Former major league catcher Todd Pratt has endured quite the journey in his professional career.
From a sixth-round draft pick by the Boston Red Sox in 1985, to out of baseball in 1996; Pratt found himself working at a baseball academy in Florida and eventually managing a Domino’s pizza.
When a call came in to Pratt’s agent from the New York Mets in 1997 inquiring about prospective pitchers to sign, his agent brought Pratt’s name into the mix. Pratt was itching to get back into the game and signed a minor league deal with the club to provide catching depth.
Pratt started the ’97 season with the Triple-A club in Norfolk, Virginia, where he slashed .301/.383/.500 in 59 games. Pratt was recalled in the second-half of the season and posted a .768 OPS over 39 games with a 48% caught stealing rate.
Who could’ve imagined a player sitting out the entire 1996 season, one minute managing at a Domino’s pizza and the next being the starting catcher in Game 1 of the 200o Subway World Series?
The story of Todd Pratt is one of hope and resilience.
Pratt, 50, played five seasons in Queens with the Mets (1997-01), posting a combined .769 OPS while throwing out at least 39% of would be base stealers in three of his five seasons.
The ’99 postseason provided several memorable Pratt moments: from his walk-off home run in the NLDS against the Diamondbacks and Matt Mantei, to drawing a bases loaded walk against the Braves to tie the score at three in Game 5 of the NLCS in the bottom of the 15th, one batter before Robin Ventura hit his famous grand slam single to win it.
This past January Pratt was introduced as the manager of the Greensboro Grasshoppers, the Miami Marlins’ Class A team in the South Atlantic League. He’s enjoying mentoring the next generation of young players, as countless others had done for him.
I had the privilege of speaking with Pratt last week before a night game, as we looked back at some of his best Mets’ moments, sitting out of baseball in ’96, and how he earned his nickname “Tank”.
MMO: You were named manager of the Greensboro Grasshoppers (Class-A for the Miami Marlins) this past January, what was the moment like when you found out you got the job? Are you hoping to manage or coach one day in the majors?
Todd: After my last year playing everyone kept telling me that I should manage. I really didn’t want to get back into baseball due to my four kids being so young, playing twenty-one years, and kind of being selfish with my life and not allowing them to live their’s. They loved it, but you know, I wanted to be home and be more of a father.
About six years ago a college asked me – West Georgia Tech – to start a baseball program. A little junior college outside of Atlanta and they said it wouldn’t take much time or I could be at home and still do it. I did that and then a phone call came from the Marlins last year and asked me if I was interested (in managing). I did an interview over the phone, actually a couple of interviews over the phone with Marc DelPiano (Marlins VP of Player Development) and next thing I know they called me the day after the first game of the World Series asking if I wanted the job, and I said yes.
And to the second part of your question, yeah, it would be nice to get back to the big leagues. But it’s been a blast with these young kids and kind of giving back all those years that all my coaches helped me.
I want to do the same here.
MMO: Who were some of your favorite players growing up?
Todd: I grew up in San Diego so I was a Padres fan, but I saw a lot of the Dodgers. Dave Winfield sticks out to me along with Tony Gwynn. Dave Winfield especially because that was my era when he was in San Diego as a kid. I just remember what kind of monster he was and just enjoyed watching him play.
MMO: You were drafted in 1985 by the Red Sox, spending eight seasons in the minors before your major league debut in 1992 with the Philadelphia Phillies. How does one stay focused and driven when you spent over seven years in the minors?
Todd: I was a sixth-round pick out of high school and I was a very high prospect and was developing quickly, they actually shot me through A-ball really quick. Then being a Rule 5 out of the Florida State League with the Cleveland Indians I just kind of got thrown into the fire and probably wasn’t ready and mature enough to make the big league team and got sent to Boston because obviously Boston wanted me back.
I struggled for three years in New Britain, Connecticut. Actually, the first year I think I led the team in RBIs. I was the youngest player but I only had like 49-something RBIs and I only hit .210. Then I broke my ankle and it was just three years of injuries, I tried to play but really I credit the Red Sox that they held onto me for those years because I hit about .210 for three years.
Then they drafted Eric Wedge so I was kind of a suspect. I give the Red Sox credit, I guess they saw something in me that one day I would put it all together. I went to Pawtucket and backed up Wedge, and I have to give some credit to Butch Hobson, the manager at the time at Double-A and then he brought me to Triple-A because he believed in me.
Wedge got hurt, a knee injury, and I took over. I was the Rookie of the Year for Pawtucket and basically that’s when I really started breaking out. I was twenty-four, and actually after that season I was probably going to get a call-up but I broke my hamate bone in the beginning of August and was really doing well in Pawtucket but then my season was over and I come into a six-year free agent. I went through the whole minor league free agent signing, signed with Baltimore, and two days later the Phillies’ Rule 5, and that next year ’92 I made it to the big leagues.
MMO: How did you earn your nickname “Tank”?
Todd: It was probably my physical stature. I think one time I was kind of not paying attention and walked into the batting cage and bumped it and the whole thing moved. And someone said, “Dude, you’re just a tank.”
It went on through the different organizations and even at the end of my career I go visit the Mets or the Phillies, they’ll even put it on the board. To this day they either call me Skipper or Tank.
MMO: Can you talk about how you stepped away from baseball in 1996 and worked at Bucky Dent‘s school in Florida and then managing a Domino’s? How did that sequence of events take place?
Todd: I lived over in that area (Southern Florida) and I used to workout pre-season at Bucky Dent’s School of Baseball and I got released by the Mariners in ’96, actually they didn’t want to release me but it was a numbers thing and they had a couple of big time catchers in the minor leagues then. I went home and my first kid was born right before spring training and I just wanted to get on with my life so I talked to Bucky Dent and said, ‘Hey, can I hang out here, can I be an instructor?’ And he said, “Yeah, that’s perfect.”
I spent a summer there and the guy who used to feed the kids there was a young entrepreneur, and owned twenty Domino’s in South Florida. Actually 20/20 Pizza was his business. He was asking me what I was going to do with my life and I said I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. He told me, “You can’t be doing this, you’ve got to get serious about something. Why don’t you come work for me? You’re going to start on the low end of the pole but if you can handle it for a year you’ll be my supervisor. You can just check in on all my stores for me and take over what I’m doing now, and you’ll have a pretty good job for the rest of your life.” I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll do it!’
So I start doing that and I think I became a manager within five weeks, but it was tough! Especially (during) Super Bowl.
I think it was right after the Super Bowl that the Mets called my agent and were looking for some pitchers and they asked who else he had and he told them about me. They asked him, “Well do you think he’d still want to play?” I think I was twenty-nine at the time and I was like, I’ll go to spring training even if it’s just (as) the seventh catcher. And if I get released, at least I’ll get one more spring training.
Well, long end of the story is Bobby Valentine really liked me that year in camp. I went to Triple-A (camp) the last few days. I went to Norfolk and Rick Dempsey worked with me and got me back into game shape, and I got called up that year, 1997. It’s humbling and a great story.
MMO: One of the biggest moments in Mets history was your walk-off home run in Game 4 of the 1999 NLDS against the Diamondbacks and Matt Mantei. Can you talk about that moment?
Todd: (Mike) Piazza got hurt in Arizona, he hurt his thumb, and they tried to do a cortisone shot but it blew up on him. Bottom line was after Game 2 I had to catch. We went home and we won the third game. Then Game 4, (Al) Leiter was going, and just an unbelievable game!
I got an opportunity, I think I was 0-for-4 for the day, and (Matt) Mantei was dealing. I could’ve been the goat of that game because I think it was in the bottom of the eighth I had a man on first and third with one out and I had a 17-hopper right back at him, but I didn’t do the job.
Then in the tenth (Robin) Ventura led off before me and made a quick out. And Mantei on the first pitch threw a 55-foot curveball to me and I was like, he’s got to throw a fastball this time, just be on time. And you know, the rest is history.
MMO: Was that your favorite moment from your time with the Mets?
Todd: It’s a really close tie. In 2000 when I got to start Game One of the World Series. The day before in the workout all these reporters were coming up to me in the middle of the workout and I was like, oh man, did they put me off the roster and add somebody?
They just came up and said, “Todd, how do you feel about starting Game One?” And I just couldn’t believe it. Mike was at DH and I had a good repertoire with Leiter and defensively it still allowed Mike to play. I remember that game, we were close. I think if we win that game it might be a different Series.
MMO: You were part of another huge Mets moment, in Game 5 of the ’99 NLCS. You walked to tie the game in the bottom of the 15th, then Ventura follows with the famous grand slam single. You were the one that grabbed Ventura after he rounded first, can you talk about that moment and the emotions involved in that do-or-die game?
Todd: Getting up there with bases loaded and we’re down by one and Bobby Valentine having the trust in me to pinch hit there, especially since we only had two catchers. But getting that walk, I think it was on four straight, and I was just very calm but when I got on first I got excited again. When you’re a player you think about what’s going to happen before the pitch is made and I’m like, okay, all you need is a base hit and we win the game.
It was a very dreary night that night, it was raining and vision wasn’t so good, but when Robin hit it, it was more of a line drive. When Robin hit home runs, we called him “Helium Boy”, because every time he hit a home run it was just sky-high and would just carry.
Well that ball was on a line drive and I’m thinking with the weather it’s a double, it’s a ‘gapper’. So I don’t even know it’s a home run, and I get to second and I said, well, game’s over. And then he started waving at me and I didn’t know if he was pumping his fists or waving at me but I just grabbed him and kind of ruined another grand slam for him. If everybody watches that video it probably would’ve been a grand slam double because there were guys right behind him because as soon as I grabbed him there was guys piling all over us. I don’t think he would’ve made it to third, so I got the shame of making it into a grand slam single but it would’ve been the whole team, so it would’ve been a grand slam double by the team.
Funny story about that. After the game ESPN had a camera in my face asking me, ‘What do you think (about preventing the grand slam)?’ I said, “Who cares, we won the game!” It was kind of a funny thing in the clubhouse, and still to this day when I see Robin he gives me grief about it.
MMO: You had the chance to back up some talented catchers during your tenure, and obviously Mike Piazza the biggest. What was Piazza like in the clubhouse? What stands out to you about the way he played?
Todd: He treated me great and Mike was a very quiet guy, quiet leader. I don’t remember what the record was but I just remember one stretch, we always wanted Mike up there (at the plate) no matter what. I mean I wanted to play, but if we needed a game winner Mike was the guy that needed to be up there.
There was a stretch where he had consecutive RBI games, and I remember we’re playing Atlanta and I think bases open and they went out there to talk to the pitcher and the very next pitch Mike wraps around the left field seats at Shea Stadium and we’re just going crazy. It was unbelievable getting to be a teammate of his and just watching all the amazing feats he did through his career.
MMO: What are some of your impressions of Travis d’Arnaud? Health aside, is there anything you can pinpoint as something TdA needs to work/improve on?
Todd: I think he’s a good young catcher but it’s a tough position, and he’s really been plagued with some injuries that happen when you’re behind the plate. I think if he can stay healthy he’s a big leader on the team, and sometimes you get a wrap for not being healthy but that’s a tough position and he’s just had some bad luck. Hopefully he can stay healthy and lead the Mets.
MMO: Thank you so much for your time Todd. Best of luck with the Grasshoppers.
Todd: Thanks, Mathew.
Follow Todd Pratt on Twitter: @ToddPratt05