Mickey Tettleton was largely underrated throughout a career that spanned from 1984 to ’97. A switch-hitting catcher who blossomed after finally getting an opportunity to play full time at age 28 — this after being released by the Oakland A’s — he quietly excelled thanks to plus power and a keen eye. Playing with the Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, and Texas Rangers, Tettleton had baseball’s third-highest walk rate (18.2%) from 1989 to ’95, a seven-year stretch where he slashed .245/.384/.474 with 185 home runs and a 133 wRC+.
There are those who took notice. In The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, published in 2001, Tettleton is ranked as the 37th-best catcher of all-time. A low batting average and high strikeout numbers may have sullied his reputation with casual fans, but those who truly understand the game know better. Tettleton — a proud son of Oklahoma — provided a lot of value to his teams.
David Laurila: You’re from Oklahoma. Were you a big baseball fan growing up?
Mickey Tettleton: “I was. Of course, it was different back then. The one game a week was on Saturday, and you were glued to your TV to watch it. I was a huge sports fan in general — I played football and basketball growing up — and was always a big-time baseball fan.”
Laurila: Did you follow a specific team?
Tettleton: “Cincinnati was obviously very big, and their main rival was the Dodgers, who had Bill Russell at shortstop. He’s from Oklahoma. But with the Johnny Bench connection, Cincinnati was really big around here.”
Laurila: I’ve read that you were named after Mickey Mantle.
Tettleton: “That’s true, and in my opinion there was only one switch-hitting Mickey from Oklahoma. That was Mr. Mantle. For a lot of people, he represented the state of Oklahoma.”
Laurila: Did you start switch-hitting at a young age?
Tettlton: “I actually didn’t start switch-hitting until I was a senior in high school. And it happened by complete accident. One summer day we were out at Southeast High School — Darrell Porter and Bobby Murcer also went there, and I’m very proud of that — hitting baseballs. When we were finishing up, it was, ‘OK, now you have hit on the other side.’ I took a few swings [left-handed] and hit a couple of balls good. The rest is history.”
Laurila: Did you go on to be much the same hitter from each side of the plate?
Tettleton: “Later in my career, I was a little bit more… no, not a little bit, a lot more pull-happy. I was probably a better hitter left-handed, but that was basically because I had more at bats. It was more of a right-handed league.”
Laurila: Tiger Stadium was a great park for left-handed pull hitters…
Tettleton: “Yeah. And then I got to go to The Ballpark in Arlington, and that was a good place for left-handed hitters. But most definitely, going to Detroit — going to Tiger Stadium — had a huge influence. And it had to. You had to try to take advantage of that right-field porch.”
Laurila: Did you hit any balls onto the roof at Tiger Stadium?
Tettleton: “Two of them. But you know, when we hit them we didn’t watch the ball and parade around the base like guys do today. There’s nothing wrong with that — guys are just enjoying the game — although sometimes it maybe gets a little carried away. I remember hitting them, though. It was as a seven-day stretch where I hit seven home runs, and two of them were on the roof.
“A funny thing is that when I hit that first one, I got about a dozen balls in the mail the next week. Some of them were still in the box, some of them looked like the dog had been chewing on them, but they all claimed that it was the ball I hit over the roof. I signed all them and sent them back.”
Laurila: Do you think you’d be more highly-regarded if you played now?
Tettleton: “I would probably fit the mold a little bit more, with hitting home runs and striking out. I was a little bit ahead of the time, I guess. Now it seems like it’s all or nothing.”
Laurila: Is that the biggest difference between your era and today?
Tettleton: “Yeah. Everybody talks about launch angle, and all this other stuff. We just were just trying to hit the ball hard somewhere. There were certain things within the swing that are still applied today, but back then, whether you hooked it around the foul pole or hit it 20 rows back, it was just one run. It didn’t matter how it got there.”
Laurila: You didn’t become a full-time player until you were almost 30 years old. Could have you been a productive hitter earlier in your career?
Tettleton: “I think I could have, but it’s nobody’s fault. Terry Steinbach was there [with Oakland] and Tony La Russa was very big on on certain guys catching certain pitchers. I had some guys that I caught, and Terry had some. And Terry was just a really good player. Getting released [in spring training 1988] and going to Baltimore was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Laurila: I recall you being considered a solid defensive catcher until you started hitting a lot of home runs. Then everybody looked at you as offense-first.
Laurila: The Johnny Benches of the world — catchers who are viewed as being great on both sides of the ball — are the exceptions, not the rule.
Tettleton: “And Ivan Rodriguez. He was probably the best catcher, from both sides, that I ever saw.”
Laurila: Who did you really enjoy catching?
Tettleton: “I was fortunate enough to catch Dave Stewart when he won 20 games. That was a thrill for me. And there were some other guys along the way. Don Sutton. Tommy John. There really weren’t many guys that I didn’t enjoy catching, although some of them were more challenging than others. Some guys threw really hard and you didn’t know where it was going. ”
Laurila: What made Stewart so good?
Tettleton: “He could throw all of his pitches for strikes, and he could throw them any time he wanted to. He could use his fastball really well, inside to right-handers. That was his strong side of the plate. The order of his pitches was probably fastball, his split-finger, and his slider. All of them were quality.
“Dennis Eckersley, too. I caught Eckersley in Oakland, and he was the same way. He could control all of his pitches, and was very precise with them. Those guys were fun to catch, because you knew if you called it in a certain area, it was going to be right there.”
Laurila: What was it like to catch Frank Tanana?
Tettleton: “I caught Frank at the tail end of his career, when he didn’t have the explosiveness he had early on. But he was a true pitcher. He moved the ball around on the plate, and he changed speeds really well. He was a guy who could throw soft stuff when he was behind in the count, or he would throw hard when he was ahead in the count — ‘hard’ being a relative term for Frankie. Again, he was what you would call a true pitcher. He had arm problems and went from a guy who could throw the ball really hard, to a guy who needed to have total command.”
Laurila: You hit your first career home run against against Tanana…
Tettleton: “He also knocked me on my ass the next time up. I was like, ‘OK, I understand how this game is played now.’ It wasn’t anything up around my head or anything like that. It was, ‘OK, you did your thing. Now, welcome to the big leagues.’”
Laurila: I assume the home run ranks pretty high in your career thrills.
Tettleton: “No question. I don’t know how it happened, but I’ve actually got a picture of the sequence of the swing, which is really cool. And when I got back to the bench, I got the silent treatment. Nobody got up, said congratulations, or anything like that. And you know how they always try to go out and get the baseball? They’ll get the baseball and give it to the trainer, and he’ll mark on there ‘first career home run.’ Well, they got another baseball and put something on it like, ‘It was a hanging breaking ball in the sixth inning when the pitcher was tired.’ Then they gave me the real baseball.”
Laurila: You played with Cecil Fielder for five seasons, and had a higher OPS than him in all of them.
Tettleton: “That’s crazy. I did not know that.”
Laurila: I assume Cecil had the most power of anybody you played with?
Tettleton: “The guy that probably had the most power was actually Dean Palmer. He could hit a baseball a long ways. But Cecil… what he did was just incredible. And a lot of my home runs were with the bases empty, because I usually hit behind him, and he’d cleared them all. I hit with the bases empty a lot.”
Laurila: Rob Deer was on those Tigers teams, as well. He had a lot of power.
Tettleton: “Gibby did, too. Kirk Gibson could hit it a long ways. We had a team that was built to score runs. And we scored a lot of them.”
Laurila: I want to ask you about another former teammate who a lot of fans today may not be familiar with: Travis Fryman.
Tettleton: “He was unbelievable. I would call him, and guys like [Alan Trammell], just true professionals. They just went about their business every day. They showed up at the ballpark and played hard. I’m not sure Travis ever got the credit that he deserved. He was a really good player, and for a long time.”
Laurila: Would you compare him to any current players?
Tettleton: “Maybe a little bit of [Justin] Turner, from the Dodgers? Again, a guy that’s hard-nosed and shows up to the ballpark ready to play every day. He was at third base when I was there. Tram was at short.”
Laurila: Does it surprise you that Lou Whitaker isn’t in the Hall of Fame?
Tettleton: “It does a little bit. He had over 2,000 hits and 200 home runs, and not many second baseman have done that. Lou had a remarkable career. Tram obviously did as well. He was the ultimate professional.”
Laurila: Juan Gonzalez had some big years when you played with him in Texas.
Tetteleton: “I think he belongs [in the Hall of Fame]. When you have a chance to watch what Juan did every day… I mean, he was one of those guys that could put a team on his back and carry it. What he did was remarkable. Just a wonderful player.”
Laurila: Rangers fans obviously remember him well, but on a national level he’s somewhat forgotten…
Tettleton: “Yeah, he’s a little bit of a mystery. You know, Juan never really let people get that close to him. You don’t really know that much about him, but he’s a good dude. I think a lot of people just don’t know Juan Gonzalez as well as some of the other guys, but as far as on the field… I mean, there’s no argument.”
Laurila: Are there any other players you’d like to share your thoughts on?
Tetteleton: “Well, there’s always the McGwire-Canseco-Bonds argument. My personal feeling is that those guys should be in the Hall of Fame.”
Laurila: The reason being…?
Tettleton: “They still had to hit it.”
Laurila: Any final thoughts?
Tettleton: “Like I kind of mentioned earlier, the thing I’m most proud of is being able to stay in the big leagues for 14 years. You’ve got to be pretty consistent, and do some things right, to be able to stay there that long. So that’s probably the number I’m most proud of: 14.”
Laurila: Why is the number 14, and not 15 or 16?
Tettleton: “My body just ran out of gas. I’ve had 11 knee operations. I’ve already had one replaced, and need to have the other one replaced. Physically, my body had enough. And it just wasn’t any fun anymore. When you’re having a hard time getting up and down stairs and you’re 36 years old, it’s probably time to look at doing something else. I was also never going to stick around for extra money, or numbers, or anything like that. Once it turned into a ‘job,’ it was time to move on. That’s what I did.”