SURPRISE, Ariz. -- You grind, you sweat, you dream.
You wake up early and stay late, you take your coffee black and your truths hard. You figure one of these years, the breaks will go your way. The skies will clear. The sun will shine.
|Ken Huckaby's knee became famous last April when it took out Derek Jeter.(Getty Images)|
Ken Huckaby. Sound familiar? It should. Nearly one year ago, he was the Toronto catcher who landed on Derek Jeter in an unusual play at third base on opening day. Jeter separated his shoulder, and Huckaby nearly was separated from his sanity.
In parts of New York, Huckaby was vilified as a dirty player who took a horrible cheap shot. How dare some no-name touch St. Jeter, much less put him out of action for six weeks on opening day.
Huckaby, asked to explain himself over and over for the next couple of days, finally accepted the invitation of a Toronto radio broadcaster to broker a meeting with Jeter. So, before the final game of that series in Toronto, Huckaby took a deep breath and made the awkward walk from the home clubhouse down to Skydome's visitors clubhouse.
Huckaby shook Jeter's hand, and then he said his piece.
"I said, 'I hope you're all right. I didn't know where the base was when I was looking for the throw,'" Huckaby says. "I told him, 'It wasn't on purpose. I didn't know where I was on the field. It was just unfortunate we were at the same place at the same time.'"
Huckaby says the words were heartfelt. The guy genuinely felt bad, and the fact that the play sidelined Jeter for so long made it worse.
"He stonefaced me," Huckaby says. "He just stared at me.
"He didn't say one word."
What do you say to that?
Huckaby finished, and then there wasn't much to do except turn around and leave. Before the frostbite got him.
Upset? You bet.
"I was upset at how unreceptive he was," Huckaby says.
Maybe things would have gone better had Huckaby genuflected and kissed one of Jeter's World Series rings.
Ken Huckaby is not a villain. He wasn't then, and he certainly isn't now. He never had Jeter's talent. He never had half of Jeter's talent.
He's simply one of those guys who grabs onto the game by a branch and hopes it doesn't snap off.
"I've always said I wasn't blessed with the best ability," Huckaby says as he trudges out to one of the back fields here, hauling his duffel bag of catcher's equipment, sun blazing. "All I have is heart and hustle. That's what I do.
"What I lack in ability, I make up for in effort."
He is preparing for his 14th year of professional baseball after breaking into the game with Great Falls, Los Angeles' rookie-level club, in 1991. During that time, he has racked up 1,025 minor-league games ... and a mere 94 big-league games.
He has played in 10 different minor-league cities, nearly quit at least a couple of times, watched the pages of the calendar turn from spring to autumn to spring again, and now, at 33, his life is still an Elton John song. Don't let the sun go down on me.
Huckaby and his wife of nine years, Leslie, have the same conversation several times each spring. The kind where they size up the competition, calculate roster spots, look at things from every conceivable angle ... and wonder if Ken is going to get another cold slap in the face this spring, too. Only the names and locations change.
"You get so close," says Huckaby, whose major-league career consists of one game for Arizona in 2001, 88 for Toronto in '02 and five games for the Blue Jays last season. "After the last three years, the World Series year with Arizona and thinking I would be (with Toronto) for a good part of the past two years....
"You feel you're on the cusp. The dream is so close you can taste it. But it's not yours to decide."
One of the reasons why Huckaby is in Texas' camp this season is because of manager Buck Showalter's familiarity with him. Showalter, who managed Arizona during Huckaby's years in that organization (1999-2001), really liked the way he called a game in the spring.
That, combined with the fact that the Rangers are desperate to get Chan Ho Park going this season -- and Huckaby not only caught Park in the minors with Los Angeles in the 1990s, he roomed with Park for part of that time -- suggest that Huckaby has a realistic chance to make Texas' opening day roster.
As usual, though, Huckaby is suffering through the anxiety of knowing his dream will go down to the wire -- again. Texas has several bodies in camp this spring at catcher -- Einar Diaz, Rod Barajas, Huckaby and rookie Gerald Laird.
Huckaby's immediate future probably depends on what happens with Diaz. The Rangers are attempting to trade the veteran, who is owed $2.5 million this season. They have been unsuccessful so far.
"Good luck trying to trade that guy at $2.5 million," an American League scout says. "Not unless they eat all of it." But then again, catchers have remained healthy throughout the majors this spring.
If somebody's front-line guy does go down in the next 10 days or so, Diaz could be on the move. If Diaz is traded, then rookie Gerald Laird likely becomes the regular catcher and the Rangers probably will keep a veteran backup -- somebody like Huckaby or Barajas.
If Park pitches well, that could influence the Rangers to keep Huckaby, too. But that's a dangerous proposition to stake your life on.
Huckaby has been here before, of course, playing the what-if game. He nearly quit in the spring of 2002 when he was the first player cut in Toronto's camp in Dunedin, Fla.
"That's the one where I left the field in tears," Huckaby says. "My wife had just gotten there, and I told her I didn't think I could do it anymore. Arizona had always offered a coaching job, and I thought I might take a coaching job in rookie ball."
But Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi told Huckaby, "hey, if one of our catchers gets hurt, I'm going to call up a veteran catcher from the minor leagues, and that will be you.
"If you leave, I'm going to go sign someone else, and then you'll be kicking yourself in the butt if we recall him," Ricciardi told him.
|Ken Huckaby is preparing for his 14th pro year after breaking into the game in 1991.(Getty Images)|
He batted only .245, with three home runs, 22 RBI and a .270 on-base percentage, but by then, everybody knew his strength was in calling a game.
Last spring, he finally figured he had it made. The Blue Jays carried three catchers coming out of camp, and Huckaby pretty much was paired with ace pitcher Roy Halladay. But Halladay started slowly, Huckaby got just two hits in his first 11 at-bats, and on April 15 -- two weeks after the Jeter hullabaloo -- Toronto dropped the ax.
"Ricciardi was with Billy Beane and the Oakland A's, that whole walks and Moneyball thing," Huckaby says. "I'm not that kind of player. Doc (Halladay) was struggling, and it was a good excuse to get me out.
"Then Doc won 15 in a row and that pretty much sealed it in Toronto."
All that was left was the memory of the opening day tangle with Jeter. The Yankees captain was at first base, and with Jason Giambi batting, the Jays' defense moved into the normal dramatic shift -- leaving third base uncovered. Halladay was supposed to cover third if need be, but Giambi bounced back to the pitcher with Jeter running, preventing Halladay from moving to third.
Huckaby saw Jeter, as instinctive as any player in baseball, blow right past second and head for a wide-open third base. So Huckaby sprinted down the line, and it was a race to the bag. Only problem was, Huckaby was partly turned around, looking for Halladay's throw from the mound. That's why he wasn't sure where third base was, and when he wheeled around, it was too late. He landed on Jeter. Ken Huckaby, meet infamy.
"That play will never happen again," he says, shaking his head. "There are only two guys in baseball you put that shift on for -- (Barry) Bonds and Giambi."
As Ricciardi told the Toronto Sun's Bob Elliott a day later, "They probably have signs of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Ken Huckaby up in New York right now. He shouldn't apologize for playing hard."
A year later, wherever Huckaby is, he still hears about the play. He'll be walking toward the plate to bat and some guy wearing a Yankees jersey will scream, "Jeter killer!"
"Stuff like that," Huckaby says.
He ignores it, and keeps playing hard. It's all he has. And even hard work is no guarantee that he'll ever spend an entire season drawing major-league meal money and staying in fancy hotels.
"I'm not a home-run hitter," Huckaby says. "I finally found a place that respects that, someone who singles and can run a staff. Running a staff is one of my stronger suits."
So here he is, in the Arizona heat, working for his sixth organization, hoping and praying that this is his year. He hasn't had any contact with Jeter since Mr. Yankee froze him out in Toronto. One year down the road, Derek Jeter is still DEREK JETER! And Ken Huckaby is still ken huckaby.
Maybe he's still got time to change at least a part of that.
Miller's previous camping stops: A's in Phoenix | Brewers in Maryvale | Giants in Scottsdale | Cubs in Mesa | Angels in Tempe | Marlins in Jupiter | Reds in Sarasota, Indians in Winter Haven | Cardinals in Jupiter | Mets in Port St. Lucie | Dodgers in Vero Beach | Orioles in Fort Lauderdale | Expos in Viera | Braves in Kissimmee | Tigers in Lakeland | Pirates in Bradenton | Devil Rays in St. Petersburg | Blue Jays in Dunedin | Twins in Fort Myers | Red Sox in Fort Myers | Yankees in Tampa | Astros in Kissimmee | Phillies in Clearwater | Red Sox in Fort Myers