Friday, June 6, 2014

Card #54: Ron Hassey

Who Can It Be Now?
Ronald William Hassey was born on February 27, 1953, in Tucson, Arizona.  He is as Tucsonian as it gets: he attended Tucson High School and then the University of Arizona in Tucson before finally signing a major league contract.  

Hassey was first drafted in the 23rd round of the 1972 June Draft by the Cincinnati Reds as a shortstop out of high school.  He did not sign and went to the University of Arizona.  There, after his junior year in 1975, he was drafted in the 22nd Round of the June Draft by the Kansas City Royals as a third baseman.  Again, he did not sign.  Finally, after his senior year of college -- during which Arizona won the College World Series -- it was "now or never" for him, and he signed with Cleveland after the Indians drafted him as a catcher in the 18th Round of the 1976 June Draft.

Once he signed, he moved quickly up the Indians chain -- as, frankly, he had to do if he wanted to have a major league career.  He hit very well at each stop in the minors and showed a little home run power to boot.

His first major league action came in 1978.  In what had to be one of his career highlights, he hit his first-ever major league home run off Nolan Ryan that year.  The Indians use four different catchers that year, including two fourth-year players in Ron Pruitt and Gary Alexander and second-year man Bo Diaz, and Hassey got playing time in May and June before being sent back down to Triple-A Portland  for some additional work.  Hassey also split 1979 between Triple-A (this time in Tacoma) and Cleveland.  He pinch-hit in one game early in the season, was sent down shortly after the Indians signed Dell Alston as a free agent, and then was recalled in June. After that, Hassey only played in the minors on a rehab assignment.

The Indians cleared out some of the impediments to Hassey being the regular catcher for the team after the 1979 season.  The team let Ron Pruitt go, shifted Gary Alexander to a DH/PH role, and created a platoon between the lefty-hitting Hassey and the righty-hitting Bo Diaz. That job-sharing platoon continued through the 1981 season when Diaz, who was named as an all-star that year for the All-Star game played after the strike in Cleveland, was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Perhaps a sign that all was not rosy for Hassey showed up in a Sports Illustrated "Inside Pitch" baseball notes column in 1983.  Indians Manager Mike Ferraro called out Hassey by name, complaining that "Hassey has a lot of ability, but he's complacent.  It's his makeup.  He doesn't look like he's eager to do anything.  When he isn't in the lineup for three or four days, he doesn't come to the ball park for early hitting.  With all the money there is in this game, you would think you would want to go after it."


Despite that tongue lashing, Hassey remained in Cleveland until June of 1984, when he was traded for the first time in his career.  The trade was a major deal that affected the National League East pennant race in a very significant way: Hassey was sent to the Chicago Cubs along with reliever George Frazier and starter (and eventual NL Cy Young Award winner) Rick Sutcliffe in exchange for minor leaguer Darryl Banks, outfielders Mel Hall and Joe Carter, and pitcher Don Schulze. Disappointingly, Hassey was hurt in July and did not play again until September.  He did not appear in the NLCS against the Padres, either.

Viewed as a spare part by the Cubs behind both Jody Davis and Steve Lake, Hassey was sent to the New York Yankees with Porfi Altamirano, Rich Bordi, and Henry Cotto in exchange for Brian Dayett and Ray Fontenot.  With the Yankees in 1985, he enjoyed his best season as a big-leaguer at the age of 32, hitting 13 homeruns with a .296/.369/.509 slash line in just 92 games.  He split time in a semi-platoon with Butch Wynegar, who struggled at the plate that year to hit for average or power (he still got on base, though).  

Despite the good season, Hassey was traded with pitcher Joe Cowley to the Chicago White Sox in December of 1985 in exchange for two minor leaguers and pitcher Britt Burns. Strangely, if the Yankees had been willing to trade Hassey a few months earlier, they would have had Tom Seaver.  But, they waited until December to get rid of him.  

Apparently, though, someone in the front office -- maybe George Costanza -- decided that the Yankees should not have traded Hassey away.  Or, perhaps, they realized that they had no real catchers on the team should they not resign Wynegar from free agency.  So, two months later, the Yankees sent minor leaguer Glen Braxton, pitcher Neil Allen, catcher/utility player Scott Bradley, and cash to the White Sox for Hassey, Matt Winters, and two minor leaguers.  

Hassey broke camp with the Yankees and stayed in New York through the end of July in 1986.  After watching Hassey for four months of the season, whoever wanted Hassey back must have changed their mind.  Or, perhaps, it was the White Sox who change their minds. Or, neither team had a clue.  In any case, for the third time in seven months, the Yankees and the White Sox again made a trade involving Ron Hassey: Hassey, Bill Lindey, and Carlos Martinez went to the Sox in exchange for Ron Kittle, Joel Skinner, and Wayne Tolleson in a trade apparently engineered by George Steinbrenner himself.  

After that trading frenzy, Hassey stayed with the Sox as Carlton Fisk's backup (alongside Ron Karkovice) and as a sometimes DH.  Seeing that he was not going to get the opportunity to play regularly on Chicago's South Side, Hassey signed a free agent contract with the Oakland A's.  

In Oakland, he played on three straight AL championship teams while serving as Bob Welch's personal catcher.  He called the fateful curveball in the 1988 World Series thrown by Dennis Eckersley that Kirk Gibson golfed out of the park in Game One of that series.  And, even though he did not play in the 1989 World Series, he was on that roster that were the champions.

Hassey closed out his playing career by serving as the third of four catchers for the Montreal Expos in 1991.  By that time, Hassey was 38 years old and was the third-oldest player in the National League.  For his career, and perhaps this says as much about catchers as it does Hassey, he ranks 108th overall in Career Wins Above Replacement at 14.7.  

Trivial Pursuit
As of June 6, 2014, there have been a total of 23 perfect games in major-league history. While a number of players have been involved or played in more than one -- after all, Seattle was involved in two in less than four months in 2012 -- only one catcher has caught two perfect games: Ron Hassey.  Hassey was the catcher in Cleveland on May 15, 1981, in front of 7,290 people in cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium for Len Barker's perfect game. Then, in his last major league season, Hassey was behind the plate when Dennis Martinez fired his gem on July 28, 1991, against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Dodger Stadium before 45,560 fans.

Another interesting bit of trivia: while Rickey Henderson was Nolan Ryan's 5000th Strikeout victim, Ron Hassey was victim #4999 and victim #5001.

Family Ties
Though Ron Hassey is the only person in his family so far to reach the major leagues, his father Bill Hassey played in the minor leagues in 1949 and 1950.  Then, Ron's son Brad Hassey starred at the University of Arizona before spending 6 seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays system.

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Ron Hassey is a card-carrying, lifetime member of the Backup Catchers Club.  He's the kind of guy who filled a role -- lefty hitter off the bench -- while also filling a difficult defensive position.  That Club is smaller these days since clubs no longer carry three or four catchers. Much as Greg Gross lamented the loss of the "designated pinch hitter" role, teams cannot afford to use up three roster spots on catchers in this age of twelve or thirteen pitchers in the major leagues.

Hassey also is a lifetime "Baseball Man."  He left Montreal after the 1991 season and became a Yankees scout for a year.  After that, he started his coaching career in 1993 as the first-base coach for the expansion Colorado Rockies.  He stayed in Denver for 3 years before moving along to St. Louis to coach with the Cardinals for a year.  The opportunity then arose for him to move back to his native Arizona, as he took a position in the Arizona Diamondbacks front office.  

When he left the Diamondbacks and for the first time, he became a manager in the Florida Marlins organization at Double-A Carolina.  He did that for a season before moving back to the big leagues as a coach with the Seattle Mariners.  He stayed in Seattle until after the 2009 season, when he rejoined the Marlins organization as a manager with Single-A Jupiter. He was promoted up the chain in 2012 to manage the New Orleans Zephyrs.   

At the end of the 2013 season and at the age of 60, Hassey announced his retirement from baseball.  As he put it, "I'm 60 years old, and I've been in this game 37 years.  I have my major league pension, and it's just a good time to get out.  What I'll do now, I have no idea.  I may not do anything.  It depends on how I feel."

Enjoy your retirement, Mr. Hassey.

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