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The Prodigal Catcher
2004-09-17 13:36
by Mike Carminati

A certain man had two sons:

And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.

And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living…

And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son…

[B]ring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:

For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.

—Parable of the Prodigal Son

Todd Zeile, who plans to retire at the end of the season, is set tonight to make his first appearance behind the plate in fourteen years. Zeile came up as a catcher with the Cardinals in 1989, started to play other positions in 1990, and in 1991 moved from behind the plate in favor of third base apparently for good.

Zeile's last game as a catcher was on September 1, 1990 against the Braves. It was his 105th of the season, but the next game he was at first base, where he had played in nine of his last 13 games. He had been splitting time with Tom Pagnozzi behind the plate, but newly installed manager Joe Torre (who replaced Red Schoendienst, who replaced Whitey Herzog mid-season) installed Pagnozzi behind the plate for good on September 3. On September 5, Zeile played his first major-league game at third base and played well enough that his last 24 appearances of the season were at third. The transition took, and he didn't play different position again until the Cardinals moved him exclusively to first base at the start of the 1995 season to make room for the then-newly acquired third baseman Scott Cooper, who incredibly was coming off two straight All-Star years. He ended up just 34 times there before he was traded to the Cubs and returned to third. (Thank you

Anyway, Zeile's fourteen-year absence from the "tools of ignorance" is not the longest on record. On September 20, 1931 Cardinals manager Gabby Street, who had retired 19 years earlier, played the last three innings of a 6-1 win over Brooklyn behind the plate en route to a World Series championship year. The 48-year-old recorded one putout and one assist—throwing out the only attempted base stealer, Babe Herman—in the game.

Zeile's 14-year absence from behind the plate, however, is the longest break for a player who was playing continually during the span. The previous high was eleven years by Red Murray, who also came up with the Cardinals playing all three outfield positions and catching seven games in 1906. Murray played nine more seasons with the Cardinals, Giants, and Cubs and played the outfield, mostly right field, almost exclusively (one game at second base for the Cubs). Though it sounds like a scene from "The Natural", he made a catch in 1912 that saved a win for Christy Mathewson just as lightning jarringly struck the earth and lighted up the sky. In 1917 after a one-year break from the majors, Murray returned to the Giants as a part-time outfielder but he also played one game behind the plate.

Also, of note is Ed Sprague another catcher-cum-third baseman, who had a nine-year gap from behind the plate (1992-2001). He, too, moved from behind the plate in his sophomore year and didn't return to it until his final season for one appearance. Sprague sticks out amid the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century players, who dominate the list of prodigal catchers.

Here are the catchers who had breaks from behind the plate of nine or more seasons:

NameYrYr 2Diff
Gabby Street1912193119
Bobby Schang1915192712
Harry Smith1877188912
Clyde Sukeforth1934194511
Jim O'Rourke1893190411
Red Murray1906191711
Jack Ryan1903191310
John Farrow1874188410
Ed Sprague199220019
Fred Carisch191419239
Lena Styles192119309
Lew Wendell191519249

To demonstrate how rare such a long break is today, here are the catchers with breaks of five or more years over the last thirty years:

NameYrYr 2Diff
Mandy Romero199820035
Walt McKeel199720025
Ed Sprague199220019
John Wehner199620015
Danny Sheaffer198719936
Donnie Scott198519916
Dan Firova198219886
Ron Tingley198219886
Derrel Thomas198019855
Ken Macha197419795
Dave Roberts197219775
Jim Hutto197019755

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