Exclusive Interview: Johnny Estrada

With the Braves decision to not offer arbitration to <B>Javy Lopez</B>, the door is now open for <B>Johnny Estrada</B> to take over as the new starting catcher in Atlanta. Bill Shanks recently spoke with Estrada about his expected new role with the Braves.

SHANKS: What was your feeling when you heard about Javy not being offered arbitration?

ESTRADA: That's something that I kind of thought was going to happen all along. I didn't really worry about it so much. I just try to concentrate on myself. By having a successful season last year, I was confident that I had set myself up for an opportunity this year, whether it was with Atlanta or someone else. I was confident it would be with the Braves.

SHANKS: Are you excited?

ESTRADA: Very excited. I was excited at the end of last season waiting for this opportunity.

SHANKS: It is very unusual for a catcher to spend an entire decade with one team. Javy Lopez was very popular in Atlanta. Is there going to be pressure on you to replace him?

ESTRADA: I don't think you can replace Javy Lopez. If I went into the situation where I had to think about replacing him, I don't think I'd be very successful. It understandable that fans will miss him since he's been their catcher for most of their twelve years of winning the divisions. He's come up big for their organization. Having the monster season that he had last season, that's kind of fresh in everyone's mind. There's no way I can try to measure up to that. I'm a different type of a player than he is. I try to get better every year and take a lot of pride in my defense. Offensively, I've gotten better at each level. Hopefully I can have a good first year in Atlanta.

SHANKS: You know there are going to be comparisons with Lopez, even though you are a different type of hitter. What do you believe your offensive ceiling can be?

ESTRADA: Looking at the six years I spent in the minor leagues, I think I ended up being a career .300 hitter. I think I can hit anywhere from .270 to .300 in the big leagues, 15 to 20 homers. I'm confident I can do that right now. Those are the kind of expectations I'm setting for myself. I try not to set a ceiling. Next year will be my second playing in the big leagues, and hopefully it will be my first year playing everyday. Even though I spent most of the season with the Phillies in 2001, I would play like three games in a row, and then I would have a couple days off. I was never told I was going to catch five games a week. Hopefully, this upcoming season I'll have that opportunity to get a little more comfortable, to know that I'm going to be in there and see what I can do throughout the course of the major league season. Maybe after my seventh or eighth year in the big leagues, maybe I can put up a .320, .330 season with 20 to 30 homers. I'm just not going to set that for myself right now. I'm just going to try to get better every year.

SHANKS: Lopez has also been in charge of this pitching staff for a long time. As the new leader behind the plate, how do you assess the pitching.

ESTRADA: I'm excited about this pitching staff. You look at the top three guys. You've got Russ proving to get better every season. Last year he had his career high in victories. I think there's a lot more to come from Russ Ortiz. He's getting better every year. You've got Mike Hampton, who is a quality pitcher. Horacio is a guy who I think surprised some people last year, and he's going to get better. We had some good young arms on our Richmond staff last year. We ended up leading the league in team ERA, even though we didn't really have a winning season. The Braves have prided themselves on pitching from the get go, and this year is not going to be any different. Paul Byrd is coming off surgery, hopefully he'll be ready in spring training; the addition of Thomson, who they just got. Our bullpen is solid. I'm exciting about our pitching. I'm ready for spring training to start working with these guys.

SHANKS: This is going to be a very different team in 2004 with Javy, Greg Maddux, and Gary Sheffield now gone. Will there be pressure on the team to keep this winning up since there will be so many new faces in key positions?

ESTRADA: I don't think there's going to be a lot of pressure. I think it will be a challenge. I think by the Braves making all these moves, having all these superstars that have been there for so long leave them, I think everybody else, the fan base and the media, is looking at it as a rebuilding year of the Braves going in a different direction. But this team has won it twelve years in a row, and I'm sure they've said that more than once. That's just a challenge to the players to prove everybody wrong. I think it's going to be a little more of a challenge, because we're not going to have some of those big players. But when you look at the base of the team, we still have some good young players who are in tact. With the addition of a couple of pitchers here and there and a few position players, I don't think we're going to take a step backwards.

SHANKS: Will the infusion of new young blood like yourself, Adam LaRoche, and Mark DeRosa be invigorating to the team?

ESTRADA: Oh definitely. Younger players are going to bring a little more of a spark, a different form of passion to the game. We're hungry. I know Roche since I played with him most of the season, and he's eager to prove himself at the big league level. He's waiting for an opportunity, and hopefully this year he gets it. I know DeRo (DeRosa) has kinda paid his dues the last couple of years, waiting for his chance. It looks like he's going to get that opportunity, and I'm sure he's going to take advantage of it. I think he's ready. For me, I've kinda just waited my turn over the past couple of years. I'm just fortunate it paid off. It's a huge opportunity, and I'm going to take full advantage of it.

SHANKS: After six years in the minor leagues, how nice is it to pretty much know you're going to have a job in the big leagues next season.

ESTRADA: This will be the first spring training going into camp where I don't have that looming in the back of my mind of whether or not I'm going to be sent down. It's going to be a different feeling. It'll be a load off my back. I could have had a bad year last year and not be in this situation, but I wasn't going to let that happen. Coming into spring training, it will be a big sigh of relief. I feel like I have paid my dues the last couple of years, going down to AAA, not pouting, getting better, and just waiting my turn. Being in the big leagues for a full season will be good for me and my career and my family and I just hope to build on it.

SHANKS: How tough was it financially when you were in the minor leagues?

ESTRADA: There was a point there, when I was in the minor leagues, when I had my first child, and I wasn't making much money. I think it was $1000 bucks a month or something. I had to work jobs in the off-season, and my wife had to work two jobs, living in a small thousand square foot apartment, never getting any sleep. We had to leave our baby in daycare. It's all those little things on my way to where I'm at now. I'm not the first one that's gone through that and I won't be the last. Luckily for me, it paid off. That's was just the way I was taught, to believe in my goals and my dreams, and trying to chase them as long as I could. I just kept working toward that goal. Now my wife hasn't had to work in a couple of years. She's been able to stay at home and take care of our kids. There's been a lot of hard work that's been into the process, and a lot more to come.

SHANKS: You and your dad grew up watching the Braves every night from California. Now that you are close to being a starter for the Braves, what does your dad say about it?

ESTRADA: He would talk about it every time we talked if I let him. He can't get enough of talking baseball. He's just like any proud parent would be that had a kid play for your favorite team. It's a treat for him to be able to watch me on TV. to follow my career, and he brags about me I'm sure whenever he gets the opportunity. We use to watch the Braves when I was growing up. We'd watch, you know, Ken Oberkfell, Dale Murphy, Glenn Hubbard, and all of them guys. The days when the Braves were on TV and they weren't very good, we still watched them everyday. My dad has his Braves memorabilia around the house, and then when his son was in the big leagues with the Phillies, he took it all down at one point and had to put up Phillies stuff. He kinda became a Phillies fan. When I got traded, it was just a treat for him. He got all of his Braves stuff out of storage and put it back up on the wall.

SHANKS: Is he going to come to Atlanta next season and watch you play?

ESTRADA: I hope so. He's yet to see a game in Turner Field. That'll be a treat for him to be able to sit in those stands and watch a game in person after watching so many on TV.

SHANKS: How was your dad's favorite player when you guys were watching the Braves?

ESTRADA: I'd probably have to say Dale Murphy. He really liked him.

SHANKS: Who was yours? Oberkfell?

ESTRADA: (Laughs) No. I had the privilege of playing for Ken Oberkfell. He was my first manager (for Piedmont in 1998). He's a good dude. We got along great. Believe it or not, I liked Glenn Hubbard, Claudell Washington in right field. Dale Murphy was probably one of my favorites also. You got to remember back in the day they weren't very good.

SHANKS: I've heard you are forming a foundation. Could you tell me a little about it?

ESTRADA: It's kinda in the works right now. It's just been an idea of mine for a few years. I've always been a guy who has tried to be drug free, and to promote a drug free lifestyle. I've always worn a necklace around my neck with the "no drugs" slogan. When I was in the minor leagues I'd write it on my batting glove and on my cleats. I've just kinda taken it up another level every year. I don't know if next year major league baseball is going to allow it. But I wear the hockey catcher's mask, and I'd like to have it written ("no drugs") written on the back of it. It's kind of like my little message to the kids. I just want to educate kids about drugs.

SHANKS: What inspired this?

ESTRADA: I grew up in the Bay Area, near Oakland, California. It's a little city called Hayward. I grew up kinda in what you'd call the ghetto neighborhood. I was fortunate enough to have a mother and a father raising me, and they were strict on me. Drugs and gangs were around me and my friends got wrapped up into. I wouldn't change anything now, but I saw a lot when I was a kid growing up. It would have been real easy for me to take that road and I chose not to. A lot of my friends were not as fortunate as I was to have a mother and father to keep them out of trouble. I was lucky enough to be talented to play baseball, so that was all I ever wanted to do and I stayed away from that stuff. It turned out to be a good choice for me. Sports in the inner cities can definitely keep kids out of trouble, and if you have the right people around trying to keep the kids busy it can definitely help.

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Bill Shanks hosts "The Braves Show" during the baseball season. He can be reached at thebravesshow@email.com.

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