Through Both Lenses: Into the Black and Grey Abyss and Chicago Catcher Rankings

Posted: August 16, 2012 by Mauricio Rubio Jr. in Columns, Through Both Lenses
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

by: Mauricio Rubio Jr.
twitter: @MRubio52

“What are these
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,
And yet are on ’t?”


It wasn’t right.

None of it was, here we were, two Cubs fans trekking into enemy territory sharing a moment over Phil Collins in a family car without our two compatriots. The whole situation stank but our noses had been out in the cold too long.

Our missing comrades would have given us legitimacy to the masses, a validation that we sorely needed. One was busy making an honest living and the other was at home nursing his injured back. We would continue on without them.

And here we were, two deviants acting nefariously, speeding towards uncertainty on the south side of Chicago, nervously passing the time, killing the hours before our own hour of judgment was upon us. Words were spoken but the meaning of those simple sentences is lost. Perhaps we discussed important things, but mainly we bitched about our MIA associates.

Our validation.

Our shields.

Onward, ever onward. Into the black and gray abyss, into the enemy stronghold. We dove straight into the heart of all that we were not, and we did so willingly.

How and why? Because we could, we had the means and it seemed like a good idea at the time. As we approached the steel and concrete colossus however, the idea that had planted its seed in our brains a scant few weeks earlier seemed like a harbinger rather than an inspiration. We arrived at the stadium known around this neighborhood as Comiskey II, two Cubs fans, armed with beer, and we dared not venture outside of the confines of the family vehicle with little sex appeal.

We used the rain as an excuse, but we both knew the real reason we didn’t want to go mingle amongst the people gathered at 35th and Shields.

We were afraid.

Afraid they would smell it on us, that they would know we didn’t belong. We didn’t want to start any trouble in the parking lot, out in the open, far, far away from any security, from any salvation.

But onward, ever onward we went, and when we had finally mustered up the courage to step beyond the steel confines of our vehicle, we knew.

We knew that they knew.

What are we doing here? Who are these people? Why is he wearing a White Sox construction hat? What devilish game of dice is going on in that corner? Where are we?

All silent questions shared between two friends in the light, grey afternoon drizzle. It was all so ugly, all so rough, it was all so south side.

And we waded through the cars, taking stock of the situation, counting the people in the lot who could kick our ass.

The number was uncomfortably high.

It wasn’t the carnie scene we were expecting, but the crowd itself had a unique flavor, an unspoken hardness about them that perhaps told more of the neighborhood than the individual. We stumbled upon some bastard game called “Bags,” we found grilles, there was even some sort of dentist carnival party happening a few rows across from us. It was all unsettling in a way.

What was most unsettling however, was that they knew. We weren’t safe here, before long the questions would start. “Where is your Sox gear? Where are you guys from? Are you guys Sox fans?” And then we’d be fucked.

We needed validation, we need salvation.

The fenced-in parking lot wasn’t quite a prison, given the location it felt more like a great big cattle chute that had ensnared us in its grip, and was holding us there until someone saw us for what we really were.

We decided to walk around, to look for a place to sit and relax for a moment, to get the stench of fear off of us. We needed to remain calm, lest we begin to arouse their suspicion. We needed to wait it out for Bob.

Who is this Bob? Truth be told I’m a little unsure myself, but for the two of us in that moment, Bob was the validation we sorely needed. Bob was a true and true White Sox fan, lives there, works there, plays there, will likely die there in Canaryville. Bob owns a “World’s Largest Gay Bar” shirt. Bob is for real. With two spare tix Raul alerted us that Bob was interested in tagging along.

Why not, it couldn’t hurt and I rather liked Bob. Or Vladimir as he is wont to call himself.

Vlad was coming, and he had his cousin in tow. Vlad was what we needed to survive.

We were still walking, still waiting for Vlad, when the phone rang.

“Meet me by the souvenir stand.”

Finally. We can relax.

We were deep in the shit, behind enemy lines and our only allies were members of the same clan that we feared.

It was a dire situation in the least.

We drank to assuage the fear, to beat back the panic, we drank to drink. We shared our spoils, provided by my fellow Cub fan. The time was drawing nearer, we were to begin our slow approach. The stadium loomed large, it was no friendly confines, and given the agenda we had laid out before hand, it never would be for us during our brief 3 hour stay there.

Time was running down, our fear gave way to liquid courage.

The absurdity of the situation didn’t hit until we started taking pictures of bronze men frozen in time, monuments to an era gone by. Fisk and Baines and Thomas and Minnie, they were all there, frozen. Dead eyes took our stock, judged us silently, and looked upon us with utter disdain.

It was clear that even with the newfound courage and credibility, they would still smell it on us.

It was at this point that Tony, my fellow Cubs fan, decided to become a Royals fan.

The rat bastard was going to out us, and then we’d be royally fucked.

There was no turning back, as soon as that sad sack franchise from Kansas City took the field it was over, Tony was cheering for nobodies, and people noticed. Of particular import was a family of four that was seated 3 rows in front of us. We could take them all, but surely by the time we would be wiping the blood off our knuckles the mob would’ve had their say, and we’d be at their mercy.

God save us, this man is going to get us killed.

Every Royals run put us closer to danger, each hit edged us closer to the point of no return, where sensible men acted irrationally and where violence reigned supreme.

We were dangerously close to getting fucked up.

And yet he pushed on, perhaps without fear for he showed none despite our trepidation at the start of the trip. Every play was a dance with death, we were playing Russian roulette with a large stockpile of both guns and bullets. Every cheer was a like the click of an empty gun chamber, and he pushed the dance dangerously close to disaster.

The youngest male member of the family was ready to scrap, the mind was ready even though the body would regret that notion gravely. He was no match for us, but he wasn’t my concern.  It was the endless mass of others that was my fear.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, to hear the press tell it the stadium is always empty and devoid of life. Not this night, no it was teeming with hard faces who faced hard lives and hard jobs. We were poking the hornet’s nest, and to this point the hornets hadn’t paid much mind to us.

As the Royals ground out a meaningless victory over a first place team, I was sure that our time was done, that Tony would say something, and I would pile on it, and our lives would be in forfeit.

Alas, we made it out of there alive somehow. We spat in the devil’s eye and came out alive.

We lived, damnit we lived.

On our journey back we decided that escaping danger once wasn’t enough, we would cruise Chicago’s 47th street and tempt the street demons to ensnare us, ruining our escape.

We were fools, children who hadn’t been burned and decided to tempt the hot coals once again. We drove and drove and we saw what many of our kind, Cubs fans, are too soft to see. We saw the real heart of Chicago, and all of its glory. Signs for mom and pop hot dog stands, chicken shops, front room bars, grocery stores run by 3 people, and the liquor stores.

Oh the liquor stores.

It was glorious, our perceived jewel was at its heart was as flawed as we are. This neighborhood encapsulated our experience, danger lurked somewhere beyond the safety of our vehicle, visible but seemingly far away.

All it took was one to break the charade.

We were at a red light, about done with tempting fate, when a lady of the night approached our car. Fear gripped me, and I sat there frozen as we made unfortunate eye contact.

Time froze as she sauntered over, preparing to lean in and perhaps grab our junk, ask us for a date, looking for a hit from the glass cock. As she made the final approach all thoughts raced through my head, and once I contemplated simply raising the window and looking away. But I couldn’t. I was caught and she knew it.

She had the face, the type of look that you couldn’t look away from. Age and wear were etched into her by a craftsman who’s hands were too rough, who was careless, who simply wanted to be done with the job. She was down on her luck, that was plain enough, she was also hardened by years of struggle that she wore so plainly on her face.

She was of the night, and the road back to the daylight was nowhere in sight.

“Hey look I’m not looking for a date-“

Green light.



Onward. Ever Onward.

Ranking the greatest catchers in Chicago history.

This discussion was born on our facebook page. Given the surprising season that AJ Pierzynski is enjoying at the catcher position, it is natural to wonder where he sits in the pantheon of all time great catchers. It’s a fair question, there aren’t that many great catchers period, and Chicago has a particular dearth of talent there. I thought about including Negro League players but I left them off. The stats are too sketchy. I don’t doubt the talent at all, in the wake of baseball integration we got Mays, Banks, Billy Williams, Aaron, Campanella, to name a few. That’s a hell of a talent pool to pick from.

Let’s get straight into it:

1. Gabby Hartnett

White Sox fans will make the compelling case for Carlton Fisk to be the best catcher in Chicago history. It has to be Gabby though. As much as I love Fisk and his defense, Gabby’s bat was more valuable. He posted a 126 OPS+ for his career, and had a lot of peak value. From 1924-1930 he posted a .302/.378/.532 slash line with an OPS+ of 132. He also hit the most famous home run in Chicago Cubs history, the Homer in the Gloamin. He posted an oWAR number of 48.9, and a dWAR of 6.6 (BBR WAR, fangraphs will give you a different number) in Chicago.

2. Carlton Fisk

If we flip Fisk’s Sox years, 71-80 in White, the rest in Red, you can make a better argument for #1. He posted a 34.7 oWAR number in Boston, and a stunning 9.3 dWAR. Defensive metrics are a bit screwy, but Fisk was a premier defensive player while Hartnett was merely a good one. Fisk was a better player than Hartnett and if this were a pure player draft, he would be #1. I am, however, judging these players by their contributions made while in Chicago uniforms, and Hartnett has Fisk beat in that regard.

3. Sherm Lollar

Dude could hit and he wasn’t a slouch behind the dish. He was an integral member of the Go Go White Sox in ’59. Oddly enough, early on in his career he was regarded as an all stick, no hit catcher. He was a prospect in the Yankees system with Yogi Berra and his defense didn’t really take off until he landed with the White Sox and Paul Richards taught him how to become a better catcher. Bill James has written about the existence of baseball families in the scientific sense. I think it’s most pronounced in catchers. If I say he’s like Mike Piazza, you can think of Joe Torre, Yogi Berra, and guys like that. All hit, little glove guys who moved to another position. I think Lollar fits into the Bench category of all around catcher. He’s not on that skill level, but he did everything you could ask of a catcher. You know, he might even be mini-Pudge now that I think of it…

4. Cracker Schalk

The bottom half of this list of 6 is almost interchangeable. Almost. If you gave any combo of AJ, Randy the Rebel, Cracker Schalk, and Lollar, I wouldn’t contest it too hard. Schalk was a good/great defensive catcher with no stick. Cracker gets #4 from me because he was probably a better defender relative to era than AJ and Lollar, and he hit better than Hundley. He is also famous for being “the clean Black Sox.”

5. AJ Pierzynski

I wrestle with this one. Pierzynski is ultimately the more important player, and that’s why he ranks ahead of Hundley. If we’re drafting though, I am taking Randy over AJ. AJ has a much better bat, but Hundley’s receiving skills are elite, and he helped usher in the modern way of catching, one arm snug behind his back. To speak of AJ, he is a smart baseball player, and that will never show up on stats. He’s a lot like Ozzie Guillen was in that regard. Ozzie was never a prolific hitter, but he was smart as hell. He made the hidden ball trick work, he deked runners with uncanny ability, and he did things that didn’t show up on the scorecard to help the team win. AJ is that. It’s not sabermetric, and it’s not quantifiable, but I’ll be damned if anyone tells me otherwise. The man knows the game, and he has a great head for it. It’s that and the bat that puts him ahead of Randy.

6. Randy Hundley

Elite defense, couldn’t hit for shit. If he could hit a little, if he could’ve been Yadier Molina, early years edition, he’s #3. He wasn’t Yadier though, he was Mario Mendoza. That’s a damn shame too. He was Russell Martin 1.0, a catcher who handled a workload that was too heavy for him and it ended up costing him. From ’66-’69 he averaged 153 games played. That’s sadistic managing.

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