SARASOTA, Fla. — On the last play of his college career, at Southern California in 1996, Chad Moeller tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in a collision at the plate against U.C.L.A. It was an omen.
Moeller was drafted anyway, by the Minnesota Twins, and four years later was in the major leagues. But he has knocked around ever since, playing for seven major league teams in his career, and splitting the past four seasons between the majors and the minors.
He was given a starting job once, with the Milwaukee Brewers, and he batted .208. He has been a backup ever since.
“I still get jobs, and I’m shocked at times, because I critique myself very hard,” Moeller, 35, said. “I guess I don’t always put enough value in the things I do well that other teams may.”
Moeller is one of five nonroster catchers for the Baltimore Orioles, but his uniform gives away his status. The others wear numbers in the 70s and 80s. Moeller is No. 16, a sign of respect for his years in the game. He is expected to be a mentor for Matt Wieters, 23, an important part of the team’s future.
Moeller will help guide the young Orioles’ pitchers, the foundation of the team’s hopes in the rugged American League East. He has hit .226 in his career but has handled a dazzling gallery of pitchers. After a practice last week at Ed Smith Stadium, Moeller reflected on some of the most memorable.
JOHAN SANTANA Twins, 2000
He was a Rule 5 guy. He’d throw some long relief, or if we needed a spot starter. Otherwise, they didn’t pitch him, but they knew they liked him. His changeup was in the process. He was left-handed, he threw upwards of 96. There wasn’t a question of whether the stuff was going to be there. I mean, obviously, you didn’t know he was going to be what he’s been. You don’t see a lot of left-handers like that, but Eric Milton was throwing 96 at that time from the left side, too. You see a lot of guys with good arms. It still comes down to what’s inside.
BRAD RADKE Twins, 2000
Wouldn’t walk anybody, never had a concern that he was going to. Didn’t try to throw balls by guys, and he just caught on at an earlier age than most guys do about what pitching actually is. Everything went away from the plate. Guys have watched Greg Maddux; they all want their ball to look like it’s going at them and come this way, over the plate. He just wanted to have everything going away from the middle of the plate. I’d say, ‘Brad, what do you want to do today?’ He’d say: “Get outs. Just put it down, I’ll throw it.” That was it. I was a rookie. All right, let’s go.
Randy Johnson Diamondbacks, 2001-3
He probably helped my career more than anybody by saying, “I want him behind the plate.” Because no matter what anybody says, that carries and still would carry a lot of weight. I don’t know why he wanted me. I may have caught him once in spring training. He told me, “It’s an S.C. thing.” He struck out 16 the first game I caught him, and I homered. Obviously, it went well from there. But it was exhausting, because you knew who you were catching. I mean, there’s more to it when he’s pitching. You’re looking up on the board and they’re changing a name on the strikeout list, he’s passing Carlton or Clemens, every time you catch a ball, you’re tossing it in the dugout. You knew that it wasn’t just catching some other pitcher. You knew you were a part of history each time.
Curt Schilling Diamondbacks, 2001-3
Curt wanted information. If I saw something, he wanted to know it. From the first day on, he respected my opinion, and for a catcher, that was outstanding. He expected a lot out of you back there, but it was fun because you had four pitches you were working with and he wanted you to be thinking with him, and he had no problem with you saying, “I’m seeing this, though.” That’s what he wanted. He didn’t want somebody to just go, “Yes, sir, whatever you want.” No, he wanted to make sure it was going to be right, and he wanted someone who cared as much about what happened out there as he did.
MIGUEL BATISTA Diamondbacks, 2001-3
I remember one time, I’m backing up first and Tino Martinez is on his way back from second base and just turns and charges the mound halfway between second and first. Miguel turns and then flings the ball right by his ear, at top speed. I’m standing in front of the Cardinals’ dugout at this point, and that’s not where you want to be. They always want the pitcher or the catcher, because they assume the catcher called the darn thing. I headed toward the pile, away from everybody, with everybody running towards me. Placido Polanco grabbed me from behind and said: “You better just stay with me. You’re the catcher; they’re going to want you.”
BYUNG-HYUN KIM Diamondbacks, 2001-3
He wanted to be a starter. As a reliever from Korea, that’s a second-class position. Chan Ho Park got the notoriety for starting. You can be a closer all you want, but you were second class; at least that’s how he would always explain it. And he was 23 or something at that time. They expected a lot out of him, but he had nobody to talk to. He had his translator, but he was basically on an island. He was a young kid, pitching the World Series in a foreign country, knowing the ramifications of it. You felt for him. A lot of people didn’t see it that way, but I felt for the guy.
MIKE KOPLOVE Diamondbacks, 2001-3
He’s one of the more intriguing individuals. I really liked him. We called him Harry Potter, because he looks just like Harry Potter. But he wore capri pants to the field one day, and I’m like, “Dude, you just don’t care what anyone thinks at all.” He goes, “Yeah, I just wanted to see what everybody would say.” He was very bright. That’s the thing you find in baseball; there are a lot of guys that are really smart. They just happen to be really good at baseball.
JOSE VALVERDE Diamondbacks, 2003
He did so many things on the mound, and they tried so hard to make him stop. And when they finally got him to stop all that stuff, he got crushed. They said, “Fine, do what you need to do, just tone it down a little bit.” He went right back to it and started dominating. You go play winter ball and you see that’s just how the game’s played down there. It’s all about a show. That’s just how it is, and that stuff never bothers me.
BRANDON WEBB Diamondbacks, 2003
I was always amazed at what Brandon Webb could make a baseball do. He’d say: “I just grabbed the ball like this. It just does it.” I’m like, “Seriously, Brandon, that ball’s dropping a foot and a half.” I was thinking, wow, this is something different. He’s throwing it the same way as anybody else. You’d watch other guys do it and they’d get this cute little cut, and he does it and it has more break than his curveball.
BEN SHEETS Brewers, 2004-6
He has an idea what he wants to do, but he really doesn’t want to think on the mound. He had basically two pitches at the time, and both of them were better than 98 percent of the league. From that standpoint, it made it easy. You just build a rapport with him and you understood that you just have to keep him directed, slow him down every so often and then just stay out of his way. I mean, his 18-strikeout game, I think I blocked 80 percent of them on curveballs. I remember watching Chipper Jones take a swing, half-energy, and he’s walking back to the dugout, just like, Whatever. He could be so electric and better than anybody in the game on any given day.
Diamondbacks, 2003; Brewers, 2004-6
He and Andy Pettitte had the best pickoff moves. But with Andy, everybody just stayed so close to the bag that he didn’t even have to worry about it, because of his reputation. Capuano would try to pick every guy off. I remember he knocked down Roger Clemens at the plate, and then Clemens got a hit, and he picked him off first. So you put him on his back, and then you just embarrassed him. I didn’t want to be Capuano coming up to bat the next time. It was snug. You knew he wasn’t happy about it.
AARON HARANG Reds, 2007
Six-foot-seven, very big. He throws an invisible fastball: a lot of them are right down the middle, and they don’t hit it. First game I caught for him, we went into the eighth inning, he just gave up his second hit and the guy was on third. And then he tripped going to the plate, caught his spikes and realized he was going to be called for a balk, so he flipped the ball over. But the delay had taken too long, and that was the only run he gave up. The manager told me I was going to catch him every time after that, and I never caught him again. It was really strange.
DAVID WELLS Dodgers, 2007
“David Wells, that was entertaining. I called a changeup and he threw a knuckleball, just because he wanted to throw a knuckleball. The hitter took it and he goes, “Was that a knuckleball?” I said, “I guess so.” He was so much fun to be around. I mean, it wasn’t for very long, but he loved being out there, he loved pitching.
MIKE MUSSINA Yankees, 2008
I only caught Moose once. I don’t know if that was because of me or just because he and Jose Molina did so well together. The only game I caught for him was against Boston, and I don’t know if he made it through more than two innings. Hit the first batter of the game. I went out there at one point and he goes, “You want to pitch?” I said: “I’m not having much fun back here, either. But at least I have a mask on.” I think I had just thrown a pitch out into center field. It wasn’t going very well. He was giving up shot after shot. We didn’t match up after that.
MARIANO RIVERA Yankees, 2008
Easiest guy I’ve ever caught. Plain and simple, the easiest guy I’ve ever caught. You know where the ball’s going to be every time. And it’s just amazing that everybody knows what’s coming, and nobody’s going to square it up. He’s thrown the same pitch over and over and over, and nobody’s done anything with it yet. You’re just picking a side. Not the pitch, you’re just picking a side. He has a two-seamer, which he started using for right-handers a little bit, just when I think he really wanted to embarrass them. But he could always lock the right-handers up because he’d throw the ball right at them, and they’d jump out of the way and it was strike three. It’d come right in the front door.
BRIAN MATUSZ Orioles, 2009
He’s young, left-handed, four pitches for strikes, command, velocity. I talk to hitting coaches on other teams, and that’s the first name out of their mouth every time: “This guy’s the real deal.” And he’s so fun-loving, like: “Yeah, this is just great, I’m just happy to be here.” I’m thinking, Dude, you’re better than all of them out there. But he knows what he’s doing, he really does. Whatever he portrays, the guy understands how to pitch, he has a ton of stuff, wants to learn more. We’ve got a really good group of guys that want to learn here, and that’s what gives you hope. If they have all the talent but they don’t want to get better, it’s pointless. And you’ll find out which ones it works out for and which ones it doesn’t. You can’t tell a guy how to make that next step. That’s the hardest part, because there’s no blueprint. They tell you to work hard, but there’s something else that always needs to happen. It’s just figuring out what it is.