By John Hickey
Sunday, October 6th, 2013 at 7:10 pm in 2013 regular season.
If you don’t think there is something wonderful and downright fun about baseball in the playoffs, then you haven’t met Stephen Vogt.
And if you had seen Vogt six months ago, you wouldn’t have seen someone destined for the limelight. You would have seen a man not feeling the wonder, not feeling the fun, just walking through a shopping mall in Durham, N.C., not far from where another minor league catcher, Crash Davis, made a name for himself.
At the time Vogt had close to 1,900 minor league at-bats in which he averaged .299, but in his only 25 at-bats in the big leagues he was a whopping zero, zilch, nada, nyet for 25.
He was walking around the mall with his wife Alyssa and his baby daughter, Payton. Unlike Crash Davis, he had family responsibilities. Like Davis, his cup of coffee time in the big leagues seemed to be behind him.
The Tampa Bay Rays had designated him for assignment, a technical move that allows a team to clear out space on the 40-man roster. The team has 10 days in which it can trade the player, release him or re-sign him to a minor league deal.
The clock was ticking and Vogt, his family and his future were in a North Carolina mall, convinced he was about to be released by the Rays. And then what?
And then Vogt’s cell phone rang. It was the Oakland Athletics. The A’s, for $150,000, had bought his contract. Technically it was a trade, the cash for the player, but what the A’s essentially did was buy Stephen Vogt another season in the sunshine.
The A’s didn’t need a catcher. They had John Jaso and Derek Norris to catch in Oakland and Luke Montz to catch at Triple-A Sacramento. But as general manager Billy Beane said after Saturday’s game, “we are also looking to add depth’’ to the organization.
“A deal like that, for us, it’s our free agency,’’ Beane said. “It’s when I get a chance to be Steinbrenner.’’
“I was trying to take my mind off the Designated for Assignment limbo,’’ Vogt said looking back to April after he’d been the offensive hero of Oakland’s 1-0 win over Detroit in the American League Championship Series Saturday. “I was just wandering through the mall. I was not shopping at all. I was with my daughter and my wife and I got the call that we were traded.’’
“We’’ could put off thoughts of what the next chapter of life held. “We’’ were headed to Sacramento. “We’’ were headed for the spotlight, although the path would be anything but direct.
All for the cost of a season full of sunflower seeds at the A’s home at the Coliseum.
“I don’t really care how much money I was traded for,’’ Vogt said. “I was just happy to have a job.’’
The job was in Sacramento. Vogt was called up briefly in June, and his hitless big league streak went to 0-for-32 before Vogt homered off the Cardinals’ Joe Kelly on June 28. Shortly thereafter he was back at Sacramento, but the .000 was off his big league ledger.
A month later, Vogt was called up when the A’s were strapped. Jaso and Norris were hurt at the same time and Montz was on the minor league disabled list. It was about that time that the A’s went outside of the organization to trade for even more catching help in the person of former A’s catcher Kurt Suzuki.
Norris rebounded quickly from his fractured big toe, but with both Norris and Suzuki being right-handed batters and with the A’s having identified the catching position as one of several at which the club believed it was better off platooning, the left-handed Vogt was kept around.
More than that, he kept playing. And producing. He hit .252, playing in 47 games. Four of his hits were homers. He drove in 16 runs. More importantly, he learned the pitching staff quickly and the pitchers grew to like throwing to him.
And he was catching winners. The A’s went 8-0 in Vogt’s first eight starts behind the plate and 27-13 overall. No matter what you do in baseball, a .675 winning percentage gets noticed.
It wasn’t noticed by a wider audience until Saturday’s Game 2 of the ALDS. Vogt caught nine shutout innings, eight of them thrown by rookie Sonny Gray, then in the bottom of the seventh engaged in an epic 10-pitch with former Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander with the prize being the go-ahead run at third base.
Vogt, conceding nothing, fouled off the first five pitches and seven of the first nine before Verlander dialed up a 98-mph fastball to end the inning.
Earlier Vogt drew notice with his arm, throwing out Jose Iglesias on a steal attempt at third base to close out the fifth.
Still, Vogt wasn’t finished. The A’s loaded the bases in the ninth against the Detroit bullpen. Batting with none out and new reliever Rick Porcello in the game, Vogt picked on a 1-1 pitch and slashed a single up the middle to give the A’s the 1-0 victory, which made the overnight plane ride to Detroit and Monday’s 10 a.m. (PT) third game of the series.
The hit earned him a pie in the face, a Gatorade bath, and acclaim. Not bad for a paltry (in baseball terms) $150,000.
“I was happy just to have a job,’’ Vogt said, looking back once again to that April day at the mall. “I’ve had a long journey to the big leagues and had a lot of bumps in the road. In the end, I don’t care if I was traded for peanuts. I just want to have a job, to keep playing and having fun.’’
Fun? It doesn’t get much more fun than Saturday night.
Just ask Stephen Vogt.