DiFelice happy catching in Minors
Backstop looks forward to playing, mentoring in farm system
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- What was merely 60 feet, six inches last summer, the distance separating Mike Pelfrey from Mike DiFelice probably will measure more than 2,000 miles some evening in the pending baseball summer. Pelfrey will be on a big-league mound, standing tall and, on that night perhaps, intimidating his opponent. DiFelice will be squatting behind that plate in some Pacific Coast League outpost -- Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Sacramento -- doing his job. He will be virtually unnoticed, largely unappreciated, but hardly unhappy.
If DiFelice plays at all that night, his contributions aren't likely to make the report filed by Ken Oberkfell, the manager of the Mets' Triple-A New Orleans affiliate. The Mets will be fully aware of what they have -- a self-proclaimed "catch-and-throw" guy -- at the highest level of their Minor League system without notice from Oberkfell. More information would border on the superfluous.
"Catch-and-throw" is the tactful phrasing used to describe a catcher of modest offensive skills. It's understood: catch and throw is what he does well. Hitting is what he doesn't do. At age 37, DiFelice is familiar with the terminology.
He understands the Mets don't require daily updates on his performance. He knows they expect his receiving to be exceptional, his defense to be far better than average at Triple-A and his offense to be whatever it is that day.
Catch and throw and whatever.
Should Pelfrey prosper that night, though, should his sinker, changeup and fastball gang up on the Phillies, Braves or Cubs, the Mets will add a verb to their characterization of DiFelice -- "catch and throw and teach." And on that night, DiFelice will be quite appreciated.
Pelfrey, himself, may tip his cap to DiFelice. Tony Bernazard and John Ricco, the men instrumental in bringing DiFelice back to the Mets last season to serve as Pelfrey's tutor, will feel a sense of accomplishment, too. And DiFelice, at whatever baseball satellite city he is in that night, again will know why, at age, 37, he sticks with it.
"It's what I do," the catch-and-throw realist said.
If, somehow, DiFelice could become a masked Joe Hardy and morph into Johnny Bench, he'd take it over the subtle pleasures of what he does. Even now, after 16 summers that could have extinguished his career, the fire burns within. He still wants a bigger piece of the big leagues, and he's proud that he does.
If another club contacts the Mets, seeking a catch-and-throw realist for its big-league roster, DiFelice hopes the Mets will do the right thing. As much as he appreciates what the Mets have done for him, and much as he'd like to think there may be a job for him once time smothers the playing fire, he'd bolt to another club if it meant another shot.
DiFelice has played in each of the last 11 seasons, splitting his 1,498 big-league at-bats among seven clubs. The Mets were his lone Major League team in 2005 and 2006. That his Minor League at-bats outnumber his big-league swings -- 414 to 42 -- in that period is not the issue. The fire is.
It burns not only because he needs just less than two seasons of service time to qualify for a full pension -- though the chance to reach 10 years did fuel him last summer when the bus rides between Binghamton and Akron seemed transcontinental but also because "I'm a baseball player." It doesn't get any simpler than that.
"I may not want to be that guy for five more years, but for now I'll do it," DiFelice said. "Even if I walked away now or last year, I'd hold my head up. I made it to the big leagues and put in eight years. If someone says to me, 'You weren't a very good player,' I know what it took.
"It's a stamp."
It's not a flag for others to see and admire. It's not what Bench, Gary Carter and Carlton Fisk have, membership in Kappa Delta Shinguard, it's a stamp: "I'm a baseball player."
And being a baseball player, DiFelice derives pleasure from success, whether it's his or that of one of his colleagues. So he enjoyed Pelfrey's demonstration of damage control Tuesday night. The Mets' probable No. 5 starter allowed seven hits in five innings against the Orioles. But their only run came in the first inning. Having thrown 72 pitches to the O's, Pelfrey shifted to the bullpen after his departure and threw 18 more pitches to his 2006 tutor.
It fit like an old catcher's mitt.
"It still feels comfortable throwing to him," Pelfrey said. "He really knows me."
The Nationals cut DiFelice in late March last spring, killing his chance of finding work elsewhere. They offered him a Minor League assignment. He declined and went home to contemplate an unmasked life, hopeful his agent could prolong his career.
The Mets made contact in the last week of May.
"If I said 'No' to them, then my career is over," DiFelice said.
He said "Yes," knowing his job would be at the Double-A level for the first time since 1995.
He was in charge of transforming Pelfrey from prospect to pitcher.
"He turned my season around," Pelfrey said, recalling six starts, five no-decisions, a loss and one start that produced two outs and a lot of angst -- before the first day of school. "He taught me how to incorporate my changeup. I was changing to the slider, he taught me when it was right."
The idea of the veteran playing catch with the kid came from Bernazard, but it hardly was new. Twenty years earlier, another Mets pitcher, then a prospect, had the same kind of veteran guidance furnished. The Braves hired Ned Yost, in his first retirement as a player, to catch Tom Glavine and Pete Smith at Double-A. Two-hundred ninety wins later ...
"I was getting outs with a forkball," Glavine said. "Ned told me, 'You're going to need a changeup there.' I might have gotten to the big leagues at the same time , but not with the same understanding.
"I'm sure that's what Mike [DiFelice] is doing for [Pelfrey]. Some things you have to learn yourself. Others you can figure out with help. Help is very much appreciated."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.