TORONTO — If you’ve watched highlights from the intrasquad games at Toronto Blue Jays camp over the last week, you’re no doubt familiar with Ken Huckaby.
That’s him behind the plate, punching out Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Without a minor-league season to navigate a team through, the triple-A Buffalo Bisons manager has been in Toronto with the big-league club, hitting groundballs to infielders, helping Blue Jays major-league coach John Schneider develop the club’s catchers, and — of course — calling balls and strikes.
Schneider was actually supposed to serve as the camp’s umpire. But that was until it dawned on someone that putting Schneider, a former catcher whose playing career ended due to a series of concussions, in the line of fire might not be such a great idea.
Or, as Huckaby — a former big-league catcher himself — puts it: “I guess Schneids is in lifetime concussion protocol.”
But why was Huckaby next in line? Does he have any umpiring experience?
“Zero. Absolutely zero,” he says. “They just needed someone and I’m not afraid of getting hit.”
And yet, these punch outs. They’re art.
And they’re getting better.
At first, Huckaby tried to keep things neutral and reserved. The hitters are taking these intrasquad games seriously. He didn’t want to show anyone up.
But every time he’d walk over to the backstop between innings to discuss the game with fellow coaches Charlie Montoyo or Dave Hudgens, Huckaby found they didn’t want to talk about the game at all.
“Right away they’re giving me a suggestion of something else to do,” Huckaby says. “They’re like, ‘You’ve gotta be more creative, Huck.’”
Just look at Montoyo’s reaction in the top right corner of the frame. He is implicit. Everyone’s expecting it now. So much so that Huckaby’s been getting in his own head.
“Sometimes, when I get to two strikes, I’ll start thinking, ‘OK, what am I going to do if I ring him up? I’ve gotta do something here,’” he says. “And that might lead to some bad strike-three calls. It might make me jump to the punch just so I can get to it. And now I’ve called a pitch that I probably shouldn’t call.”
It’s a lot of pressure, all right? You wouldn’t understand. At one point, Huckaby tried to pull off the Leslie Neilson moonwalk from Naked Gun. Cavan Biggio — born seven years after that film was released — was at the plate. He did not appreciate the reference.
“I think I made him a little upset with that one,” Huckaby says. “To be fair, I can’t moonwalk for nothing. It just didn’t go very well. So, I’ll put that one away. I won’t do that one again.”
It isn’t only the punch outs Huckaby’s been getting grief for. Well, it is the punch outs. But it’s more about what’s led to them. The other night, Randal Grichuk couldn’t believe the strike-three call Huckaby gave him. No chance it was on the plate. So, they went back to the clubhouse and watched the video.
“It was borderline. Grich said, in a game, it’s a call that a pitcher’s going to want and a hitter’s going to want to be called as a ball. So, I’m in a no-win situation no matter what I do,” Huckaby says. “If I mess up a call — and I will — I’ll be the first one to go watch the video with them and apologize for it. All you can really do is just try and stick to the zone as close as possible. And if you screw it up, you just admit that you screwed it up.
“You’re going to lose no matter what you do. I guess I’ve learned that about what umpires go through. I can appreciate it a bit more now. If you miss a call with a pitcher, you’re going to hear it from the defence. And if you ring someone up on a borderline pitch, you’re going to hear it from the hitters.”
Of course, everyone between the lines is taking these games seriously. The Blue Jays are preparing for a 60-game season in which they’ll need to get out to a hot start, or at least a reasonable one, if they’re going to have any chance. So when Huckaby’s not moonwalking, he’s finding ways to help his team get better.
For starters, he’s looking to see what’s working and what’s not for the club’s pitchers from the best seat in the ballpark. Huckaby’s been relaying that information to pitching coach Pete Walker and bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, telling them whose stuff is moving well and who might need an adjustment.
“We’ve had some really good pitchers throwing,” Huckaby says. “It’s just been great to see how good our arms really are from that vantage point.”
Julian Merryweather’s stood out. Rafael Dolis, too. Bryan Baker, Jordan Romano, Ty Tice — basically everyone who’s competing for a spot and trying to make an impression. And Simeon Woods Richardson was impossible to miss in his second outing of camp earlier this week.
“His fastball has great life. His changeup is really good. And his slider is unbelievable, too,” Huckaby says. “He just looks like he’s out there having fun. He’s got a little bit of a smirk on his face like he’s having a good time when he’s pitching. And that, to me, is a good sign when the kid’s 19, 20 years old.”
Being behind the plate has also given Huckaby a good look at the club’s catchers, who he’ll work with throughout the day before his nightly umpiring duties. Sometimes, after Danny Jansen calls and catches a pitch, he’ll turn around to Huckaby and ask him what he thought of the selection and how he received it.
“That’s been the biggest bonus to being back there — being able to have conversations with the catchers about pitch sequences,” he says. “Just to see where their brain is while they’re going through it with the ability to see what the hitter’s doing, too. I can be someone they can lean on as they’re back there trying to weave their way through working with pitchers.”
It’s not all fun and games back there, OK? Quit horsing around. And to that end, Huckaby’s calls have become noticeably more muted as camp has worn on and the competition has heightened. Understandable, yet disappointing. Suppose it was good while it lasted.
And yet, don’t look now, but just over Huckaby’s left shoulder, new hope appears…