Baseball Men - The Team Player

Our ‘Baseball Men' interview series continues with John Flaherty, reserve catcher for the New York Yankees

They're among baseball's oldest clichés, but commentators rarely bother to explain them. What does it mean, exactly, ‘playing the right way'? And what defines those ‘team players' we always hear about, anyway?


The phrase and the label might mean different things to different people, but certain themes seem to come up time and again.


Most agree that a young athlete is playing the right way when he starts off with a sheer love of the game, then makes the most out of his God-given ability by putting in the time and effort necessary to master the details of his craft. A kid should have humility enough to appreciate his miniscule chances of making the Major Leagues, but then again, just enough dogged determination to stick with pro ball despite the odds.


As for team players, well, those are the grown-up performers who define their success in ‘we' terms and then go from there. They have a knack for accommodating teammate personalities, all the better to cooperate in a shared effort to win. When they go through sudden, life-changing trades, they still bear down and contribute to their new organizations. They respect first-rate managers enough to draw something from their leadership and attitudes.


At his best, a team player is one who matches innate competitiveness with perspective. Sure, he wants to play every day, but he's willing to contribute as a backup, too, if that's necessary. He's interested in being paid big money, but won't rule out a hometown discount if it helps build a young team's future. He may strive for stardom on playoff-caliber clubs, but he still battles back against his own disappointments as well as his team's constant losses.


Baseball's ‘right way' can even carry over to off-field matters. A team player is one who's friendly but professional with team mates in the clubhouse, even as he deals with outside distractions ranging from a clamoring media to hostile crowds and demanding fans.


Now, if you want to come out and define ‘playing the right way' and ‘team players', you might go through all those kind of explanations.


Or you can take a close look at John Flaherty's career in baseball.


Flaherty, who grew up in Pearl River, New York, wasn't drafted by any Major League organization as a high school player, but played well enough to attract a baseball scholarship from George Washington University, a widely-respected academic institution that had never produced a full-time Major Leaguer by the time Flaherty matriculated in the fall of 1985.


Flaherty improved his skills in the college game, sufficient to be selected by the Boston Red Sox in the 25th round of the 1988 round. He became a semi-regular (48 games in all) for the Sox during the 1992 and 1993 campaigns, with the most startling event in an otherwise lackluster tenure coming in his very first game in the bigs. With Matt Young on the mound against the Indians on April 12, 1992, Flaherty became the only catcher in Major League history to catch a no-hitter in his debut.


Despite Flaherty's work ethic and defensive promise, especially in his handling of the pitching staff, Boston GM Dan Duquette traded the 26-year old to Detroit a few days before 1994's Opening Day. As with Boston, however, the young backstop had trouble hitting as high as .250, which led to a June 1996 trade to the playoff-contending San Diego Padres.


Flaherty gave Bruce Bochy's ball club solid production 1996 and 1997, but moved on again before the 1998 season, traded in time to become one of the original Devil Rays. After a career-best season (.278 / .315 OBP / .415 SLG) for the Rays in 1999, he did something that's almost never done and rarely contemplated -  he passed up free  agency in order to re-sign with Tampa Bay at a home-town discount.


Despite that surprising vote of confidence, the next three years were difficult ones for Flaherty and the Devil Rays; the backstop eventually lost his starting job to young Toby Hall even as the club around him averaged 98 losses per year. By the time Flaherty returned to his home state as a New York Yankee in 2003, he was a confirmed reserve player, one whose main contributions came through defensive prowess and clubhouse presence. In 2005, a year where he struggled with a career-low .165 average, the 14-year veteran became Randy Johnson's personal catcher.


By all accounts, Flaherty's rarely stood out for his on-field accomplishments, but his approach and attitude have been a different matter.


Does the man play the right way? Numerous team mates have sung his praises, with one New York Times correspondent calling him ‘one of the best guys I've met in baseball'. And is Flaherty the very definition a team player? Joe Torre has called him one of the most prepared catcher's he's ever seen. Torre, who might know a couple things about the subject, has also touted Flaherty's potential as a future big league manager.


In a game that can become fixated on numbers and superstars, John Flaherty is exceptional for other reasons. On October 18th, he took the time to discuss his career and values.



When did you first get interested in baseball?


My brother Jay was two years older than me, and he was always playing ball outside with his buddies. It was just something where you're trying to hang out with your brother and his older friends, playing stickball in the back yard. Playing the game was a rush.


I played football, too - I think I lasted three years in Pop Warner - but practicing five days a week to play one game, that didn't do it for me. (laughs)


Growing up half an hour from New York City, did you have a favorite team or player?


(laughs) The Yankees might want to hear this, but I didn't have a favorite team growing up. I liked Thurman Munson, but I didn't watch TV broadcasts that much; I just loved playing the game.


Why were you drawn to the catcher's position? Most young players seem to shy away from it, if only because of the inevitable physical abuse involved.


I guess it was my personality, more than anything. I went through the bumps and bruises in Little League, sure, but there was something in being in on every pitch and every play. I couldn't stand around and watch as an infielder or outfielder.


Why did you decide to play college ball at George Washington?


I had a good arm and had some success in high school, but from a professional standpoint, I wasn't close to being ready. I wasn't drafted and no one even approached me about a pro contract.


I was interested in trading baseball for an education, however. GW was the only one to offer me a full ride and the academics were outstanding. That was something both my parents pushed from the time I was in grammar school.


When did you first start thinking of yourself as a future Major Leaguer?


Entering GW, I didn't even think about the Major Leagues. I just figured I could trade my services for a scholarship. It's funny. Never - not when I got drafted, not in my time in the Minors, not even in the big leagues - did I think I'd be playing 14 years or longer. Maybe a refusal to look too far ahead has helped me last. 


Anyway, the first time I thought I might be able to play with the elites was in the summer after my sophomore year. I played in the Valley League and had some success there, and, I'll never forget, a team in the Cape Cod League had an opening. Their catcher had to go back to Michigan for football practice, so they invited me to finish out the last three weeks of the season.


Our team eventually won the League championship and it was an incredible time. I was playing against Robin Ventura, from Oklahoma State, Joey [Albert] Belle from Louisiana State. Bob Hamlin and Chuck Nagy were on my team. There I was on the same field, competing, and doing well. I came a long way, confidence-wise, so I entered my junior year with the thought I might be able to make it to pro ball.


In the Minors, were you at a relative advantage or disadvantage for the fact you went to college?


There were so many talented kids, with ability through the roof, but I definitely think college helped me get ahead in terms of mental toughness. I was already used to being on my own, dealing with good competition, going through failure and bouncing back.


Did you see yourself rising in the Minors more from talent or from hard work?


I felt I was almost the underdog, the guy that had to fight a little harder and try a little more to get results. I had a chip on my shoulder, in a way.


The work habits had always been there. My college coach, John Castleberry, is still a big influence in my life, and he set me on a course in terms of putting in the work, mastering the details. It was what I had to do in order to succeed.


Did you see yourself as more as a contributor with your defense or with your hitting?


Oh, defense, definitely. I came up as catch-and-throw guy, with my offensive game coming along later.


I learned to take pride in it. I mean, there were nights I went 0-for-4 and slept like a baby because I knew that I'd helped a pitcher get through a game where he didn't have his best stuff. I've been lucky enough to have some managers who've appreciated that kind of thing.


Looking back through the years, it really helped that I came up as more of a defensive catcher. By necessity, I had to bear down and get to know the pitchers' stuff and their personalities. I didn't want to deal with a starter in the same way I would with a middle reliever or closer, because they had different jobs.


Even more than shortstop, catcher seems to be the position where a team's willing to give up some offense. They might say, ‘catch a great game and I'll take what I can get in terms of hitting'.


(laughs) Give me more of those guys.


Obviously, clubs need guys who can score them some runs, but guys like Roger Clemens, they really get the pitcher/catcher relationship.


Well, in those first couple of years in Boston, you had a Sox staff featuring Clemens and veterans like Frank Viola. Was it hard dealing with them as a rookie?


Dealing with them as a young player, from my perspective, was easy. Because they made it so easy. They were terrific pitchers, first, but also super people.


I never caught Clemens that first year, but he'd always talk to me about the intensity of the relationship. The trust and the communication that has to be there. Ten years later, in 2003, I was catching him with the Yankees, and he was the exact same guy. After all these years, and dealing with a lot of pitchers, I'd have to put Roger at the top of the list in terms of understanding how special a pitcher/catcher relationship can and should be.


Well, regarding your pitchers - did you see yourself as the staff's leader, an equal partner, or did you mostly follow their lead?


‘Equal partner', that's probably the best way to put it. In an 11 man staff, I was the 12th guy.


Most recently, you've had a high-profile partnership, with a future Hall of Famer named Randy Johnson. Why was he so comfortable with you as his personal catcher?


That's a good question. (laughs) I'm not sure if I've completely figured it out.


The whole thing started when Joe Torre and [bench coach] Joe Girardi approached me with the idea. I studied some mechanics with [Johnson], he went out and pitched well, especially in that St. Louis game, and it sort of snowballed from there. Was it because Randy realized that I was investing so much in his success, in terms of effective mentality, mechanics, pitch selection? I really don't know.


With Johnson, maybe more than others, being a good team mate isn't just about smiles and handshakes. I remember one game, in particular, where he sort of angrily waved his arms in your direction and you went out to exchange some words.


That was multiple games. (laughs) The first time it happened, I just wanted clarification about what was going on, exactly. We straightened it out and moved on.


You make a good point, though. When I'm out there busting my butt for a guy, I can't stand there and let just anything happen. I think Randy respected that and that brought us closer at the end of the day. We both knew the other guy was giving 100%, and that's all you can ask for.


I'd like to ask about other relationships in your career, the ones with your organizations. What was it like, being traded from the Red Sox to Detroit just a couple of days before the '94 season?


That first trade, that was devastating. I was devastated, my family was devastated.


I guess I was like a lot of guys, being young and naïve -  you sign with a particular team, you come up through their system for years, you finally make it up. . . you feel like you're going to be with them for the rest of your career. Being an Irish-Catholic in Boston, even, I felt like I was home.


When the trade happened, I focused on the wrong thing. ‘The Red Sox don't want me' was the thought. As opposed to, ‘the Tigers do want me'. Once I got out on the field and played for a while, that helped get the negativity out of my system.


Was the second trade easier, when you went from a terrible Tigers team to the playoff-bound Padres mid-way through the '96 season?


It was such a different outlook in comparison to the first time around. Now, with that move, I had a positive outlook from the beginning - ‘OK, the Padres do want me'.


Going from a losing ball club to a winner, yeah, I definitely felt renewed energy and confidence. Plus, my swing was finally coming around, from the weeks just before. It was kind of perfect timing, joining a bunch of young guys, who were enjoying some success. It was probably the most fun I've ever had as an everyday player.


Within those first few years, from 1994-97, you had a chance to play for a Hall of Fame manager in Sparky Anderson and one of the more respected managers in today's game, Bruce Bochy. How would you describe their leadership styles?


Sparky was very tough on young ballplayers, but he took a liking to me. I don't know if it was the work ethic or my habit of keeping my mouth shut or what, but he really treated me well.


He had very set ways. For instance, he firmly believed the scoreboard dictated what you should do in an at-bat or a play in the field. That was the reason why, down by three in the ninth against a closer, we would always take a strike - the club needed to get some base runners. Down by four in that same spot, we wouldn't take, because we were supposed to slug our way back. That sort of thing. To this day, ten or more years later, I can't get away from Sparky's guidelines.


With Sparky, also, off-field things were very regimented. We always had to take batting practice in our B.P. jerseys, for example. No pullovers.


In San Diego, Bruce was outstanding in calling a game; no one was better. The big difference was in style. I remember Bochy called Chris Gomez and myself into his office on our first day with the club. His attitude was, ‘I don't care what you do before the game and I don't care what you do after the game. During the game, I want you going all out, and then we won't have any problems'. He knew his team would be responsible and ready to play, no matter how we went about our business.


Can you think of an example?


(laughs) Once, I remember, Ken Caminiti taking batting practice for a night game at two o'clock in the afternoon. No shirt, just shorts. Then he'd disappear until game time at seven.


How would you compare Joe Torre's leadership?


With Joe, it's funny how you mentioned Sparky and Bochy. My first thought is - there's a little bit of Sparky in him, and a little bit of Bochy.


Joe lays down the law - you know you're always expected to show up, to be on time, to look like a professional. Sparky, all the way. He also knows the personalities of his players, so he knows what to say in order to make them play harder or to relax. Just like Boch.


The thing that hit me was one time when Joe came up to me and said, ‘if you have any questions about my making a move or not making a move, I want you to ask me about it, because I think you have a future in this'. Whoa. Right away, there's such a respect factor.


Maybe he said that because he came up as a catcher.


And you know, managing a ballclub is sort of like a catcher's working with a staff.


I asked him something to that effect, ‘How did you come up with your style?' It was great. Joe said, ‘The ballclub dictates what I'm going to do. In New York, we have very talented teams, so my job as a manager is to stay out of the way until late in the ball game, when it might be time to make some moves'. He's got such a great perspective. He leaves it up to the players until he has to step in, then he makes the right calls.


What was it like for you in 1998, when you became one of the first-year Devil Rays?


I was excited about moving to a new community, starting off with a team from the ground floor, and turning it into a winner.


In terms of performance, I was kind of a funk all year with my swinging, but I'm proud that I never took it with me behind the plate.


You did manage to come back with a strong year as a full-time starter in 1999, but decided not to go through free agency. After your agent passed out-




How did you explain taking less money at Tampa Bay?


In '98, as I said, I had a terrible year and I remember asking my agent, ‘What's the most they can cut my salary without taking me off the roster?' He said, ‘20%'. I said, ‘Tell them we're willing to take a 20% pay cut and do this thing all over again'. My thinking was - they'd traded a couple of good young players for me and I wanted another opportunity to prove that they didn't make a mistake.


The way I look at it, the contract after the '99 season was fair. When I sign a contract, it's about a return for my family, but also a return for the ball club.


Sure, but passing up more money to stay with an expansion club - that was an almost unheard-of gesture.


It really wasn't a tough decision and, to tell the truth. My agent didn't even try to talk me out of it.


As you know, things didn't end up working out for the club in the following years. Was it tougher to motivate yourself in those seasons, playing for a team losing nearly 100 games per year?


The best way I can explain it, and I said the same thing to the ballclub's younger players in my last couple of years -  when you sign a professional contract, you promise to play to the best of your ability every night. You can't always control the team's destiny, but you can always control how you prepare and give maximum effort out in the field.


When you're losing every night and you don't have big crowds, yeah, it's not easy. I'll be honest. But, here's the thing - if you can play without adrenaline and electricity, that's when you prove you're a true professional. If you can play in bad times, you can play anywhere, and you can play for a long, long time.


The other challenge for in Tampa Bay in 2001, 2002, was the fact Toby Hall was gaining playing time at your expense. Now, not only did Hall praise the way you helped him along as a Major Leaguer, he once described you as "a brother."




That was how you treated a guy who was essentially trying to take your job away.


It wasn't tough. It really wasn't.


I felt the same way in '96, when Raul Casanova got called up and started getting in games back in Detroit. You know, it wasn't Raul's fault that I was losing playing time. No way was I going to treat him differently or treat him poorly. Obviously, if I had played well enough, I would've been the number one starter.


With Toby, we developed a relationship through all his time in the organization, especially in Spring Training. I had a deep respect for his talent, the way he worked through the Minors. He'd done nothing wrong and he'd done everything right. It was his time.


In the big picture, I have to get back to honoring the contract. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays were paying me very good money, and I owed it to them to help the team win, whether that be as a starter or a backup.


Was it tough for you to go back to a backup role when you first joined the Yankees in 2003?


I signed on as a backup and did my best to focus on the positives in the role. Physically, it's less punishing, playing one or twice per week. Obviously, with the Yankees, you also have a chance to win a championship. The fact that we haven't won a championship in the last three years has been disappointing, to say the least.


With Jorge [Posada], our relationship has been so strong. He knows I don't want his job. I want my job, which is to be the best possible backup catcher for the Yankees.


I'm sure you know, better than most, that other players have said much the same thing, ‘the right thing', but their day-to-day attitude doesn't always match the words.


It's a matter of being honest with yourself. I hope I have an ability to be honest in comparing myself to other competitors.


Jorge is an All Star-quality player and I've never looked out on to the field in the last three years and said, ‘I'm better than this guy, I should be out there every day'. I've always, always worked to get better, but at the end of the day, I haven't surpassed him. Needless to say, that's been true this past year, when I didn't hit at all. It's a lot easier in that everyone's treated me so well and has always made me a part of it. That comes from Joe Torre, as well.


Has your relationship with Posada been tested in your assignment as Randy Johnson's personal catcher?


Jorge was as good as could be about the whole thing. His whole priority was getting Randy comfortable and winning some ball games, and that tells you a lot about Jorge Posada as a competitor.


Would you say your teammates personal friends, above and beyond your strictly professional commitment to the team?


That's an outstanding question. (pause) Now, how do I answer? (laughs)


I guess, after that first trade, from Boston to Detroit, I learned a hard lesson about the business of baseball. After all these years, I see my team mates as friends, good friends. We all want to enjoy each other while we're together on a daily basis for eight or nine months. At the same time, the standard line is, ‘OK, we're in the off-season. Now I can choose my own friends'.


Really, that's kind of the way it is. There are guys who keep in touch with throughout the off-season, but early on, you learn not to develop deep, deep friendships. You might be disappointed. The organization can have its own plans.


Do you make a point of welcoming rookies to a ball club?


Yeah, I go out of my way to congratulate anyone who's making it up to the Major Leagues for the first time. It's a truly incredible accomplishment, no matter what, and I try to acknowledge a first hit or a first strikeout, too. That's something that might get lost in the game.


It's such a big deal, in all the hard work it takes to get to the highest level; that it shouldn't be taken for granted. I can remember how important it was for me to come up, back in April '92.


Is it tougher to play in New York, as opposed to a mid-market team like Detroit or a smaller-market team like San Diego?


At this point, I think just about everybody who signs with a New York team knows the expectations. I might have had an advantage as far as that goes, growing up in the area. I didn't follow the Yankees a whole lot, but I definitely knew what the fan base was all about.


Playing in Tampa Bay for all those years, believe me, I craved a situation where winning is expected and there's a full crowd on hand. With the fans' electricity in Yankee Stadium, it doesn't take anything to get up for a game. Your professionalism isn't ever tested in that way.


There are players who might get too hyped by the New York atmosphere, especially when they get the down-side, in the crowd jeering and insults and such.


My whole career, I've never been one of those guys. ‘They're booing me'. Yeah, if you want cheers, play well. Couldn't be more simple.


Has the New York media ever been a distraction?


No, I wouldn't say so.


Is it part of your job to give out autographs and spend time rubbing elbows with fans?


It's important. It's just a matter of making time on the schedule. When we're out on the field, we have to take care of business, so I have to turn people down. When we're not on the field, I try to do the right thing and make myself accessible.


With the Yankees, you've been back home in New York state. Is it tougher to play in front of family and friends?


I was concerned about it when I first signed but, to tell the truth, my family's been outstanding and so have my friends.


I've never felt pressure. . . I take that back. I've never felt any added pressure in performing in front of them. It's been very enjoyable, with all the relatives and nieces and nephews, with my kids developing friendships with all their cousins. My wife's originally from the area, too, so it's been a home run.


It might be strange, in a way, how normal it is for you back home. I mean, your young children probably assume it's no big deal for dad to go to work at the ball park.


(laughs) Yeah, it's funny. ‘Everybody's dad works at Yankee Stadium. Everybody hangs out in the clubhouse with Derek Jeter'. I have a 6-year-old son, and just this year he started getting into the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.


The kids, they really don't see it as a big deal. The only difference is in day or night games, whether they'll be able to eat breakfast with me or if I'll tuck them in at night.


Do you want to stay involved in baseball after your playing days?


No doubt about it. I've thought about broadcasting. I was a speech communication major at GW, so I think it would be something I'd enjoy and a means of keeping involved.


For all these years, I've been identified as ‘John Flaherty, the baseball player', so it might be good to face a new challenge, whenever that may be. We'll see about the opportunities in the future, but I'd welcome a chance to be home on a more consistent basis.


After all your ups and downs in the game, are you more of a fan, less of a fan, or do you have mixed emotions about baseball?


I'm definitely more of a fan now.


Looking back over these years, it's amazing. I started playing when I was seven and I'll be 38-years old next week. In that time, I've gone from being a kid who just loved playing in the back yard to being a Major League veteran, on the bench now, who's had a lot of chances to watch the game, dissect it, appreciate it. I'm definitely more of a fan.

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