Sunday, April 20, 2014

Card #19: Ernie Whitt

Who Can It Be Now?
Leo Ernest Whitt was born on June 13, 1952 in Detroit, Michigan.  He was a 15th round draft pick -- 352nd overall -- of the Boston Red Sox in 1972 out of Macomb Community College in Warren, Michigan, and signed with them.  Of the players in his round, only Jason Thompson (later of the Tigers) had even a positive WAR value as a major league player, but Thompson did not sign with the Dodgers (who selected him as a pitcher) after the 1972 draft.

He debuted in the majors with the Boston Red Sox during September of 1976, but his path to playing regularly was blocked by future Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk.  As a result, Whitt was left unprotected in the Expansion Draft to stock the rosters of the Mariners and Blue Jays in November of 1976.  

Whitt's name was hardly the first one off the lips of the Blue Jays.  He was not selected until the 34th pick overall.  While he was the only catcher selected by the Blue Jays in the expansion draft, he was not the Jays' first choice catcher -- as his career statistics make pretty clear.  Instead, the Jays selected pitcher Al Fitzmorris from the Kansas City Royals with the 13th pick and then immediately traded Fitzmorris to the Cleveland Indians for a guy that was older than Whitt by one year -- Alan Ashby.  After the 1978 season, however, the Jays deemed Ashby expendable and traded him to Houston.

That still didn't open up the catcher spot for Whitt, however, because Ashby wasn't the only catcher that Toronto got from the Indians after the 1976 Expansion draft.  The Indians apparently did not want to let their designated hitter, Rico Carty, leave for Toronto.  Perhaps they believed that neither expansion team would select a 36-year-old designated hitter -- even one coming off a season where Carty hit 13 HR, drove in 83, and had a slash line of .310/.379/.442.  So, the Indians sent OF John Lowenstein and catcher Rick Cerone -- who is two years younger than Whitt -- to Toronto to get Carty back.

Apparently, Cerone didn't do enough in 1979 to avoid the Blue Jay trade machine, so he was sent to the New York Yankees in November of that year.  That freed up a spot for Whitt to finally take over as one of the main catchers at the age of 28.  Whitt tended to platoon more often than not, but as the left-handed-hitting side of the platoon, he received the lion's share of at-bats.  An odd fact is that his platoon partners from 1981 through 1988 were both former Milwaukee Brewers -- first Buck Martinez and then, for the last two seasons, Charlie Moore.

Nonetheless, at the age of 25, Whitt appeared in  23 games -- mainly as a pinch hitter -- of the Blue Jays' inaugural season as a major league franchise.  As his Wikipedia entry notes, he was the last of the "original" Blue Jays to leave the club when he was traded to the Atlanta Braves after the 1989 season.  

Despite being late to staying in the majors, Whitt still enjoyed a very successful career in Toronto -- he was an all-star in 1985 at the age of 33, and he had 8 consecutive seasons starting in 1982 and ending in 1989 in which he had double-digit home runs.  While Whitt never had a high batting average -- topping out at .269 in 1987 -- he was not a bad player as he was able to get on base at a pretty decent pace -- other than 1980, his OBP was never lower than .317 in any season in which he appeared in 100 or games.

Bill James ranked him the 72nd best catcher in major league history; Andy Ashby was 68th and Rick Cerone was 101st.

After his career ended, Whitt was out of baseball until 1997, when the Blue Jays hired him as a roving catching instructor and, then, as manager of their Florida Rookie League team in Dunedin.  He went back to being a roving instructor until 2005, at which time he became a Blue Jays coach through 2008.  He's been very involved with the Team Canada baseball program, as his biography tied to his inauguration into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2009 notes.  

Strangely, even though he has not been in the Blue Jays system since then, you can still find his biography on the Blue Jays website.  

The World According to Garp
The movie "The World According to Garp," which was based on a novel by John Irving, came out in 1982.  In the movie, Robin Williams plays an aspiring writer raised by a mother who becomes a writer herself in telling the strange tale of how she came to have a son in the first place.  While it may be a strange category name, it's appropriate to use for those players who decided to write their own memoirs. 

 If you look up Ernie Whitt on Amazon, you will find his book titled Catch: A Major League Life.  The only written review of the book on is by a user called "TheDenizen", whose review says that the book is a "[s]hort and pedestrian biography, really onlyof interest to anyone who was a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays in the mid 80's.  At least Ernie Whitt comes across as slightly more likeable than Dave Stieb."  

The only interesting synopsis for the book comes from two lines on Wikipedia, which says that, "[t]he book includes adventures such as entering bowling tournaments to win money for food.  The book caused a stir upon publishing due to Whitt's controversial labeling of umpire Joe Brinkman as 'incompetent.'"  Bowling for Soup, anyone?

A contemporary wire story about the book noted that Whitt wrote the following:
Brinkman hates our ballclub.  He's gone downhill as an umpire.  And the scary part of it is he runs an umpiring school.  I thought he was pretty fair until the last couple of years, then I think he took on an attitude of "I'm going to get you guys." 
A Few Minutes with Tony L.
My recollections of Ernie Whitt are colored by his performances later in the 1980s with the Toronto Blue Jays that were so successful.  In fact, the only year that Whitt did well against Milwaukee was 1982, in which Whitt hit 3 of the 9 career HRs and a slash line of .385/.393/.792 against the Brewers.  

The one thing that puzzles me about Ernie Whitt is why he has not joined the Catchers-to-Managers club that guys like Bob Brenly, Bruce Bochy, and Mike Matheny have...maybe it is the need for an alliterative name, but it's not like Whitt is incapable of doing the job.  He's managed Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic for many years and he has done his time of minor league coaching as well.  

Perhaps Whitt didn't want it.  I mean, the guy has a good head on his shoulders.  He wrote that book -- or at least signed off on it after his ghostwriter finished it.  He also negotiated his own contracts at times during his career -- and the news stories about that make it clear that Whitt was right on top of everything he needed to know.

At this point, it would be unlikely that Whitt would now become a manager, what with Whitt being in his 60s and two generations of players making their way into the managerial ranks. Perhaps Whitt was so turned off by his minor league managing experience that he dropped the idea and decided he'd work in baseball on his own terms.  

Working on your own terms is hardly the worst way to live your life.

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