They call him Old Dog, because he is old. At a distance of 90 feet, roughly the length from third base to home plate, you might handicap him at a hard 40, and you wouldn't be far off. He's got the hardscrabble, rough-hewn build of a longshoreman—a barrel chest resting over a muscled paunch, a swell of bicep under the uniform sleeve, a paw of whorled, battered fingers.
"Dog," as in someone loud and loyal, someone utterly devoted—someone bellowing from the bench, first on field with a high five after a teammate's walk-off double. "Dog" as in a creature who doesn't know when the fight is over, whose nose can smell runs yet to come.
It's 2:30 sharp on an April afternoon when Mike Redmond arrives, ambling down the concrete concourse leading to the Twins clubhouse, grinning as he walks and bearing a plush Clifford doll. He's beat up, but you wouldn't know it. His shoulder is worn out, sore. He's got a strained groin from hustling out an opening-day double, just a half-inning after the Seattle Mariners' Russel Branyan busted his bat across Redmond's head, knocking his catcher's mask clean off.
But when he hits the field for warm-ups at 3:30 p.m., flanked by Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer, Redmond has them giggling at some unknowable private joke. Cuddyer has to halt a warm-up side sprint to get it all out. Even Morneau, as stoic as a marble colossus, cracks. Redmond continues his calisthenics with a proud smirk.
Inside the cage, he lays down a succession of bunts that roll along the third base line and come to rest in a tidy cluster. When he's had his pitches, he runs down to first base, paces off a healthy lead, and gazes in at the plate as Joe Crede starts his swings. He breathes through parted lips, revealing an underbite that gives him the look of a hungry piranha.
At 37, Redmond is one of the oldest catchers in the league. Since 2004, he has played in the long shadow of superstar Joe Mauer, a franchise face 11 years Redmond's junior. At the Metrodome plaza, you won't find Mike Redmond jerseys for sale. Easton doesn't offer a Mike Redmond catcher's mitt. There is no Mike Redmond bobblehead giveaway.
But, over the course of a decade in the major leagues, Redmond has built, against all odds, a career of team leadership. A cutup and a flake, a gritty player seemingly impervious to injury, Redmond has survived on talent spiked with determinism. And while no one was looking, he emerged as one of the greatest backup catchers ever to play the game.
"He brings everything to the table," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire says of Redmond. "The way he carries himself, the way he knows his job, the way he knows his responsibility. He studies the game. He helps his teammates. He's one of those special guys that only comes around once in a while, and you enjoy the heck out of him on your baseball team."
BY A TRICK OF THE LIGHTS, a shadow line falls just a few feet beyond the Twins dugout. Two paces up the stairs, another step toward the on-deck circle, and you stand bathed in hard halogen light, so fierce against the buttermilk canopy of the dome you have to shut your eyes.
But the dugout squats in endless dusk. It's a place where they don't sweep away shelled sunflower seeds from the previous night, where the rubber tiling is perpetually moist from spilled Gatorade, and where spent chewing gum is planted on the cement rafters overhead, petrifying in the dry Dome air.
For over a decade, this has been Redmond's chief domain, and there he sits now, his legs splayed, surrounded by pails of Double Bubble and Bazooka gum, pensively sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup.
"I wasn't supposed to make it to the big leagues," he says. "And I definitely wasn't supposed to stay in the big leagues. When I first got here, they said, 'This guy's a career minor leaguer. He'll never make it.'"
He points out at the field, a gesture that sweeps over an infield of starters going through their warm-ups. "I'm not the most talented guy on this team," he says, gazing at Denard Span, Carlos Gomez, and Alexi Casilla, a team of youth and dawning prospect. "Matter of fact, I'm probably the least talented guy on this team. But I love to win. I love to compete. I have to compete. And it's the only thing that's kept me in the game this long."
Mike Redmond was born on May 5, 1971, in Seattle, Washington, with twin brother Pat Jr. beating him into the world by six minutes. In Kirkland, a Seattle suburb that sits just east of Lake Washington, Mike's was a youth of home openers at the Kingdome, batting helmet giveaways, and nosebleed seats to watch a young Mariners franchise struggle mightily with a paucity of talent.
He was an intense kid. He was quiet, meek, and purposeful, slow to pick up reading, distracted in class. By the time he played pony ball, two things had become clear.
First, he had talent. He was a careful batter. He was an observant base runner. He was a player whose mental acuity made for few rookie errors in the field. From tee-ball to coach-pitch to tenures in left field and at first base as a Bullpup at Gonzaga Prep, Mike was a .300 hitter.
Second, his talent wasn't enough, and he knew it.
"My father knew I wasn't going to be the biggest guy in the world, or the strongest guy in the world, or the best player in the world," Redmond says. "So he taught us the little things. The smart aspects. The mental side. Running the bases. Instinct." Redmond pauses and drains the last of his coffee. "Toughness."
Toughness is the birthright of the Redmond boys. Their grandfather boxed in the sport's most brutal age, and turned his grandsons into combatants by sending them home from a summer in Spokane with a couple of pairs of boxing gloves and pointers on how to set up a hook with a jab. Their father, a merchandising manager for Safeway who in his younger days kicked around the mud leagues as a left-handed pitcher, was a keen observer of the game and taught his sons well.
"From little league on, our father was making sure we were always thinking, making up for the physical skill we didn't have," says Pat Jr. "Anticipating balls in the dirt and knowing when to advance. Positioning. Knowing which base you need to throw to. Where the hitter's going to hit the ball. The smart stuff."
By junior high, Mike and Pat were atypical athletes, slight and scrappy where their teammates at Gonzaga Prep were tall, lean all-staters. The Redmond boys were brainy players who sucked up the routine grounders, didn't get thrown out on foolish advances, and played with ravenous hunger.
"I always knew I'd make it," Mike says. "In my high school yearbook, it says, 'Where do you see yourself in 20 years?' Under my picture it says, 'Playing baseball.'" He bursts into a peal of laughter. "I always knew I'd play ball."
IN MARCH 1993, Pat Jr. was still bouncing around the Gonzaga College infield as a utility player, disillusioned with players who were too busy courting scouts and agents to take batting practice, when he got a call from Mike, fresh from his first day of spring training with the single-A King County Cougars.
"These guys are good," Mike said soberly. "All of 'em."
In the vast circuitry of professional baseball, single-A ball is the most common and most grueling point of entry and exit. It's where injured big leaguers go to get their throw back and where promising players hack through a season of bus commutes and scrub baseball.
Undrafted, Redmond had signed as a free agent out of his junior year at Gonzaga. After a season of summer ball in the Jayhawk League, an incubator that had produced players like Albert Pujols and Ozzie Smith, a young franchise named the Florida Marlins came calling. Redmond found himself whisked to the Marlins' single-A affiliate, the Cougars, elbow to elbow with a young catcher named Charles Johnson.
Johnson was a future four-time Gold Glove winner with a cannon for an arm. Redmond's position as his backup was the start of a decade and a half riding pine behind great talent.
That period is one of the few topics that make Redmond break eye contact. He looks out onto the field and crosses his legs. "There wasn't a lot of playing time there," he says. "That whole year, I think I got a hundred at-bats. I was always a good player in college. But I didn't appreciate it. I took it for granted and just rolled out there and played.
"It was a turning point. It was the first time I realized how hard I was going to have to work to stay in the game."
He spent his two years with the Cougars beside manager Carlos Tosca, learning how to see each at-bat as an opportunity. And he was getting tougher. Two years in A, another two in AA, and Redmond was seemingly impervious. Weathering the maelstrom of foul tips, of being railroaded on tight plays at the plate, Redmond refused to get hurt. He declined pain.
"I love the grind," he says. "I love the fact that I can grind through anything. If I can walk and breathe, I'm out there playing. I never had the luxury to go on the [disabled list]. Some players don't have to worry about that. Nobody's going to outplay Joe Mauer or Justin Morneau. They go on the DL, they come back and fit right into the three hole and never have to worry about it. When you're a bench player, when you're not a superstar, it's not the same."
But in 1997, he suffered an injury he couldn't play through. A torn labrum in his throwing arm put him on the sidelines for an entire season.
"They had given up my spot in AAA to two other guys because I got hurt," he says. "There was no spot for me. I was at a crossroads. Either make the decision to stick it out or become a coach."
It was a difficult choice. After a week of rumination, Redmond marched back into the front office.
"Give me one more shot," he said. "Give me this year. Hell, give me half a year. If it doesn't work out, I'll coach."
Redmond got his shot and never looked back. In '98, a catcher named Randy Knorr broke his thumb, sending Redmond to AAA. Weeks later, he was headed to Miami, where a Marlins jersey awaited.
"It's a hell of a story," he says. "I try to tell young guys that story all the time. All I wanted was one more shot. I could have easily said, 'It's too hard. Forget it. Let's move on. I'll coach.' But deep down, something told me to hang on for one more year." He shrugs. "I've been in the big leagues ever since."
IN 2004, WAYNE KRIVSKY was scouting the National League for talent. He was an assistant to Terry Ryan, the general manager of the Minnesota Twins, and they were sitting on a catching prospect named Joe Mauer, a 21-year-old Adonis with a god-given swing and a falcon's eye at the plate. What the Twins needed was a veteran to counterbalance that heady youth. Someone who had caught Cy Young winners, who had played in the World Series, who could accept the role of backing up a future all-star.
What Krivsky found was a 32-year-old free agent named Mike Redmond. Over his years ferreting out talent for Terry Ryan's small-ball Twins, Krivsky had developed a curious appreciation for the backup catcher who had played behind the legendary Pudge Rodriguez with the Marlins, who had won a ring shouting from the bench during their unlikely run to the championship the previous year, an enigmatic player who was unanimously regarded as a team leader even though he only left the bench for the field once a week, and who, Krivsky had heard, had once gone from the clubhouse to the field stark naked.
"He's not the kind of guy you're going to scout in one game and come away saying, 'Wow,'" admits Krivsky. "He was an underrated player. But he did small things with his bat. When he got his opportunities once or twice a week, he used the whole field. Always had good at-bats."
Redmond was the perfect choice to back up Mauer. To compare the two is to compare a stallion with a wolf. Mauer is tall and equine, lean and patient, quiet and reserved, built like a Greek hero. Redmond is diminutive and loudmouthed, a battered, husky scrap of a player, something that crawled from the dust with a mitt and a mask. In Mauer's eyes, you see the calm assurance of greatness, in Redmond's, the ferocity of hunger.
As Redmond settled into Mauer's shadow, a curious thing happened—while Mauer racked up singles, press minutes, and injuries, Redmond's numbers skyrocketed. In four years with the Minnesota Twins, Redmond has batted .307. His lifetime average has spiked to .292. In 2007, with Mauer injured, Redmond played in about half of the season's games, batting .294 in a career-high 272 times at the plate. He hasn't committed a fielding error in four years. And, on a young team that offered the breakout prowess of slugger Justin Morneau and Cy Young winner Johann Santana, his talent for keeping a team loose, being a clubhouse presence, and leading a squad finally flowered. In 2006, he coined "smell 'em," the slogan that found its way onto T-shirts during the team's run to the playoffs, referencing the Twins' uncanny ability to manufacture badly needed runs.
"I'm tempted to say that he's the definition of an unremarkable player," says Seth Stohs, the Twins correspondent for industry bible Baseball Digest. "His toughness, his talent as a teammate, I'm not sure you can statistically quantify these things. But look at his numbers. He's batted above .300 since he came to the Twins. He hasn't been on the DL since 1998. That's remarkable."
IN A MID-APRIL AFTERNOON, the usually temperate Metrodome air is a damp, oppressive soup. It's only 4:30 p.m., but for Redmond, twilight already approaches. His groin hasn't recovered the way he thought it might, and his shoulder has worsened. He's been platooning catching duties with Jose Morales, the 26-year-old Puerto Rican with a firecracker for a bat.
Most importantly, Mauer—who has been rehabbing a sore back in Florida since the season's start—has named his return date. You can count the days on one hand. Strain, and you can hear the second hand ticking down. Redmond knows the bench awaits him in just three days.
But as his colleagues file past, marching up the long staircase to eat and dress before the evening's game, pride settles upon him. Hellos are exchanged, along with a quick volley of in-jokes. Alone again, he pauses.
"That's the most important part for me," he says, pointing at his teammates. "The game forgets about you fast—real fast. In 10 years, most players will say, 'Who was Mike Redmond?' But it's the impact you have on your teammates. What do they say about you in 20 years? Justin Morneau. Joe Mauer. Cuddy. I'll be calling them up when I'm 58 just like I do today, cracking them up. That's the important part."
IT'S MAY 2, and the Metrodome is packed. But it's not just the typical Saturday swell choking the seats. Just a shade after 7 p.m., the crowd is on its feet, applauding wildly. Joe Mauer, their Spartan hero, is stepping into the box for his first at-bat of 2009.
Mauer sits on a ball outside the zone. Then, unflinching, he takes a called strike, steps from the box for a practice swing, and gets down to work. The next pitch is a belt-high fastball from the Royals' Sidney Ponson. It's a mistake pitch, and Ponson knows it before it leaves his hand. Out over the heart of the plate it floats, and Mauer turns on it with a stroke as smooth as silk, sending the rawhide sailing over the leftfield wall to clatter into the seats. A home run, on his first swing of the year. Over the airwaves, the color man announces it simply: "Welcome back."
Mauer trots around the bases, basking in the fans' hysteria at this impossible feat, and meets his teammates at the dugout's top step. After he's run a gauntlet of high fives and backslaps, he finds his spot on the bench, beside number 55, the veteran catcher with a sore shoulder and a hard head. Redmond smacks Mauer across the back of the head, laughs broadly, and puts his arm around him. The Old Dog is smiling, the young hero by his side.