At the conclusion of the 2005 season, one in which the New York Mets jumped from 71 wins in 2004, to 83, the team needed to fill several holes in order to compete in the National League East.
The team traded for slugging first baseman Carlos Delgado. Traded Mike Cameron to the San Diego Padres for Xavier Nady. Signed free agent relievers in Chad Bradford, Darren Oliver, and closer Billy Wagner. Added infielders Julio Franco and Jose Valentin, and traded Kris Benson to the Baltimore Orioles for Jorge Julio and John Maine, among other deals.
One position stood out, however. The Mets were getting set to witness life after their beloved catcher and future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza was set to hit free agency after his seven-year $91 million contract was to expire at the end of ’05. As the veteran was aging and declining in defense, the Mets needed to solve a big piece of their roster at the catching position.
With the Mets already making one deal with the then Florida Marlins in acquiring Carlos Delgado for three prospects in late November, the Mets once again made a deal with the Marlins nearly two weeks later in early December, trading outfielder Dante Brinkley and right-hander Gaby Hernandez for three time All-Star catcher, Paul Lo Duca.
The Brooklyn born Lo Duca had an immediate impact on the ’06 club, setting career highs in doubles (39), runs scored (80), tying a career high in hits (163), and was sixth in the National League in hitting (.318). Lo Duca was an outspoken leader in the clubhouse, and brought a veteran leadership to a club that had a mixture of young stars and veterans.
In total, Lo Duca spent two years with the club, posting a .297/.334/.404 line, with 284 hits and 57 doubles in 243 games. Among catchers with a minimum 600 PA during 2006-07, Lo Duca was first in hits, first in line drive rate (22.3 %), second in runs scored (126), third in doubles, and third in average (.297).
Following his retirement from baseball, Lo Duca has found a successful secondary career as a horse racing analyst, most recently for TVG where he’s worked since 2009. The 45-year-old announced he was leaving TVG a few weeks back on Twitter, and has recently signed on as an analyst for The New York Racing Association (NYRA) and their show Saratoga Live, where he’ll make his debut on July 21.
I had the privilege of speaking to Lo Duca last week, where we touched on his tenure in New York, who were some of the best pitchers he caught, and his thoughts on the current state of the Mets.
MMO: First off, congratulations on the new gig for NYRA as an analyst for Saratoga Live. You must be excited coming back home to New York?
Paul: Yeah, I’m excited, it’s been such a whirlwind. The crazy part is, I basically moved to two new places in L.A. and then BOOM! A month and a half-two months later I’m literally going back to New York!
I always thought I might end up back there or get the opportunity. Then the opportunity presented itself to go to Saratoga and to go back home was a big part to do with it and the other part was I just felt like it was time for me to move on and start a new chapter and new challenge.
MMO: Well, as far as new chapters go, I’ve always felt that you’d be an excellent major league coach or manager. Have you ever thought about returning to the game in that capacity?
Paul: Yeah, I would love to. Playing seventeen years and catching for a lot of them; the preparations that I had to put in is somewhat close to trying to be the manager. I’ve had a couple interviews to get back in baseball here and there. I always told myself that I’d have to be in it 100 percent. For you to coach, because you’ve got to understand, you’re going back to the grind of every day, and if you’re a coach you’re there longer than the players. So yeah, I have considered that 100 percent, it’d have to be the right opportunity, and I’m not saying any (specific) organization, it can be any organization. But if it’s the right opportunity I would definitely consider it.
I learned under Mike Scioscia so I know the game pretty well and was fortunate enough to learn under some guys. Joe Maddon learned under him, (so) you end up getting a lot of knowledge when you have a guy like Mike Scioscia as your mentor.
MMO: I can think of a team in Queens I would love to see you at the helm of.
Paul: (Laughs) Yeah, a lot of people keep telling me that! I’d probably get thrown out of the game, although I’ve gotten way tamer as the older I’ve gotten.
MMO: You were a Mets fan growing up, so what was it like when you heard the news that you were traded to the Mets from the Marlins in December of ’05, and how would you describe your time in New York?
Paul: It was a blast! You know what the crazy part is? I was the last guy traded. When everybody went down when (Jeffrey) Loria went for the stadium again and he got turned down again in the end of ’05, everybody got traded. And here I am, I was the only guy left and I actually talked to Joe Girardi. I mean Joe Girardi called me on the phone, “Hey, you okay? You cool?” I’m like, Joe listen, I have to take it as it is, I guess I’m going to be the tutor for these young pitchers that were coming in that we had just traded for with the Marlins. And then BOOM! Two days later after I had talked to Joe he had called me back. I had given him a rundown of what I thought of the guys, and it was a great phone call by Joe, because he had asked me, “What am I dealing with? What am I getting into?” He wanted to get a beat on the team a little bit because he thought I was staying, and then two days later I get traded right after Delgado to the Mets.
To this day, Joe Girardi, that just shows you what kind of manager he is first of all and what kind of person he is to make that phone call to me. Just worrying about if I’m okay! I’m fine bro, I’m making a lot of money (Laughs)!
It was just the principle, I think a lot of people don’t get that, those little things. Like when Loria picked me up from the airport. He gets a bad rap a lot. And his rap was this and that, he built this, this, and this. Well you know what? He’s been trying to get a stadium forever! That was the reason why he sold people off. Same with (Wayne) Huizenga. It’s like they would never give them a stadium and now he’s got the stadium and people don’t want to come. He picked me up from the airport when I got traded, so little things like that you remember.
When I heard it, you know you get traded from somewhere, whatever. When I heard I was going to the Mets it was obviously a dream come true considering I grew up a Met fan and I was going to a team that was good. Then you start putting the guys on paper, it was the best team I played on.
MMO: That was going to be my next question, was that ’06 team the best team you ever played on?
Paul: Yeah, I would say the best offensive team by far. We had our struggles on the pitching side, but I mean one through nine, I’d take that lineup over a lot of lineups. I was towards the end of my career but if you think about it it was Reyes in his prime, Wright in his prime, Beltran in his prime, me like a tiny bit, and I benefited! I was 6th in the league in hitting just because I hit between those two guys!
MMO: You had a somewhat of a resurgent year in ’06.
Paul: But you have to understand, you had Moises Alou (’07) and Shawn Green hitting seventh and eighth, and they’re borderline Hall of Famers! That’s what people don’t get, they’re looking at this and that. You had Delgado and Beltran, and Jose Valentin I want to say had 18 home runs and he’s hitting eighth at that time. (Despite) our deficiency in the pitching staff, we had enough in the staff to get us to our bullpen.
We lost the World Series, we were going to WIN the World Series, there was no doubt. The Cardinals snuck in the playoffs. But the big blow was when Duaner Sanchez got in the accident. Nothing against Billy, Billy was unbelievable as a closer. Duaner, you could argue, was better than Billy, or was getting us to certain situations. Then we had to change Xavier Nady (for Hernandez and Perez) and had to go get Mota. It changes our right-handed, left-handed lineups. Xavier crushed left handed pitching. A lot of different aspects people forget about that trade. (If) Duaner Sanchez doesn’t get into that cab, I have a World Series ring, I’m completely confident in that.
MMO: I completely agree, I’ve always thought the Sanchez injury changed the dynamic of the team.
Paul: Here’s the thing, everyone wants to talk about how we lost Game 7 (NLCS). It has nothing to do with, we lost the series in Game 2. We were up, Scott Spezio hits the ball off the wall off Mota, and So Taguchi takes Billy Wagner deep. What are the chances of those two guys beating us in Game 2? If not, we’re up 2-0, we destroyed them in Game 4 and we’d be up 3-1 and the series would’ve been over.
MMO: Besides talent, what made that ’06 team so successful? Were you guys just a close knit group?
Paul: We really were. A lot of us hung out together, that was probably the one team that I played on that we hung out off the field. We made news hanging out off the field, but we were going out having a good time. But here’s the problem, people want to interpret things a certain way. I never went to the ballpark hung over, that’s what people don’t get. I caught every day, so when we went out we knew we had a night game or we knew that we had a day off. So we enjoyed it.
In 2006 I didn’t pay for a meal in Long Island, it was crazy! People would recognize you and it was just Met fan after Met fan. When you play in New York and you’re a Met, it’s like an Angel, I don’t care who you are or how good you are you’re going to be on the back page because the Dodgers or the Yankees are going to have the front page. We were better than the Yankees both of those years, and we were still on the back page. So I think that’s the slow, slow jab that the Met fan has to deal with their whole life, and Angel fans.
I had someone ask me who’s the face of baseball? I’m like, you can’t argue the best player in baseball is Mike Trout. If he played for the Yankees he’d be on every commercial. He plays for the Los Angeles Angels, where do you see Mike Trout on one f****** commercial? None! If he played for the Los Angeles Dodgers he’d be on a lot of commercials. It depends who you play for and the market. Vladimir Guerrero played in Montreal and got buried; the guy should be in the Hall of Fame! There’s so many different ways you can go around things about the market that they play in.
MMO: And really it shouldn’t be like that in this day and age with the access fans have to their teams and players, including social media. Guys in the NBA get exposure even if they play in smaller markets.
Paul: Yeah, and I think a lot of people don’t. The bright talents in the game now are not like they were before. When have you ever heard on Twitter that a guy’s got a flashy glove? No! It’s how far can he hit a baseball, it’s all they’re worried about now. And strikeouts are up, the game’s up, Manfred doesn’t know if he should test the ball or the balls need to be tested, he doesn’t even know.
MMO: Now there’s a report out about potentially testing the bats as well.
Paul: Well here’s the thing, you’ve got better equipment in the maple so they wanted to outlaw maple before, that’s another factor. When you use ash, ash splinters. So let me ask you something; if I’m able to use a bat for a month compared to a week, what’s the advantage? It’s like aluminum, I can get a better grip on the bat. Does the maple explode? Yeah, it explodes when it expires and it can kill somebody, but the ash splinters during BP. So an ash bat, if you use during BP, your game bat will last you two to three days. If you use a maple bat, you can use that maple bat every day in BP and use it in a game for a good two to three weeks unless you get sawed off. It’s a big advantage.
MMO: What would you say is your most memorable moment(s) from your career?
Paul: Hmm. When I went 6-for-6 with the Dodgers, I don’t know if it was my most memorable, but it was the one moment, moment. I remember going back to the clubhouse going, okay, they can’t send me down anymore because I had been up and down so many times it felt like that was the day I made it.
Then here I am, I get traded to the Marlins, I’m basically crying 24 hours earlier and I hit a home run on the first pitch. That’s probably my most surreal moment because you just dream of things like that. I don’t even remember the ball hitting my bat, I don’t remember a lot of things! That wasn’t even my bat, wasn’t even my glove, my stuff hadn’t even shown up, that was just crazy.
Then coming full circle it’s basically just chance that God puts me in a place where I’m tagging two Dodgers out at home plate as a Met (Game 1 NLDS). I mean, what are the chances of that?
MMO: That moment when you tagged out Kent and Drew at home always stands out for me when I think back about your Mets tenure.
Paul: You know what the crazy part is? Everybody always brings up that play. Is it an iconic play? Yeah, because it changed the whole series and it was the second inning of that series and we end up sweeping them. But like, what are the chances of two guys running into me? I didn’t even see the second guy! I just looked around and he was there.
MMO: Was there anyone yelling at you to turn around?
Paul: John Maine said he was yelling at me, but you couldn’t hear anything! I’m just reacting to what was going on.
MMO: Of all the pitchers you caught, who did you have the best rapport with and who had the filthiest stuff?
Paul: My best rapport to be honest with you was (Tom) Glavine. Tommy could throw, and I didn’t call a pitch. We had certain kind of signals but I would just tell him throw me your changeup whenever you want. So whenever he wanted to throw me his changeup and his fastball there was no problem. I always used to tell him, “Tell me when you want to throw that curveball,” which he never threw basically because he was fastball/change. He always used to ask me if I was sure, and I’m like, I’m fine don’t worry about it. And the reason why he was the best, s*** I never got down to block! He was a day off, catching him was a day off, it really was. I can remember telling umpires, “Bro, he’s going to keep hitting that spot, you better start calling it or the fans are going to start booing.” The umpires would start laughing.
He was fun to catch, but (Eric) Gagne for that two-year stretch was a joke, it was Bugs Bunny. I had guys turn around laughing! I remember Luis Gonzalez laughed a couple of times. It was a 90 mile-per-hour circle change to create that much depth, to create that much spin. And a lot of people are like well, it was during that era (steroids). Okay, he was striking out the other guys who were on it too.
As a starter it was Kevin Brown, it wasn’t even close. Kevin was unbelievable when preparing, his side sessions were just as hard as he threw when he played. Brad Penny never threw, and could throw strikes. But Kevin could do it. And that’s just the way he rolled bro. The one thing I always liked about Kevin, he got a bad rap as being this and that but I tell you what, you name a starting pitcher right now that’s making $70 million, dresses up in spikes, and is there at 7:04 in the dugout ready to watch every game when he doesn’t pitch. And he’d have his spikes on just in case you went extra innings and needed a pinch runner because you never know what happens.
So that kind of guy everyone’s like, he’s making $70 million he’s got his own flights, I don’t give a s***! He’s winning 24 games and he’s showing up on time, that’s all that matters! So I never had a problem. Kevin was that guy who would say, “Hey, I think that guy’s tipping this pitch, the guy from second’s relaying signs.” He was into the game trying to help his teammates.
The moral of the story is no, I don’t need to hang out with you and go to see freaking Space Jam up the road, because if you can win 25 games and you’re my friend as a colleague and helping me as a player, I’m your man. So to me, I respected Kevin for that. Guys that tried to get him out to have a drink and dinner and he said no and took it personally, he’s got a family, he wants to do his own thing.
MMO: I follow you on Twitter, so I know you keep up with the game and with the Mets. What are your thoughts on the current state of the team?
Paul: It’s sad. I mean there are so many injuries. You’ve got so many different people trying to go at so many different angles at these guys. The wishful thinking was you had seven guys coming into spring training, all seven of them have had an issue. That’s what blew my mind from beginning to the end was like, all the guys had an issue before so now you’re going to say and project that five of the seven are going to get completely healthy? They’ve never been healthy at the same time in their life ever, but all of a sudden it’s going to happen this year?
And then the 2015 run, in short it was like, okay, let’s back this up now. Guys were hurt for 2016 let’s go to 2017 for a run. Yo’s (Cespedes) signing back, Jay Bruce is hitting the ball, but it’s like again, did we overestimate? Zack Wheeler, I get it, top prospect, what’s he done in the big leagues? I get it, (Hansel) Robles, all these guys were prospects, they were prospects at one time but what have they done since they’ve gotten to the big leagues? You’re not a prospect anymore if you’re not succeeding in the big leagues.
My thing is, you’ve got Matt Harvey that got a rib taken out and then he doesn’t want to show up to the park? Syndergaard is the only guy over the past three years, and he’s hurt now, that’s been the most consistent. Jacob deGrom’s been great this year but he’s also scratched himself for a stiff neck when everyone else is hurt with elbow problems, come on man.
MMO: A few weeks back, Ron Darling took the training staff to task. Do you think the training regimen and guys lifting has played a role in the injuries this year?
Paul: You know I don’t know. A lot of people on Ray Ramirez and this and that. I don’t think that has anything to do with it. You’re an athlete you know your body. The whole Syndergaard and Cespedes thing, I never ever had a coach say, go out there and hit now. Terry Collins did not do that, Ray Ramirez did not do that. Yoenis Cespedes told them I’m good to go out there and hit. Noah Syndergaard said I’m good to go out there and throw. That’s how it goes! It’s on the players. Now, are the players getting pressured to play because so many guys are hurt? Probably. I mean, you look to the press and it’s this guy’s hurt, that guy’s hurt, and when it turns into that it starts spiraling. It’s like one guy gets a mosquito bite and he’s on the DL, it’s getting ridiculous.
The problem with the Mets is everybody that throws over 95. Robles has been a prospect for three years or whatever, he throws the ball as straight as a string! I don’t care what the radar reads, they need to stop with this. To me (Steven) Matz has good stuff, he just needs a lot of guidance. And the other part of this is you get rid of Bartolo Colon and he gets his ass ripped in Atlanta and everybody’s like okay get him back. But he gave you 200 innings of something else, which was a sinker-ball pitcher, not someone that’s throwing 98. You keep rolling out the same guy! They keep rolling out the same guy, just a different size. The Mets are rolling out a guy that’s throwing a fastball and a slider at about 95, same guy each night!
(Jeurys) Familia’s been one of the best closers in the game but he’s been out. And Addison Reed, that’s the other thing, when’s he going to go? That guy’s been throwing every day for two years! I’m worried that he’s next! Seth Lugo was supposed to be a big part, and I thought they should have stuck him in the bullpen and just face against righties because of his sinker, but of course they had to put him in the starting rotation. Again, you’re starting to stress guys into places where they can’t be and they’re getting hurt.
MMO: How old were you when you got into horse racing, and how did you go from ballplayer to horse racing analyst?
Paul: I always loved it, it was a passion. My first horse, and I owned a couple, my trainer’s basically got in the game as an analyst and asked me to come on air in 2009 when I retired and the next thing you know I’m on air. I think a lot of people thought it was gimmicky at first but I knew the game and now it’s turned into this. I truly do enjoy it.
MMO: Who were some of your idols growing up? Any you tried to fashion your game after?
Paul: Paul Molitor and Lenny (Dykstra), he was my man. You know, Paul Molitor was in spring training when I was a kid in Arizona when he was with the Brewers. I remember him as a kid. He had a red Corvette and he was at the stop sign and me and my brother were there and I ran over to him and asked him to sign a card and he stopped! People were beeping behind and he waved and told them to stop and he signed my cards and that’s just something I’ll never forget. He became my favorite player instantly. I tried to patent my game after him. He hit the ball the other way, he used the whole field, and that’s what I sort of tried to be like.
MMO: At what point growing up did you start catching full-time?
Paul: I was always a catcher in high school and college but I was awful. Then when they drafted me they moved me to first and third and then that’s when Scioscia in ’96 goes, “Dude, you’ve got to full-time catch or they’re going to release you, what do you want to do?” And I said, “Where’s the glove?” There’s nothing I can do. And I swear to God he threw me one of his old gloves, and I started with one of Scioscia’s old gloves.
MMO: Thank you very much for your time today Mr. Lo Duca, I really appreciate a few minutes.
Paul: Thanks Mat, I appreciate it!
Follow Paul on Twitter, @paulloduca16