As an Angel Utility Player, Fitzgerald Is Product of Breaks
Mike Fitzgerald was on his way to a solid career as a starting catcher in the major leagues when his body intervened.
He has the souvenirs: the curving twist of his right forefinger, the battered left hand, the hurt knuckles, his surgically repaired knees.
Angel Manager Buck Rodgers is particularly critical of catchers, having been one. But Rodgers doesn’t hedge about why Fitzgerald is a utility player instead of an established catcher.
“It’s been all injuries,” said Rodgers, who managed Fitzgerald in Montreal and picked him up as a free agent in February.
“He was first string in ’85 and ’86 until he tore his finger up,” Rodgers said. “It was a nasty, nasty break. His finger really relegated him (to a reserve role).”
What has happened since--and in between other injuries--is the mark of the man.
In Montreal, Rodgers began to use the onetime Lakewood High School shortstop all over the field. Fitzgerald spent the fall of 1988 in an instructional league, sharpening his skills, and went back to the Expos not merely as a backup catcher, but a third baseman, a first baseman and left fielder.
“You have to be adaptable,” said Rodgers, who has used Fitzgerald in left field, at catcher, first base, third base and even one game at second already this season. After 21 games, Fitzgerald has yet to commit an error and has three home runs. He has 10 hits in 50 at-bats.
Now, with Lance Parrish on the disabled list because of bone spurs in his elbow, Fitzgerald is the No. 1 catcher for the time being, and is backed up by Ron Tingley, who has less major league experience. John Orton, a young catcher who had hoped to beat out Parrish in spring training, remains in the minor leagues, recovering from a shoulder injury.
Fitzgerald, even on days he is catching, takes grounders at first and sometimes third, enjoying the activity as a way to loosen up during batting practice.
“Mike has always been able to try things,” Rodgers said. “He’s been a good enough athlete, although he doesn’t run well. He’s got good hands, and good hands alleviate a lot of other problems.”
Fitzgerald, 31, was a sixth-round draft choice of the Mets in 1978. In 1984, he emerged as the Mets’ starting catcher. In December of that year, he was one of the details in the deal that sent Gary Carter to the Mets and Hubie Brooks to Montreal.
He was the Expos’ opening-day catcher in 1985, but injuries limited him to 108 games. His right knee bothered him most, but with no swelling or fluid to indicate torn cartilage, he kept playing.
“I played until we were eliminated from first place, and they went in and operated and found a major tear,” Fitzgerald said.
In 1986 he played only 73 games, limited by a sore muscle in his shoulder, a sprained knee and finally, after Aug. 1, the shattered right forefinger that remains the worst injury of his career.
“The doctors told me I probably would not be able to play again,” Fitzgerald said. “The bone didn’t stick out or anything. I got hit right on the end of the finger, and it shattered the joint. The doctors described it by saying it was like a broken potato chip, broken into so many pieces they didn’t think they could fix it well enough for me to play.”
That prospect was difficult to swallow.
“I was having my best season,” Fitzgerald said. “I had two years under my belt and was getting the opportunity to play. I was hitting .300 at the All-Star break, having my best year offensively by far.”
He worked hard on his rehabilitation, but still started 1987 on the disabled list. The next year, he was sent down to the minors for more than a month. Doctors were amazed that he was able to play at all. Fitzgerald, though, was amazed at how long the pain could persist.
“For the next 2 1/2 years, I couldn’t give guys high-fives after home runs,” he said. “I had to watch out for certain guys who would get too excited. It hurt so bad if I did bang it that it wouldn’t quit hurting the whole night.”
By 1989 and ‘90, he had found his utility role, playing at least 100 games in each season and continuing a seven-year streak in which his teams had a winning record in games he started behind the plate.
Then, during spring training of 1991, he suffered what proved to be the second worst injury of his career, a broken left hand. When the season started, he stayed in Florida, intending to join the team for the second series of the year. Instead, he got hurt again.
“I was hitting in a simulated game and got drilled on the same hand,” he said.
The knuckle on his left index finger swelled. X-rays showed nothing, but the pain persisted for a month and a half, despite three cortisone shots. He was able to hit but couldn’t catch.
“One bad shot on that spot and I’d have to come out of the game. And it was right where, ideally, you want to catch the ball,” he said, running his finger along his upper palm on the thumb side of his forefinger.
He sat out two months, played 71 games, and was granted free agency after the season. It wasn’t until Feb. 22, with spring training under way, that the right offer came from the Angels. Fitzgerald was one of a few players Rodgers sought and was brought in as a nonroster player.
“The guys we’ve got over here, Hubie Brooks, Mike Fitzgerald, Rene Gonzales, Steve Frey, they’ve done the job in the past,” Rodgers said. “I’ve known them awhile. I know what they’re made of, what turns them on, what turns them off.
“I know their limitations. I think I know what kind of people they are inside. We’re trying to build a ballclub with character. . . . That’s why we kept them on the club.”
Fitzgerald’s character, anchored by his religious beliefs, has helped him persist.
“All things work for good for those who love the Lord,” he said. “I still have a desire to go out and perform through whatever circumstance or situation might come.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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