TORONTO – The New York Yankees were incensed. A dirty play, some called it, Todd Zeile among them, although he later downgraded his assessment to reckless. The Gotham tabloids were in attack mode, too. Rabid fans in the Bronx found a new focal point for their venom.
Right in the middle of the fallout from Derek Jeter’s most memorable moment at the Rogers Centre was immensely likable former Toronto Blue Jays catcher Ken Huckaby, cast as villain for the rare third-base collision that left the superstar shortstop with a dislocated left shoulder.
Setting up the play was the convergence of several unlikely events that had the backstop covering third and Jeter trying to advance two bags on a comebacker to the mound. Throw in a rejected attempt at reconciliation and it’s a story well worth revisiting more than 11 years later, with Jeter making his final visit to Toronto this weekend in a three-game series against the Blue Jays that starts Friday.
“I remember it really, really well,” Huckaby, now a hitting coach for the Blue Jays’ single-A affiliate in Lansing, says of the incident that earned him so much scorn. “It didn’t hurt me. It’s just how I played the game my whole career. I obviously never came close to having the same career as Derek, and I’m OK with that, I’m proud of what I accomplished as a baseball player with the little ability I was given.
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“It’s a big part of history for me, something I can look back and say it happened.”
The incident happened in the top of the third inning March 31, 2003, in an eventual 8-4 Yankees opening day victory. Jeter reached with a one-out walk against Roy Halladay to bring up Jason Giambi, and the Blue Jays promptly moved into a defensive shift for the left-handed slugger.
We’ll let Huckaby take it from there.
“Before the game we went over the shift on Giambi, and the game-plan was any groundball hit to the infield with a runner on first, the pitcher was supposed to cover third because (Eric) Hinske was going to be playing at shortstop,” he recalls. “It was a 3-1 count on Giambi, Derek ran on the pitch and the ball was hit back to Doc, so there was no one to cover third. I watched Derek and saw that he wasn’t stopping, and so I broke from home, and as I broke from home, I was yelling at Doc to cover home behind me in case something happened at third base.
“The throw was from (Carlos) Delgado and it was a little bit behind me, toward home plate, so as I was running full speed, I had to reach back behind me to catch the ball, and I was running, my whole game-plan was to catch it, slide on my knees in front of the base and then hope he would slide into me trying to get to the base. But we happened to get there at the same time.
“As soon as I was starting to come down to start my slide in front of the base, he was already underneath me. I remember landing on him, I remember rolling over, I remember him yelling that his shoulder hurts and I remember me yelling that he was off the base. Then I got up and saw that he was really hurt and let everyone get to him.”
The 1-3-2 double play ended the inning. Jeter missed the next six weeks.
While in Toronto Huckaby’s hustle play was lauded, in New York he was vilified for harming baseball’s golden boy.
Jon Heyman, then of Newsday, described Huckaby in his write-up of the game as “the no-name, no-game catcher” and a “guy without tangible talent” whose collision with Jeter was like, “an old nothing-to-lose SUV slamming into a parked, pristine Porsche.”
The next day former Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi quipped: “Outside of Bin Laden and Hussein, Huck’s probably the best known person in New York right now.”
The intense attention was new to Huckaby, who found himself answering for his actions to New York media.
“They weren’t (very kind),” says Huckaby. “You kind of expect it, someone as great of a player as he was then and is now, you could understand when a nobody catcher does something where the finger’s going to point.
“In all honesty, if I were Mike Piazza and that would have happened, it would have been a super play.”
Brian Butterfield, the Boston Red Sox third base coach who held the same role and was responsible for infield defence at the time with the Blue Jays, says Halladay should have been at third, even after fielding the comebacker, and that Huckaby improvised on the blown coverage.
“A lot of our defence, especially with the overshift, is go where you’re needed. That’s the phrase we use,” says Butterfield. “Huck was the second guy, he was a little late getting there but he still got there, but he got there with his equipment on. It didn’t work out well for Derek.”
Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, the club’s first base coach back then, wasn’t surprised about the reaction in New York, pointing out that “anytime one of the marquee players in the game gets hurt, and it’s a very rare play that the catcher is down there, there’s going to be a big uproar.”
Huckaby and Jeter proceeded to engage in some broken telephone, with the catcher telling media he left a voicemail for the shortstop, and the shortstop insisting that the catcher didn’t have his cell phone number.
That prompted Blue Jays radio broadcaster Jerry Howarth to arrange a meeting between the two on the final day of that series with the Yankees.
“He brought me over into their locker-room and I talked to him then,” says Huckaby.
How did it go?
Huckaby laughs and says, “He wasn’t very receptive. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Later in that 2003 season, Jeter described the conversation to Tyler Kepner of the New York Times this way: “He came over and apologized. He said, ‘You all right?’ I said, ‘OK.’ And that was it.”
The cold response led some to question why Jeter, typically gracious with a penchant for knowing how to strike the right note, would be so unforgiving on a hustle play collision with a player doing all he could to keep his job in the big-leagues.
Butterfield, who worked closely with Jeter on defence in the Yankees farm system, understands.
“All the players in this league are highly, highly competitive,” he says. “There are times when there are certain things you may believe in or feel and it’s a little bit tougher to let go of. It’s the only time I’ve seen him upset about another player on another team that I’ve known of. That’s OK by me.”
Huckaby appeared in only four more games for the Blue Jays that season, left for the Texas Rangers that winter, was claimed on waivers in July 2004 by the Baltimore Orioles, was released, then re-signed with the Rangers, was released and returned to Toronto in 2005, where he played in 35 more games.
There were eight other big-league contests after that with the Red Sox in 2006, though he played two more years at triple-A before hanging them up. He made his coaching debut in the Blue Jays farm system last year and is thoroughly enjoying his new role, leaving a mark of a different sort on the organization.
Though brief, Huckaby’s time with the Blue Jays was eventful, as he also hit into a triple play, hit an inside the park home run and developed a bond with Halladay because of his exceptional game-calling. Of course, there’s also Jeter.
“Huck felt bad,” Gibbons says of the play with Jeter. “He was kind of a journeyman, up and down, he was getting his shot, and he did everything hard, tried to do everything the right way. He was a hardnosed, throwback catcher, on plays at the plate, he was going to take his licks but also deliver a little blow, he thrived on that. He’s a big, thick strong guy, it wasn’t like you were running into a soft guy. Jeter ran into a brick wall there, that was part of it, too. It was just unfortunate that it happened.”