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Mudville: July 5, 2022 8:45 am PDT
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Mike LaValliere

"Those 0-for-4 days weren’t so good, but the 3-for-4 and 4-for-4 days made up for it."

In June of 2021, Sid Bream joined Spitballin’ for a look back on his career, which inevitably included questions about him famously scoring the winning run in the 1992 NLCS, just ahead of the tag from Mike LaValliere.

That’s not the way BallNine family member Mike Nelson remembered it, though.

“He was out,” tweeted Nelson, who may have also been seeking reimbursement from his bookie from a bet placed in 1992.

Since we did not want to leave any of that noise that hanging out there, we went right to the source.

LaValliere joins us for this week’s Spitballin’ as we not only relive that play, but also many other key moments in the popular catcher’s career.

The 1987 Gold Glove winner at catcher, LaValliere was best known for his quick release and cannon arm, which allowed him to build a reputation as one of the best defensive backstops of his era.

When LaValliere retired, he was in the top 30 all-time for fielding percentage at catcher and still ranks 58th overall. For those who enjoy advanced metrics, LaValliere currently ranks 25th all-time for Total Zone Runs as a catcher ahead of guys like Yogi Berra, Carlton Fisk, Thurman Munson and Benito Santiago.

LaValliere played 12 seasons in the Majors, topping 100 games four times. He became a beloved figure for his blue-collar playing style, clutch hitting and stellar defense. He was an everyman with a sweet swing who became an elite defender at his position, playing key roles on many winning teams.

Not a bad career for a kid from New Hampshire who went to a Division II school with the intent of playing college hockey.

But the question remains: what was his perspective on that fateful play that sent the Braves to the World Series in 1992?

We find out the answer, and whether Mike Nelson can ask his bookie for a refund, as we go Spitballin’ with Mike LaValliere.

Thanks for joining us Mr. LaValliere! It’s always great to talk to a player who was so popular with fans all over baseball. I have a lot of questions, and we’ll get to the 1992 NLCS for sure, but first let’s start at the beginning. What was baseball like for you as a kid?

I grew up in New Hampshire, so we were limited on what we saw on television to the Game of the Week on Saturdays, so we didn’t get much. But I was a Boston fan. The Bruins, Celtics and Red Sox were pretty much the only game in town. Fenway was the first Big League ballpark I ever went to as a kid. Back in the day, it was tough sledding because the Yankees used to beat their ass all the time.

You played collegiately at UMass-Lowell and were signed by the Phillies from there as an amateur free agent. What was your experience like there?

I was conflicted where I wanted to go to school. At the time, I was a better hockey player than I was a baseball player. I initially talked with Bill Riley, the hockey coach at Lowell about coming there to play hockey. I was also interested in playing baseball at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. I wanted to do both and U-Lowell gave me the chance to do both, so I chose to go there.

I ended up not playing hockey there though. I just wasn’t good enough. They had a great program. Two out of three years I was there, they were Division II National Champions. Craig MacTavish was playing for them. I would have maybe dressed for some games as a freshman and was never going to crack the starting lineup, so that pushed me over to baseball. Jim Stone was the baseball coach there for a very long time. He was pretty happy I didn’t play hockey and baseball worked out the best for me.

(On Sid Bream’s slide) “To this day, I still think I got him. I think he was out… in my opinion, his front foot slid over the plate and I tagged his back knee before he was able to get to the plate.”

I looked at your minor league career as you came up through the Phillies system and it looked like you moved up the levels along with Darren Daulton. That’s pretty good for two good Big League catchers to come up together like that. What was your experience like in the minors overall and how did you and Daulton work together?

It was pretty interesting because when I first signed, I was a third baseman. Our first year in the minors, Darren was a backup catcher and I was a third baseman. The next Spring Training, they made me a catcher. I was thrust into it and asked them, “What if I don’t want to catch?” Their response was, “Well, then you could just stay home.” Those were my choices. Darren was a very, very good player, so I was the backup catcher to him. But I still got my at bats as a DH and backup. Dutch and I were really good friends. I would watch and learn and had great instructors too. But ultimately, when you’re watching a guy like Dutch play who is very good, you learn from him. That was the best way for me to do it because I never caught before. I’m very thankful for the move from third to catcher.

That’s a tough transition to make on the pro level and I think it says a lot about your ability and work ethic that you developed into one of the best defensive catchers in the game during your career.

What worked as an advantage for me was that I got taught the right way to start with. I started with no experience, so I didn’t have any bad habits. Two guys, PJ Carey and Roly de Armas, who is still with the Phillies, taught me how to do it the right way. They stuck with me through the system and were always working with me to get better whenever I saw them.

Catcher Mike LaValliere of the Pittsburgh Pirates throws the baseball as he warms up before a Major League Baseball game at Three Rivers Stadium in 1988 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

You made your debut with the Phillies and played six games there, then you had 12 games with the 1985 Cardinals, who won the National League that year. What was your first experience like in the Majors?

Getting called up in September of 1984 for my cup of coffee with the Phillies was great. Talk about star power. You had Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and all kinds of guys. You walked into that locker room and it was just, “Holy smokes!” Most of those guys were on their downward turn, but I was still in awe of them. I remember being in the bullpen warming up Tug Mcgraw and he’d be throwing knuckleballs at me. He never did it in a game, but they were pretty good! He was a different kind of character.

Then I was with the Cardinals and got to watch Ozzie Smith in action. Watching him was one of the most impressive things I have ever seen. Watching that guy work every single day and seeing his athletic ability, which was through the roof. Enough can’t be said about him. He worked at it really hard. I got incorporated in the infield with him and Tommy Herr. I would take their throws at second base and it gave me a chance to work on my footwork. Just being around Ozzie made you better.

That was a great era of baseball in the NL East. There was an awesome rivalry between the Cardinals, Expos, Pirates and Mets. What was your perspective on how tough the NL East was back then?

You get to know each other, for better or worse. Let’s just say there was never a day off. Everybody fought so hard because you had the natural rivalry thing and everybody wanted to win. The Yankees were a little jealous of the Mets in New York because they got all the hype. But they deserved it; they were that good. They were throwing Doc [Gooden], Sid Fernandez, Ron Darling out there every series. I don’t want to say they were as good as the Braves with Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, but they were pretty darn good. Shea Stadium was the most intimidating place to play. It was loud, the fans were crazy and let’s just call it a hostile environment. The on-deck circle was a place for some abuse.

Mike LaValliere #12 of the Pittsburgh Pirates bats against the Atlanta Braves during an Major League Baseball game circa 1987 at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. LaValliere played for the Pirates from 1987-93. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

You were traded to the Pirates in 1987 and that’s where you spent the bulk of your career. Could you take us through the trade first?

It was Spring Training, April 1, 1987. We used to have B games in the morning to get pitchers some extra work. Then the A game was the regular Spring Training game. Andy Van Slyke and I were down the first base line at Al Lang Stadium and Dave Ricketts, the bullpen coach for the Cardinals, came out and told us we weren’t playing. Being kind of naïve, I didn’t see it right away. I asked him who was catching and he told me Steve Lake. Steve had caught nine innings in the B game in the morning, so I was like, “Wait a second, what’s up here?”

Andy and I sat together during the game and didn’t get in. We got to talking and figured out that we had to have been traded, so we were trying to guess who we were traded to. We had no idea, but there were two places we didn’t want to go: Montreal and Pittsburgh. After the game, Whitey Herzog and Dal Maxvill called us in and let us know we were traded to Pittsburgh. You want to talk about a guy getting his pet snake killed on him! It was devastating. The Cardinals were such a great organization and at the time the Pirates had lost 100 games for three or four years. They still had the drug trial lingering over them. The city itself was having problems itself. There weren’t many fans. Initially, this was devastating.

They got things going in the right direction pretty quick though. What was it like to be part of that resurgence?

Being a professional, you can’t just throw your hands up and quit because you’re traded to a team like that. We just said, “OK, we have to make the best of this.” This was my chance to play a little more and be a part of something. Jim Leyland and Syd Thrift put together a pretty darn good team. We had some great players. Barry Bonds was the best player I ever played with. I played with some great players, including Frank Thomas in Chicago. But Barry was the best left fielder in the game and the best hitter. He didn’t make a whole lot of friends, but we weren’t playing church league softball. Its professional baseball and we played to win. You don’t have to like each other, but you have to make sure you’re all pulling in the same direction. The success we had was because we had each other’s backs, we came to play every night and we had one of the best managers that’s ever managed. Jim Leyland gave us the chance to succeed individually and as a team each and every night and you can’t ask for anything better.

I have a few postseason questions for you too. Let’s start with the 1991 NLCS Game 4. You had a pinch hit single off Mark Wohlers in the 10th to win the game 3-2. Can you take us through that moment?

Facing a guy like Wohlers, you know what you’re going to get. You try to keep him in the zone and shorten your swing. It was a little easier to face a guy like that throwing 100 versus another guy who may have had four different pitches. You can’t sit on a pitch with those guys and it becomes a guessing game. Wohlers was a guy that was gonna try to overpower you. I fouled off a couple pitches that were tough to hit and finally got one a little lower and was able to barrel it up and hit a line drive. It was intense, but at the same token, that was what we trained for. We put ourselves through all the batting practice, all the soft toss, all the offseason conditioning for that one spot. That’s one of the things I loved about the game. I don’t know if my heart could take that seven days a week, but I loved it. It was a matter of survival. It was very primitive—see the ball, hit the ball. That’s all it was.

UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 14: Baseball: NLCS Playoffs, Atlanta Braves Sid Bream (12) in action, making home plate slide and scoring game winning run vs Pittsburgh Pirates Mike LaValliere (12) during 9th inning, Game 7, Atlanta, GA 10/14/1992 (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

That’s awesome. Of course I have to ask you about Sid Bream and the slide in the 1992 NLCS. I already interviewed Bream in one of these and got this thoughts. What is your perspective on the play?

To this day, I still think I got him. I think he was out. When you do a bent-leg slide, your top foot is in the air. Whenever you’re going into one of the bases it’s no problem because the base is up in the air. Home plate is level with the dirt, so you can’t slide into home and dig your spikes on your lead foot into the ground or you’ll break your ankle. In my opinion, his front foot slid over the plate and I tagged his back knee before he was able to get to the plate.

When I was doing some announcing for ESPN, I had some friends run some replays, but they were inconclusive because there weren’t enough angles. If the play happened now it would have been reviewed and the outcome would have been interesting. But that wasn’t the case back then. It was a great game though. Randy Marsh made the call and he was a very good umpire. I would never consider it a bogus call. It was that close. He called what he saw. He was in perfect position and was a darn good umpire. We can’t look back and point fingers at him for the call.

 

You had a lot of experience in the postseason, playing in four straight League Championship Series, which was hard to do back then without the expanded playoffs. Looking back at your career, what do you think about having that experience to play four straight years in the LCS?

Obviously, I would love to have a World Series ring on my finger, but I don’t. It wasn’t meant to be. I thought that each team I was on had as good a chance to win it all as anyone. We ran into the Reds in 1990, who were on fire. They ended up sweeping the A’s. Then we hooked up with the Braves for a couple years and then when I was on the White Sox, we ran into Toronto and the pitching staff they had. Good teams play in October and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Everyone sets out in February looking to play postseason. There’s nothing better than getting to the postseason. It’s the culmination of all the hard work and success that teams have during the season. It’s a great reward.

This has been great, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. You were always one of those guys who was easy to root for, even as a rival fan. It was great to talk with you. For my final question, I just wanted to ask if you had any reflections on your career that you’d like to leave our readers with.

I don’t know if it’s overused, but I am just very blessed to have the career I did. I didn’t have the most talent, but I had an opportunity to do something that I loved. There’s a lot of folks out there who never had that chance. I am one of the fortunate few to get the chance to do something that I loved from the time I was a kid. I appreciate that whole experience and I appreciated it each and every day that I played. Those 0-for-4 days weren’t so good, but the 3-for-4 and 4-for-4 days made up for it. Throwing out guys like Tim Raines and Otis Nixon on the bases was rewarding too. That was part of my shtick. I took pride in my defense and had some great pitching staffs that allowed me to have success throwing guys out.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book will be out in April 2021.

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