Detroit in August, hit .179 across forty- seven games, and seemed to have a problem with authority figures, most of whom were telling him he needed to be better.
The Tigers’ general manager, Randy Smith, called Nevin that off-season and gave him a choice. Nevin could continue as he was, playing third base and left field, and maybe he’d have a chance to make the team out of spring training, but probably not. Or he could report to spring training willing to convert to catcher, work at that, and start the minor- league season in Jacksonville, Florida, where the Tigers kept their Double-A affiliate. Smith suggested the latter option was Nevin’s quickest way back to the big leagues.
Nevin went and got a catcher’s mitt. He arrived in Lakeland, Florida, with pitchers and catchers on the first day of spring training. He met forty-eight- year-old Bill Plummer, who would be his catching guru in the spring and his manager in the summer. Plummer laid out the program that would have Nevin ready to catch by the time games started. Then he handed Nevin a donut catcher’s mitt, a small, rigid training glove that required a pitch to be caught precisely in the pocket or otherwise carom in unpredictable directions. Nevin spent much of that spring in the bullpen, catching with two hands and galloping after the misses. Plummer also had him catch the first two innings of spring training games while wearing the donut glove. He was asking for precision and quick glove-to-hand transfers, for humility and surrender on the way into the fraternity.
“Thankfully I didn’t break any fingers,” Nevin said.
People don’t learn to catch at twenty-five. More often, people move out of catcher and to first base at twenty-five. Sometimes they go home at twenty- five. Phil Nevin certainly wasn’t going to do that and, besides, Plummer wasn’t going to let him. Nevin got a real mitt to start the minor-league season, was committed and athletic enough to become a decent catcher, and in ninety-eight games for the Suns had a .294 average and twenty- four home runs.
By midsummer, Nevin was back in Detroit for the Tigers. For the next decade he was a big leaguer. He was an All Star once, he hit at least twenty-four home runs four times, and made nearly $40 million. He was a third baseman, a first baseman, an outfielder, and, some days, a backup catcher. It would be difficult to say what a few months under the Florida sun, scraping around behind the plate and alongside Bill Plummer had to do with a career that had begun with so much promise and then threatened to die early. But, and this speaks to the power that comes with Plummer’s beloved process, maybe that experience wasn’t really about being a great catcher. Maybe it was about devoting himself to trying. Maybe it was about understanding that the game does not revolve around one’s own bat barrel. Maybe it was about seeing the whole game, which is very big and at times overwhelming.
Sometimes you play for the other guy. Sometimes that’s painful. For example, as a player, Plummer would steal a strike when he could and was pretty good at what today’s game calls framing. He did that for the pitcher. For the team. He also learned there were limits to how much better he could make a guy.
“If you moved your glove too much,” he recalled, “the umpire would slap you in the back of the head and say, ‘I’m calling the balls and strikes back here.’ ”
Upon retiring after the 2006 season with a .270 career batting average and 208 home runs, Nevin managed in an independent league and in the minor leagues. He coached with the Tigers, San Francisco Giants, New York Yankees, and Los Angeles Angels in the major leagues. In the summer of 2022, he replaced Joe Maddon as manager of the Angels. He raised two sons to be ballplayers, one a major leaguer — Tyler, a first- round pick in 2015 — and the other — Kyle — seemingly on his way.
Some twenty-five years after his season with the Suns, Nevin recalled that summer as transformative for him as a player and a person.
“It was a humbling thing,” he said. “Here I was the first pick in the draft. I was supposed to be this star in the big leagues. And now they’re trying to teach me to catch. Was I that bad a defender? Was I that bad offensively? You ask those questions of yourself.”
He grinned and continued, “That was the first time I probably listened to a coach. I thought I had it all figured out. You then learn that you’re never going to have it all figured out. You know, I still don’t.”
More than a century of baseball passes. Generations of ballplayers arrive. They thrill, exasperate, entertain, post their numbers, make their money, and leave. The names change, the game becomes more accepting, more reflective of the country itself, slowly, too slowly, and a man at a time. The product — the game as it is played — leans into one breeze or another, embraces this or that value, and corrects itself given time. The superstars become familiar, almost family, selling their products — coffee machines, cars, beer, shoes — and summertime hope.
To a portion of a society that relates to orderliness and the romance of a small white ball cast into an early-evening sky, it makes sense. It could only make sense.
It’s these nine against those nine. Ten, since the designated hitter. What comes from that are the accounts of the outcomes, but the best stories are about the people. They make the games. From a corner of the country, from a corner of the clubhouse, Bill Plummer puts in his work, gets a few teammates through a few innings, wins some, and then extends a hand for the next generation.
This collection of men in this collection of times comes to a narrower focus in a player such as Bill Plummer, as Erik Kratz, as Jeff Mathis, as A. J. Ellis and Chris Gimenez and David Ross and Phil Nevin.
Excerpted from THE TAO OF THE BACKUP CATCHER: Playing Baseball for the Love of the Game ©2023 Tim Brown with Erik Kratz and reprinted by permission from Twelve Books/Hachette Book Group.