Butch Wynegar has experienced a lot within the game of baseball. A switch-hitting catcher, Wynegar was the youngest player in the American League in 1976 when he finished second to Mark Fidrych for the Rookie of the Year Award. He would go on to be a two-time All-Star over 13 big-league seasons, playing for legendary managers Gene Mauch, Billy Martin, and Lou Piniella, and catching some of the best pitchers of his era with the Twins, Yankees, and Angels. A coach and manager since hanging up his shin guards, Wynegar recently concluded his second season as the hitting coach for the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees.
Butch Wynegar: It was one of my biggest thrills, no doubt about it. Raggsy and I were close, having had a pitcher-catcher relationship, and it was July 4 of 1983. It was George Steinbrenner’s birthday, we were in Yankee Stadium, and it was against our nemesis, the Red Sox. I knew it was going to be a pretty special day early with Raggsy, because he had all four of his pitches working. He was basically a fastball/slider guy, but we mixed enough curveballs in there, and changeups, which he didn’t use a whole lot, but enough to keep guys off balance. It was a packed house, and any time we got a win for George Steinbrenner it was a good day, so it was definitely one of my biggest thrills.
DL: Were you and Righetti completely in sync with what you wanted to throw that day?
BW: If I remember right, if Raggsy shook me off that day, it wasn’t very much. We seemed to really be on the same wavelength. When you’ve got a guy who has four pitches working for him, it’s a lot of fun, so there wasn’t a whole lot of thinking that had to be going on. We stayed hard, just mixing enough soft stuff in there to keep them off balance.
DL: Was it the most dominant pitching performance you caught?
BW: Offhand, I came within one strike of another no-hitter when I was with Minnesota. That was by Steve Luebber. He had two strikes on the last hitter, and Mike Hargrove, or whoever it was, got a base hit to center field. The center fielder over-ran the ball, and the next guy blooped a base hit to left field, so he lost his shutout, too. But I would think, as far as I can remember, Righetti’s was pretty dominating. Not only did he have the four pitches working, his fastball was good that day and his slider was sharp. It was probably the best performance I’ve seen.
DL: In a more general sense, who are the most overpowering pitchers you caught over the course of your career?
BW: Goose Gossage coming out of the pen had to be one of the most dominating-and fun-guys to catch. I ended up with Ron Guidry kind of later in his career, although I faced him enough times with the Twins when he was dominating; he had that 25-3 year, or whatever he had. And Mike Witt, over with the Angels in my last year or two, had some pretty good performances, too; he had a good arm and a good curveball. I only caught Bert Blyleven for a couple of months before he was traded to Texas; that was when I was with Minnesota. He could be dominating at that time also.
DL: Witt and Blyleven were known for having outstanding curveballs. How would you compare them?
BW: They were very similar. When Mike Witt had his curveball working it was a hard downer and it was tight. So was Blyleven’s. Blyleven had a better career as far as wins go, and everything like that, but I think that a lot of people forget just how good of a pitcher Mike Witt was.
DL: What was it like catching Phil Niekro?
BW: It was interesting. I remember the winter they called me and asked if I had ever caught a knuckleballer before, and I said “No; who do you have in mind?” They said they had a chance to get Phil Niekro. I said, “I’ll tell you what; if you can get Phil Niekro, get him and I’ll learn to catch him.” But it was a situation that came down to Rick Cerone and me, and who was going to catch him, and Rick struggled a little bit with him in spring training, and I seemed to do fairly well with him. So for the two or three years I played with Phil, I was kind of his personal caddy. Whenever he threw a bullpen, I caught him, and every game he pitched, I caught. I ended up catching his 300th win, and I got a passed ball on his 3000th strikeout, but it was fun; it got to the point where Phil and I thought a lot alike. And Phil was a good athlete, he was up in age, but he was a good athlete on the mound who knew how to hold runners close, and he got the ball up to the plate fairly quickly. I enjoyed catching Phil, but I hated catching Joe. When Joe Niekro came over, he just had a lot more arm strength and threw his knuckleball much harder. He was the one guy that scared me back there. Joe also had a better fastball; he had a little slider that he threw, and he’d mix those pitches in a little more than Phil did.
DL: Was it difficult to catch fastballs and breaking pitches in a knuckleball game?
BW: No, it’s actually easier; at least it was for me. I used the big knuckleball glove, and I had Phil sign it for me after his 300th win; I put it in my trophy cabinet. But during the game, if Joe threw a fastball it was like a piece of cake, because I didn’t have to worry about it moving that much. When Joe or Phil came out of the game, and one of our relievers came in, I’d change into my regular glove and there might have been be a slight little adjustment-just a couple of pitches-but it wasn’t a difficult thing.
DL: How did you do hitting a knuckleball?
BW: Me, personally, I preferred to catch it. I think there’s only one knuckleballer I can remember having some success against, and that was Wilbur Wood. Wilbur’s ball always seemed to come down-and-in to me as a right-handed hitter, and maybe it was just a coincidence, I don’t know. But I struggled against other knuckleball pitchers; I never knew how to approach them or what the philosophy was. Charlie Hough I couldn’t touch with a paddle it seemed like. Whatever knuckleballers I faced-Candiotti or somebody-it wasn’t fun. I’d rather catch it.
DL: You finished second to Mark Fidrych in the Rookie of the Year voting in your first season. What are your memories of Fidrych?
BW: My number one memory is that he was a real goofball. A good guy and everything-I got to know him a little bit-but we as a team, the Twins, hit him pretty well. But yeah, he had a phenomenal year. I’d have loved to have won Rookie of the Year, and I did get Sporting News Player of the Year, but Mark won 19 games. It was a packed house every time he threw; he was just so animated on the mound, and people loved him. He was a fun guy to watch out there, down on his hands and knees spreading dirt around, patting it down; talking to the ball. I mean, the guy was nicknamed “The Bird” and it was appropriate. But what a year; he did a lot for baseball.
DL: You came into the big leagues at a young age. What were your first two or three seasons like?
BW: I think the good Lord was looking out for me and put me with a good manager. God rest his soul, Gene Mauch treated me like a son. He knew that I was young and just a couple of years out of high school. He brought me to spring training, he played me in spring training, and I had a good spring. He decided to bring me with him up north, so I owed a lot to Gene. Gene was my father away from home. So I was with the right guy, and it was a thrill. I was like millions of other kids growing up, dreaming of playing in the major leagues and not knowing if I’ll ever get that opportunity. And there I was on Opening Day, in Texas, facing Gaylord Perry. It was just like, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’ I struggled my first month, and I thank Gene Mauch for staying with me. He stuck with me, and I hit my first major league home run in Yankee Stadium to put us ahead 5-4 in the ninth inning. Then we went back to Minnesota the next night and I hit my second home run off Jim Palmer, and I think the light bulb went on after that. It was like, ‘I can play here.’
DL: That first home run was against Catfish Hunter, and your first hit was against Perry. Add the home run against Palmer, and that’s three Hall of Fame pitchers.
BW: Yes, three Hall of Famers. You tell me-that’s something I thank the good Lord for every night. It was a great opportunity, and it was thrilling.
DL: You failed to live up to expectations after two outstanding seasons to begin your career. Why do you feel that was?
BW: Yeah, I have my ideas, but it’s a situation where-well, let’s put it this way: I got married young, and looking back, maybe I shouldn’t have. I have three great children from that marriage, but I really think that maybe that happened and my emphasis on baseball was not the same after that. That would be my big reason, and that’s what I have to say about that.
DL: Given the changes we’ve seen in the game, how different is the job of a catcher now compared to when you played in the late 1970s through the 1980s?
BW: We went through the spell in the ’80s where it really became a running game. There were nights with Kansas City and the Oakland teams where they were just jackrabbits, and it wasn’t fun. And playing against teams that Billy Martin managed-it wasn’t fun, because you just never knew what was going on. I had pitching staffs that really didn’t hold runners well. I tell catchers today how important rhythm and tempo are in throwing. It wasn’t until the day that I made a bad throw to second base trying to throw Rickey Henderson out, because my pitcher didn’t hold him on well; I threw it into center field and I told myself-and I used some words I probably shouldn’t have said to myself-that if I can’t get my pitchers to hold runners close, or get me good times to the plate, then I’m not going to worry about it. I’m going to come up and throw my 1.9, or 1.95, and make a good throw, and if I get him I get him, and if I don’t, I don’t. That’s the kind of attitude I took, and I think it made me a better-throwing catcher. It was because I took the pressure off of myself instead of trying to make up time. I said the heck with it; I need help from my pitcher. If he doesn’t give it to me, all I can do is what I can do.
DL: Unless I’m mistaken, you did throw out a pretty high percentage, did you not?
BW: I was blessed with a good arm, an accurate arm, so if I was given an opportunity to throw someone out, I had a good chance. But it took a while to realize that if I couldn’t throw Rickey Henderson out-and not many guys could-at least give me an opportunity to do it; don’t let me embarrass myself back there by having six or seven bases stolen against me and having everyone looking at me like, ‘what happened tonight?’ But baseball people know that you steal on pitchers, you don’t steal on the catcher. You don’t see that kind of game much anymore, though. You still see some teams that are speed-oriented, but it’s so much more power-oriented today. You have the smaller ballparks, balls travel farther, guys are bigger and stronger through weight programs and things like that. I’m glad that I played when I did. People ask me that all the time. Money-wise, sure I’d have loved to play in this day and era, but I loved the game back in the ’70s and the ’80s. That was a great brand of baseball. You expected to get pitched inside, you expected to get plunked once in a while, you took guys out at second base; I expected to get bowled over at home plate. That’s how the game has changed a little bit. Money has kind of taken away a few of those things. You still have some hard-nosed players and everything, but you just don’t see the takeouts at second base like you used to anymore, and things like that. It’s still a great game though.
DL: In an interview this spring, you said that when you were coaching in the Rangers organization, Pudge Rodriguez wouldn’t give you the time of day until he found out that you were a former All-Star. Can you talk a little about the respect that coaches and former players are given in today’s game?
BW: The two spring trainings I’ve spent with the Yankees, last year and this year, have been outstanding. I knew A-Rod from my time in Texas, so A-Rod knew me. I think that most guys today, at least older guys, have kind of a little better history of the game. For the most part, they kind of know if you played the game or not. There might be a few guys who will walk up to you and ask, “Did so-and-so play in the big leagues?” A lot of the players, when you first get into an organization, maybe don’t know that you did-the young kids-but they find out from the internet or just talking. But I thought that was funny with Pudge. Of course, I knew who Pudge was; he just didn’t know who I was. I think it just took him a little while to find out.
DL: Was the mentality similar when you played? I’m referring to respect.
BW: I was raised to respect people, and I knew the history of the game. There weren’t many coaches I ran across during my playing days that I didn’t know about. But I figured that as long as someone had a big-league uniform on, and he was one of my coaches, then I was going to listen to him. But these guys listen well, too. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like they don’t have respect or anything like that. But you do have a lot of different culture in today’s game, from the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans and Japanese and others, and it’s obvious that some of those guys aren’t going to know as much history about the game, and about certain guys who played the game. But the guys are great, and if they want to listen to me, great. If they don’t, that’s up to them.
DL: Near the end of your playing career you dealt with what have been described as emotional issues. Is that something you can address?
BW: I’ll be honest; I played twice for Billy Martin, and it got to the point where I got tired of going to the ballpark. I got tired of second-guessing; I got tired of getting jumped on. There was really no emotional issue; it was really just that I had lost my drive at that time. I did leave the team, and I had lost the passion to play the game. Gene Mauch called me that winter, and that’s how I ended up getting with the Angels. It was around Thanksgiving time, and he asked me if I’d come back to play for him, and I loved Gene so much that I jumped at the opportunity. But it was obviously my heart. The time I spent in New York, which I loved-I had some great times-it was just playing for Billy twice. And nothing against Lou Piniella, who I loved as my hitting coach, and as a player when I first got over there, but his first year of managing he was Billy Martin reincarnated. It just got to the point where I said, “I’m fed up with this.” So there was nothing mental about me, I just got fed up with things that were going on, and in my mind I was retired. I came back for two more years when Gene called, but even then it was obvious to me that I couldn’t find the fire.
DL: You also had some physical issues at the end of your career; I believe it was your feet?
BW: I did, and I still do. I had surgery done on one of them. It was a hereditary problem from my mom and dad; they had problems with their feet. It basically wore away the cartilage in the joints of the toes so it became bone-against-bone. It was intense pain, and there wasn’t a whole lot they could do for it.
DL: There is obviously a lot of footwork that goes into the catching position.
BW: I’m telling you David, it was tough to walk. It got to the point where I couldn’t bend my toes to walk. I said to myself that I had 13 years in, and even though I was only 32, I may not have even been able to play had I had all the drive in the world. Could I have gone to first base or something like that? I don’t know, but if I couldn’t walk very well, how could I run? In the end, I think the good lord was telling me to hang it up and go on to something else.
DL: How do you want people to remember Butch Wynegar?
BW: It’s funny, I get a lot of fan mail, and they say it in the fan mail a lot of times. I just want them to know that Butch Wynegar played the game the way it was supposed to be played; I played it hard. I wasn’t blessed with all the natural talent in the world, and I had to work my tail off to do what I did. But I was a good, solid, defensive catcher, and I wasn’t a slouch with the bat. I wasn’t great, but I wasn’t a slouch. And I played the game for the love of it. The money was nice, but I didn’t play for the money; I played because I loved the game. I feel that I gave the game the respect it needed, and that’s what I preach to the guys here-always have respect for this game, because it’s going to go on with or without you. I preach that to them every day. I just love the game of baseball.