"When he was on, you could sit in a rocking chair and catch him."
A few weeks ago at Not Gaetti Twitter World Headquarters, a spirited debate broke out about whether Gary Carter was actually an underrated ballplayer despite the general consensus being that he is on the very short list of the best catchers the game has seen.
One side argued that he couldn’t be underrated because of his hardware, accomplishments and plaque in Cooperstown while the other side argued that he should garner even more attention than he does. Things almost came to blows with two sides arguing essentially the same thing: Gary Carter was an all-timer.
What if I told you that once upon a time, Carter, who was always slated for greatness, had to be moved to the outfield because the Expos had someone with even more promise than The Kid?
That fellow is Barry Foote and he joins us for this week’s Spitballin’.
If you’re a fan of 1970s and 80s baseball, you’re quite familiar with Foote. Gene Mauch tabbed him the next Johnny Bench in a 1973 Baseball Digest article and why wouldn’t he? Foote was the third overall pick in the 1970 draft out of a small high school in North Carolina with as bright a future as anyone.
Despite his young age and lack of experience against quality prep competition, Foote thrived in the minors and was with the Expos just three short years later at the age of 21. He went 4-6 with a triple as a callup in September of 1973 and followed it up with a full productive season in 1974.
During this time, Carter, who was two years younger and carving a niche for himself as a prospect, took a back seat to Foote. Between 1974 and ’75, Foote caught in 237 games and didn’t take the field anywhere else. Over that same time, Carter caught 68 games and played outfield in 94 games.
The Expos had themselves the good problem of having two very promising players at a position of high value which was resolved in an unfortunate way. Foote ended up having knee surgery and developing back problems, which opened the door to Carter to catch full time and embark on his Hall of Fame career.
Foote, who was always seen as a tough customer and solid team player, stayed active through the 1982 season, battling injuries that would have sent other players to retirement much sooner.
Foote was so respected, George Steinbrenner offered him a scouting position reporting directly to him immediately upon his retirement. He also stayed in the game as a successful minor league manager in multiple organizations.
Anyone who earns the mutual respect of Mauch and Steinbrenner must be doing something right, so join us as we go Spitballin’ with Barry Foote.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Foote! The 1981 Yankees were the first team I remember rooting for as a kid, so anytime I get to talk to someone from that team its special. Let’s go back to when you were a kid too. What was baseball like for you growing up?
My father was a professional baseball player, so I was around that from the time I was a very small child. He always suggested that I would be a baseball player too. Back then there were 16 Major League teams and he would say, “When you graduate, there will be 16 teams lining up to sign you.” He was a great baseball man himself and a great teacher. I was very fortunate to be instilled with the right kind of baseball IQ at a young age.
I remember when Lou Piniella got fired; he was like a son to Mr. Steinbrenner. I thought that if Lou Piniella could get fired, nobody is safe.
Your dad was right about teams wanting you. You were the third overall pick in the 1970 draft. Can you take us through your draft experience?
I was from a small town, so it was a big deal to have 30 or 40 scouts at all of my games. Being from a small town, we played against marginal baseball competition, so they had to do a lot of extra scouting on me to make sure they weren’t making a mistake. It was very exciting to have that attention coming from a baseball family. I was always a star player, even going back to Little League so there were always high expectations for me. But I don’t know that anyone envisioned me being drafted as high as I was. There were a lot of discussions, so we had a good feeling I’d be drafted high, I just didn’t know how high it would be.
You got to the Majors pretty quick, making your debut at 21 years old. Your first at bat was against Steve Carlton. What was that like for you?
It was a dream-come-true-scenario. My first hit was a triple so I got that out of the way too. I only had six at bats in my first callup that September, but I did get four hits so I started my career with a .667 batting average. It was a great experience and I had a great manager in Gene Mauch. I was in the game for 24 years and he was the best manager I ever had. He was head and shoulders above everyone else on a strategic level.
Could you go into a little more detail about Gene Mauch and what it was like playing for him?
I was lucky to have played for him. With Gene, I felt like I had great relationship with him. He was very tough, especially on veteran players. It was a misnomer about him that he wasn’t good with young players. I thought he was exceptionally good with them. He was a good teacher and had high expectations of your work ethic and mental part of the game. It was sad that he never got to a World Series with the Angels. He was right there and ready for it to happen and then Donnie Moore gave up that home run. Gene was great and I consider myself lucky to have started my career with him. His shortcoming was with pitchers. You can’t be as tough on your pitchers as you are on your position players, but Gene treated everyone the same.
When you debuted with the Expos, the franchise was only in its fifth year of existence. What was it like playing in Jarry Park in those early days of the Expos?
It was exciting from the standpoint that Jarry Park was very small. It was like a minor league ballpark but we were glad to be there. The fans were very excited to have a Major League team there. They had a long history of AAA baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was a different experience for me being from North Carolina. The weather was tough and when you had wind, it was so much colder. The stadium was always windy too because it was wide open. It would create havoc with popups. It was a growing experience for me because I believe it was the second largest French-speaking city in the world. The food was different and I had never had wine with dinner. Up there, that was part of the dinner plan. You better learn to drink wine. From a cultural standpoint, it was very enlightening. It was a great city, cutting edge with fashion and beautiful women. Everyone dressed to a tee. It was quite an adjustment coming from a town of 5,000 in the South.
You were part of a group of big prospects coming up through the Expos system and really the first to make it up to the Majors. Did you recognize the talent of guys like Gary Carter and Andre Dawson even when they were young players?
It was a great group of young players. The Expos had made a trade too. They traded away their only star player in Rusty Staub and they got back Tim Foli, Mike Jorgensen and Ken Singleton. They weren’t only beginning to grow top prospects, but they were able to trade for some too. At that time, that trade wasn’t looked at positively though because they were trading away their best player. As it turned out, it gave us a solid foundation to start a winning-type team. We were now able to play in that .500-range. Then they brought up Gary Carter, Ellis Valentine, Warren Cromartie and other guys who were the true foundation of their team as they got better. The Expos did it the right way and they had two of them go on to be Hall of Famers in Carter and Dawson and on the mound they had Steve Rogers, who had Hall of Fame stuff. He had 37 shutouts in 13 years; that’s along the lines of what Hall of Famers do. They had a great foundation for getting their franchise rolling forward.
Barry Foote (c) with Dan Warthen, Gary Carter, Larry Parrish & Pete Mackanin.
You played for the Cubs for a few seasons and were part of the 23-22 game in 1979. Can you talk about your memories from catching all ten innings of that madness?
It started off with us down by 11 runs early in the game. I’ve seen the replay a couple times since. I drove in the tying run in the eighth inning to make the score 22-22. It just didn’t look like there was any chance for us to make a comeback, but we did. We had Dave Kingman though and he hit three home runs that game to get us back in it. Looking back on it, Bruce Sutter had a great deal of success against the Phillies, but in retrospect, when Mike Schmidt came up in the top of the tenth, we had two outs and nobody on. We probably should have walked him intentionally. He always hit a lot of home runs in Wrigley Field. The wind was blowing out, but he certainly didn’t hit a cheap one. That was a long home run he hit to give them a 23-22 win. It was a crazy game and the wind played a big part in it. It’s something to look back on now with a chuckle, but back then, it was a long day at the ballpark and losing it after we came all the way back wasn’t a whole lot of fun.
You were traded to the Yankees during the first month of the 1981 season. How did you learn about the trade and what was your reaction?
It didn’t come as a complete surprise because they were dismantling the Cubs. They had moved Bruce Sutter and traded Rick Reuschel later that year. It was an off day in Chicago and I had a feeling something might have happened. I hadn’t gotten an apartment in Chicago yet; I was staying at a hotel. Birdie Tebbetts was a scout for the Yankees and I had met him a number of times. He was sitting in the lobby of our hotel when I got back from running around with some errands. He said, “Man, I’ve been looking for you all day. You’ve been traded to the New York Yankees. Mr. Steinbrenner wants you to get on a private jet and meet the team in Detroit.”
I told him I had to get my stuff together and as it turned out, I didn’t get on the private jet, so I flew commercial. I got in too late for that night’s game, but I was there for the next game. It was exciting to move from a team that was in transition that was looking to change ownership to one where Mr. Steinbrenner was always trying to win. My first at bat with the Yankees I hit a home run, so that was a great start. I really enjoyed my time with the Yankees, but unfortunately I was coming off a chronic back problem that curtailed my career. It was fun being there with that group of guys who were the last of that 1978 team.
What was it like playing for George Steinbrenner during that era?
I never got on his bad side, so I never had any issues with him. In fact, when I got to the point where my injuries made it where I couldn’t play anymore, they offered me a job to become a special assignment scout that reported directly to Mr. Steinbrenner. I had been on the field a long time, so I could get some good inside information on some things that other scouts couldn’t. For example, we were looking into trading for Len Barker. We were in Cleveland and I saw Jim Essian, who had been a good friend of mine for years. I asked him what was the story with Barker and he gave me some insight that he had a little elbow issue. That nixed that deal and as it turned out, he had elbow problems that curtailed his career. I always liked Mr. Steinbrenner. He was a straight-shooter who wanted to win. He had a lot of respect for ex-players too. If you had been on the field, he was easier to work for than some other folks who hadn’t. That didn’t mean it couldn’t change over time. I remember when Lou Piniella got fired; he was like a son to Mr. Steinbrenner. I thought that if Lou Piniella could get fired, nobody is safe.
In 1981 they had the expanded playoffs because of the strike. What are your memories from the playoffs that year and winning the American League pennant?
We had an extra playoff round because of the strike and we first had to play the Milwaukee Brewers. We won the first two games in Milwaukee and then came back home and lost two games. After the second loss, Mr. Steinbrenner was waiting for us in the clubhouse. It was an interesting knockdown-dragout between him and some of the players. He had some players yelling at him about being down there. One of the lines I remember from Mr. Steinbrenner was about Bud Selig, who was the Brewers owner. He said, “We sure as hell can’t let a used car dealer come in here and beat us like this!”
Fortunately we won Game 5 and then swept Oakland in the next round. They had Billy Martin managing them that year. One thing that was notable to me was that during those playoffs, George Steinbrenner would not allow us to have any champagne celebration unless we won the World Series. When we beat the Brewers and A’s, we didn’t have anything.
What are your thoughts about falling to the Dodgers in the 1981 World Series?
The Dodgers came to New York and we beat them the first two games but then we went out to Los Angeles and lost three straight one-run games. It was a sad finish to what could have been a memorable year, but there’s nothing like a Dodgers-Yankees World Series. We were all sitting there watching an NLCS game between the Dodgers and Expos. It was the game where Rick Monday hit the home run. All the guys were rooting for the Dodgers because they had already beat them twice. Steinbrenner was in our TV room and said, “You guys better think twice about that. You better hope the Expos win because they have no experience in the World Series and the Dodgers have been there before.” As it turned out, he was probably right. We were probably better off playing against a team who had never played in that high-pressure scenario, especially because most of our guys had.
Looking back, who were some of your favorite pitchers to catch for?
My favorite pitcher to catch a game for was Rick Reuschel. He had pinpoint control. When he was on, you could sit in a rocking chair and catch him. He was a great athlete and a great pitcher. He had a great mentality about pitching too. Steve Rogers had great stuff. He probably had the best stuff of all the pitchers I caught. I was lucky to catch some Hall of Famers too, like Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter. I got to catch a lot of really good pitchers, but as far as enjoying one game for a pitcher when he was on, it would be Rick Reuschel.
That’s just how I remember him. Always durable, working fast and throwing strikes! It has been so great to talk baseball with you, Mr. Foote. Like I said earlier, you were on the very first team I ever rooted for, so it’s been an honor. Last question for you, do you have any final reflections you can leave for our readers looking back at your baseball career?
The best part of my career came early on when the Expos had to move a Hall of Fame catcher in Gary Carter to left field because I was their catcher. Unfortunately, I had a lot of early injuries and that sidetracked me. The most disappointing thing about my career was having a long-term back issue that I just couldn’t get over. It cost me several years of playing. It was a great experience though. I got to stick around after my playing career as a scout and got to manage six years in the minor leagues too. About 80 of my guys made it to the Majors and two of my guys, Doug Drabek and Pat Hentgen, won Cy Young Awards. I really enjoyed managing in the minor leagues and seeing those guys make it up to the Major Leagues. From that standpoint, I don’t think my playing career was what I wanted it to be. I enjoyed playing, but what I did to help grow the game through coaching is something I’m really proud of and looking back, that was the biggest impact I made on the game.