TEMPE, Ariz. — When last we saw Crash Davis, the protagonist of Ron Shelton’s film “Bull Durham,” he had swatted one final homer and was on to his next life, considering a managerial opening in Visalia, Calif.
Visalia happens to be the hometown of Stephen Vogt, who homered last Oct. 5 in the final at-bat of his unlikely 10-year career in the majors. Vogt could easily have been the next Crash Davis, a vagabond catcher who got only a whiff of the big time. When Vogt finally reached The Show, after stops with five minor league teams — including, yes, the Durham Bulls — he started off 0 for 25. His team, the Tampa Bay Rays, soon sold his contract to Oakland.
But Vogt persisted, winding from the A’s to the Milwaukee Brewers, the San Francisco Giants, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Atlanta Braves and back to the A’s last season, mostly as a mentor for a young roster. On that last, golden day in the majors, he squatted for his 6,000th professional inning behind the plate.
Now Vogt, 38, is on to another job, as the bullpen coach for the Seattle Mariners, not far from his home in Olympia, Wash. He could have been a special assistant, coming and going as he pleased, but that is not the way to connect with players. Baseball is an everyday job, and it matters to honor the grind.
The memories of the pitchers he caught are fresh — from a World Series icon to the ultimate one-game wonder, from an ambidextrous rookie to the one and only Bartolo Colon. In an interview over dinner last month, Vogt shared a personal farewell to arms: a behind-the-mask tour of the habits, humor and humanity of some of his era’s most captivating characters.
That was the year he set the E.R.A. record, which I think Zack Britton broke a few years later — but he was throwing like 99 miles an hour with an 82 mile-an-hour change. That might not be exactly right, but it was a lot more than a 10-mile-an-hour difference. We called it the Bugs Bunny changeup, and it was — it was a “stop” ball. He was so joyful, such a kind teammate. He and Joel Peralta took me out to a steakhouse in Toronto on my first road trip. I was a wide-eyed rookie, and they treated me so well and welcomed me. Fernando was very quiet, but when the time was right, he would say or do something funny, or maybe just make a weird noise. He knew when everybody needed to laugh.
Of course he intimated me, he’s Kyle Farnsworth. He’s an intimidating person, and that’s the persona he wanted, the persona he owned. I remember that spring training, watching him in the weight room, it was different — the amount of weight he could lift, the intensity that he would get after in the weight room. And then you talk to him, and he’s one of the most soft-spoken, gentle, kind people. But when he would get into the moment, he pitched with tenacity, he pitched with fire.
I caught him during his Cy Young season — Jose Molina took a foul tip in the seventh inning and I went in to catch one inning. But obviously I caught David quite a bit through spring trainings and bullpens, and the thing that always struck me was his attention to detail. His bullpens were always well thought out: He would execute multiple, multiple fastballs where he wanted them before he would move on to anything else. And he said to me, “If I can command my glove-side fastball, everything else is going to do what I want it to do.”
He would let go of the ball and his head would be down right at release point. The Sacramento video board was a little low, so when he would throw his curveball, it would go up into the video board and I’d lose it for a split second in the numbers and lights — and then I’d see it come back out of the scoreboard and then catch it. So he’s not looking at me, and I can’t see the ball. That’s a good matchup.
Bartolo would walk around the clubhouse flipping up a baseball with a big smile on his face. He never said much; he didn’t have to. The first time I caught him was when I got my first hit, with the A’s, and I remember asking another catcher, Derek Norris, “Hey, what do you got for me?” And he said, “Sit back and enjoy it.” That was his advice. I’d set up right on the corner, and I didn’t know if it was going to be a four-seamer or a two-seamer, but it didn’t matter because, either way, it was going to end up right at my glove, right where I set up. I never had anyone easier to catch, or more fun.
Sonny was by far the hardest on my hand and on my thumb. I had to wear a thumb guard my entire career because of catching Sonny through Triple-A and the big leagues, because his ball would move so late — and I didn’t have the best hands to handle it, either. We had a lot of fun together, but he would throw this 94-mile-an-hour cutter-slider thing when I would call a four-seam. I’d ask him and he’d say, “Oh, I thought they were ready for a four-seam so I just cut it,” and I said, “You need to tell me when you’re going to do that.”
He talked about his perfect game a little bit, never in detail. But I asked him, “What did it feel like?” And he said: “It’s what you dream of, right? You work every day to be perfect. You work every day to get every hitter out. And I did it once.” I actually bring him up quite often to pitchers because he was a phenomenally talented pitcher who, for whatever reason, unfortunately didn’t turn into a long major league career. But it’s such a great testament to this sport that on any given day, any pitcher can go out there and get anybody out.
What a great story, and what a cool experience to be able to catch an ambidextrous pitcher. He made his debut at Fenway Park and flew in late, got there kind of midgame, and he was active. Josh Phegley ended up catching him that night, but I remember telling him, “Hey, it’s a long walk from the third-base dugout to that right-field bullpen.” He goes, “Yeah, I’m going to head out there in a jog.” And I said: “No, you’re not. I want you to walk as slow as possible and take every single moment in, because you’re only going to get to do this once, walking out to the bullpen midgame during your debut.”
It was an honor for me to catch his last game. The curveball was still big, bigger than you can even imagine. I mean, there were times where he would throw it and you’d think it was never coming down. He was throwing 85, 86, that last year, way different from when he was in his prime with the better velocity, but the curveball and the way he could still set hitters up and skillfully and masterfully get through a game, was absolutely beautiful.
It’s arms, legs and hair. He turns his back all the way to you, and it’s tough to find his release point because he doesn’t show you anything. Then all of a sudden he’s whipping around and his hair’s flopping, coming at you, then it’s his lead elbow. I mean, there’s so many things to distract you. Catching Josh as a rookie, you could see that the fastball was real. And then in ’18 you started to see him dial in the command, and with the slider and the changeup he’s got three devastating pitches with command. It’s not fair.
He’s fun, charismatic, a character with the dancing and the shimmy. But as a catcher, you don’t know when he’s coming to the plate. So you have to be ready for him to do the quick one, and then you have to stay relaxed long enough to wait for him to do his shimmy. I tried not to watch that and just cued on his left hip, like, “As soon as that left hip comes toward me, then I know.” But that was tough, because then you’re moving from his hip to his arm slot. Ordinarily I’d just look for the arm slot and I’d know where that window’s going to be, but with him I needed to know when he was coming so that I wouldn’t get stuck in my position.
He is, right now, the greatest World Series pitcher of all time. He’s got the best numbers, he’s automatic, and you can never take that away from him. It was really fun to catch the guy that you watch on TV and get to know him as a person. He’s really athletic and can move; I mean, to be able to repeat that funky delivery over and over and over, with pinpoint accuracy, he’s still one of the best pitchers of my generation. And he’s a cowboy. That’s how he pitches — he pitches like a cowboy. It’s: “I’m coming after you, and I’m going to beat you, and I’m not going to accept anything else.”
Charlie’s got the biggest sweeping curveball I’ve ever seen. He actually struck me out in Houston on a curveball, and it hit me in the back foot. I swung and missed and it just kept curving and hit me in the back foot. And then getting to catch him, I’m like, “OK how big, really, is this thing?” — and just being blown away at how well he was able to shape it and throw it at any time.
He’s got electric stuff, four plus pitches. But just the way he can bounce off the mound, help himself by fielding his position, he’s so athletic. His goal was to do both, to win the Gold Glove and the Silver Slugger, and he did. I actually think he had more hits as a Brave that year than I did.
Fried did outhit Vogt, 15 to 13, partially because Vogt was injured in September and missed the rest of the season. Atlanta ended up winning the World Series.
A year later, Vogt was back in Oakland to finish out his career, in the uniform he had worn best back when he represented the A’s in the 2015 All-Star Game and saw an old friend 60 feet 6 inches away.
We were in Double-A together and then Triple-A, and then we made our debut the same year. And we lived in the same hotel during September of 2012; he rode home with my wife, my daughter and me every night back to the hotel, so we really got to know each other and got close. And then I got designated for assignment that next spring — and the next time we met back up on the same field was our first inning of our first All-Star Games.
Ned Yost told me I had the fourth, fifth and sixth innings, and I didn’t even realize who I was going to catch. So I run out there to catch the fourth and I look out and, sure enough, here comes Chris Archer. For me, it was such a special moment, obviously personally, but also to share it with somebody you came up with through the minor leagues. When you play together like that, you may not talk all the time, you may not see each other for a while — but you’re family.
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