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Published: Sunday, 6/22/2008

Left out from behind the plate; A southpaw hasn't caught in majors since '89

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Former Pirate Benny Distefano was the last left-handed catcher to appear behind the plate in a major league game. Former Pirate Benny Distefano was the last left-handed catcher to appear behind the plate in a major league game.
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Find a pair of shin guards and fasten them around your legs.

Strap on a padded chest protector and grab a helmet and mask.

Now sink your right hand into a catcher's mitt - if you can stumble across one - and run out onto a major league field, and crouch behind home plate.

If the umpire yells "Play ball," you'll be the first to catch as a left-hander in the majors since Benny Distefano in 1989.

According to Baseball

Almanac.com, Distefano's three games as a catcher for Jim Leyland's Pittsburgh Pirates that season made him the 29th left-hander ever to catch in a big-league game.

So the last lefty to catch in the majors, and the manager who put him back there, now work for the Detroit Tigers. Distefano, 46, is the hitting coach at Single-A West Michigan, a Detroit affiliate, and Leyland is the Tigers' skipper.

Like post-game ice cream socials at Dairy Queen and "Hey batter, batter," left-handed catchers don't usually last past Little League, and theories abound as to why mamas and managers don't let their lefty babies grow up to be catchers.

But Distefano, who has been the answer to a trivia question for almost 20 years now, said someone will follow in his footsteps.

"It will happen again," Distefano said on a Saturday afternoon last month at West Michigan's ballpark in Comstock Park, Mich., his eyes squinting from the sun and his lips fixed in a grin from the memory. "Someone has to make the major league team who's a lefty and can fill that role ... but it will happen again."

Nary can a left-hander be found playing second base, shortstop, or third base in professional baseball, mainly because of the difficulty they would have positioning their bodies to make certain throws from those positions.

But left-handed catchers?

Only one lefty in the history of the major leagues dating to 1876 caught in more than 300 games, when Jack Clements caught in 1,073 games from 1884-1900 for five different teams, again according to Base

ball-Almanac.com.

It appears no lefty caught in a big-league game from 1906 through 1957, a streak broken when the Chicago Cubs' Dale Long caught in two games in 1958. Before Distefano, Mike Squires was the last lefty to catch in the majors, catching in two games for Tony La Russa's Chicago White Sox in 1980.

Rick Sweet, a former right-handed catcher who spent three seasons in the majors and now manages the Triple-A Louisville Bats, said the awkward throw a left-handed catcher has to make when a runner steals third base is why lefties don't catch at baseball's upper levels.

"They have to receive the ball on the opposite side, turn, pivot, and throw," Sweet said. "They're virtually unable to make that play fast enough, especially with a right-handed hitter up. It's such a restriction."

But Sweet also said the game has changed since he played 25 years ago, and there are far more left-handed batters, which would give lefty catchers a clear path more often to throw to third base.

Some players, coaches, and scouts in baseball said because pitchers are used to throwing to right-handed catchers, throwing to lefty catchers would disrupt their rhythm. Others said if a left-hander throws well enough to be a catcher, he should just pitch.

Larry Parrish, the Toledo Mud Hens' manager who played just about every other position besides catcher or pitcher in 15 big-league seasons, said he can't think of a good reason more lefties aren't catchers.

"Maybe it's because it's just not something that's really been done too often before?" Parrish said.

Distefano had never given catching much thought while patrolling the outfield and playing first base for the Pirates for parts of seasons from 1984 through 1988.

At the end of the '88 season, Distefano said he had a discussion with Leyland in which the then-Pirates manager conveyed that Pittsburgh needed someone on its roster who could be an emergency catcher.

Distefano, sensing a chance to volunteer and perhaps save himself from returning to the minors, asked Leyland if he could try the position and was granted permission. The Pirates sent him to their instructional camp that fall, and Distefano reported to spring training in 1989 with the pitchers and catchers.

"My teammates were having fun with me, [saying] 'A left-handed catcher, what's going on here?'•" said Distefano, who also added that he never caught at any level until the fall of '88. "As we started to do it, they took it serious.

"At the time I had a strong arm, so it made sense as a utility type player, and I wanted to increase my versatility. It gave me an opportunity to stay in the big leagues even longer and help out the Pirate organization."

Distefano never played in more major league games than he did in '89, seeing action in 96 contests and batting .247 with two homers and 15 RBIs in 154 at-bats.

Though he never started behind the plate, Leyland called upon Distefano to catch three different times: on May 14, June 13, and Aug. 18 of that year. He caught a total of six innings.

"I wanted another left-handed bat and I wanted to get him on our team," said Leyland, a former catcher in the Tigers' minor league system. "The kid worked hard and he deserved to be here. Mike Squires had done it [catch left-handed], and I knew Benny would only be catching an inning here or there."

Distefano never caught in another big-league game after the '89 season, but was behind the plate in one game for Triple-A Calgary in 1992 and in three games for Triple-A Oklahoma City in '93.

He said lefty catchers struggle fielding bunts down the third-base line, their throws to second base sometimes tail away from the bag, and they have to reach across their bodies to tag runners out on plays at the plate.

Other than that, Distefano said catching lefty was all right.

"We did everything the righties did, just did it the opposite," Distefano said. "The footwork's the same, receiving's the same, throwing the ball's the same. Throwing to third base is just like a righty throwing to first base. There's nothing different, we just did it backwards."

Leyland agrees with Distefano in the sense that another lefty will be used as an emergency catcher someday. Maybe the person to prove Distefano and Leyland right is growing up in the Toledo area right now?

Matt Cryan, 11, of Maumee is indeed a lefty catcher in Maumee Little League. His coach, Mike Gramza, said he puts a left-hander behind the plate because "at this level, you put your best athletes" in catcher's gear and on the mound.

Cryan said he definitely has dreams of playing in the majors one day, and he's even thought about catching as a big leaguer. But when asked specifically what position he would play when the Cleveland Indians call him up in about the year 2020, he mentioned first base or pitcher.

"I think it might be harder [catching left-handed] there than here," Cryan said. "The players are faster, and usually most catchers are right-handed."

Cryan is in the minority as a youth lefty catcher, but he's not alone.

Lou Buenaflor, owner of Play It Again Sports at 5333 Monroe St., said about one in 12 catcher's mitts he sells are for lefties. He said those specialty gloves are normally purchased for 9 and 10-year olds.

Dan Rodgers, of Dan Rodgers Sporting Goods at 5340 Monroe St., which is nearby Buenaflor's store, said he sells about eight lefty catcher's gloves a year.

"If you're a left-hander, don't play catcher," Rodgers said. "Play first base, will ya?"

Contact Joe Vardon at: jvardon@theblade.com or

419-410-5055.



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