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Catching A Second Wind

Tyler Flowers has been just one disappointment this White Sox season amongst multitudes of transgressions. But this one easily could have been avoided.

Flowers simply is playing out of position. No, I'm not saying that Tyler should be patrolling first base - he's appeared there five times during his career on the South Side - but he's not a front-line catcher either.

However, he does stack up favorably as a backup, which he more or less has become with the arrival of Josh Phegley a few weeks ago.

In the past, second-string catchers, you see, used to be valuable commodities. Why wouldn't you value someone who didn't create waves while clamoring for more playing time, rotting away on the bench out of sorts as he watched yet another game from the bullpen or dugout?

Take a guy like Myron Nathan (Joe) Ginsberg, for example. Joe played 13 years in the major leagues between 1948 and 1962. Like many back-up catchers at that time, Ginsberg moved around, playing on seven different teams, averaging just 130 at-bats per season. Ginsberg had a lifetime average of .241, which is heady stuff compared to poor Flowers, whose career average is exactly .200 after going 1-for-3 in Sunday's 5-2 loss to the Twins.

Ginsberg played every season during my childhood, even stopping at Comiskey Park for a few games in 1960-61. In those days doubleheaders were penciled into the schedule just about every Sunday, so teams required a second - and fairly often even a third - catcher, usually of the durable type who could handle pitchers, throw out baserunners, and provide solid defense. Most of them couldn't hit a lick. If they could, they wouldn't have been second-string.

As a young catcher with the Yankees in the late '40s, Charlie Silvera might have had visions of a long career in the Bronx. Only trouble was that a guy named Yogi Berra emerged.

However, that didn't deter Silvera. He survived for nine seasons as Yogi's backup, typically playing about 20 games a year. His .282 lifetime average made him especially valuable. In the absence of free agency, the Yankees had a tight grip on Silvera, and they weren't about to part ways with him.

My guess is that Silvera was perfectly content as he cashed six World Series checks in the '50s without ever appearing in a World Series game. The Yanks finally traded Silvera to the Cubs for another infamous backup, Harry Chiti. And after one season in Chicago, Silvera's career was over.

We still have a few catchers who have the unusual ability to hang around without regular activity.

Take Henry Blanco. At age 41, he's the backup in Seattle, his 11th team in 16 seasons. Blanco's career average is a paltry .225, but he's thrown out almost half of all would-be base stealers in those seasons, well above the major league average. And unlike Ginsberg and Silvera, Henry has made almost $17 million in his career.

On Baseball Reference, the list of transactions involving Blanco is longer than some small-town phone books.

You might assume that Sox bench coach Mark Parent might have identified Flowers' profile as one of a quintessential back-up catcher since Parent himself filled that exact role for seven teams over a 13-year major league career.

With a career batting average of .214, you might wonder how he survived all those years. But Parent is a student of the game judging from a very successful minor league managing career before joining the Sox staff last season. Statistics can't explain the value that a guy like Parent brought to a big-league roster.

For two seasons, Flowers served as the back-up for A.J. Pierzynski, which worked out rather well if you consider the roles of the old-timers. Flowers threw out baserunners right around the league average, and he hit an occasional home run. Presented with the regular's job at the beginning of this season, he's performed just as he did as the back-up. Well, duh!

Please understand. I'm past lamenting the departure of Pierzynski, although I must admit to a bit of envy and nostalgia watching highlights of Saturday's Rangers-Astros game, which marked the debut of Alex Rios in Texas. Alex's first hit was a single to right with Pierzynski on first. A.J. drew a throw as he raced to third base, allowing Rios to hustle - that is correct - into second. Later in the game, Pierzynski homered, and Rios tripled. You get the picture.

But let's look ahead because the past is finished, and the present is, how shall I say, dismal.

The future arrived on Friday - thanks to the trade that ended Rios' four years in a Sox uniform - in the person of Avisail Garcia, the Sox's new 22-year-old outfielder who came over in the Jake Peavy deal. He arrived in time to pinch-hit in the second game of the doubleheader against the Twins, an evening game the Sox lost 3-2 after falling 7-5 in the afternoon opener.

Maybe it's a good thing that Garcia went just 2-for-9 over the weekend with four strikeouts. Had he started with Puig-like mania, our hopes might have soared with a false sense of excitement since, after all, our team is stumbling toward 100 losses. Let the kid settle in, get comfortable, meet his new teammates without the pressure of saving a sinking ship.

It would be nice if the Sox could play .500 baseball the rest of the year, but that would take a lot more than Avisail Garcia. Try Koufax, Aaron, and the Big Hurt. Not even those guys could bring respectability to the South Side. The season is too far gone.

Rios seemed relieved to be going to Texas. I don't blame him. The Sox are mired in last place, 28 games below .500, while the Rangers lead the West with a 68-50 record. "You know what," Rios said. "It's all good."

At least for him it is. Rios did say that playing for the Sox was "a great ride," which was charitable. In actuality, he resurrected a career which saw him hitting just .199 in 41 games when he came to the Sox in August 2009. Alex rebounded nicely the next season, then slumped again in 2011 before putting up a slash line of .304/.334/.516 a year ago.

I recall watching Rios's first game for the Sox from the right-field bleachers, sitting behind fans from Toronto who were booing him unmercifully. "What's going on?" I asked them. "You'll see," they told me.

What we did see was a guy with great ability who often was the best player on the team. We also saw inconsistency, and occasionally a lack of intensity which the current edition of the White Sox clearly doesn't need. Garcia is young, talented and hungry. You could say that Rios possesses only the second of those qualities. What's more, no one will be booing the kid as the next chapter in Sox history begins.


Roger Wallenstein is our man on the White Sox. He welcomes your comments.


1. From Mark Schaeffer:

Can relate to your article as one of my all-time favorite Sox players was Chuck Brinkman who was a third-stringer in the early '70's. Always available for an autograph and a genuine nice guy. I was at Comiskey the night he hit his only major-league HR off Rudy May of the Angels. I was beyond thrilled to have been there!

Marc "Booter" Hill was another favorite. Visiting Yankee stadium one year for a Sox-Yanks series, Hill was taking grounders at third during BP when I asked for an autograph. He came over and gave us two baseballs which he signed, and when he found out we were from Chicago he talks with us for about five minutes.

I loves me my back-up catchers!

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