By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
He shuffles over, looking equal parts frustrated and defeated, but Frank Catalanotto is oblivious to his pain. At first. Cat sits hunched in a black leather chair for a second or two, shoulders rounded, before he notices a Rangers coach, Bobby Jones, thrusting a piece of folded paper in his face.
Eager to help, as always, Catalanotto smiles and then snatches the sheet away happily. Giving it a quick perusal, he goes to work with a pen, making swift strokes on the page before returning it to its owner. Whatever he did, whatever cosmetic changes he inflicted, must have been beneficial. Jones chuckles, then leaves sated.
"Crossword puzzle," Catalanotto offers. "Big team effort. I do whatever I can."
He laughs a bit, perhaps because he's caught himself uttering a favored sports chestnut--unlike so many others, he isn't predisposed to retread responses--more likely because he's aware of the irony. Catalanotto fills in for the Rangers at sundry positions as frequently and smartly as he maneuvers through brain teasers. Which is good. And bad.
Yesterday it was second base. Today the outfield. Tomorrow third. The day after...who knows? Maybe manager. Really, with the way things have progressed thus far--or not, depending on a given definition--that piece of paper could just as easily have been the lineup card. Um, Frankie...Christ, listen, we don't know where the hell to put you today. Jerry sent me in here. Why don't you just pencil yourself in somewhere...kay?
Since this season began--spiraling out of control and right into the shitter before anyone could stop it--the "plan" hasn't exactly come to fruition. Said plan was masterminded by Johnny Oates, who was summarily exiled a month ago, which tells you all you need to know about its effectiveness. As of Tuesday, the Boys in Blue were appropriately colored, sitting, let's see, how many games out of first place? Truthfully, I'm not sure I can count that high. In fairness, their woes aren't due solely to uninspired play, though there's been more than enough of that. Plenty of injuries have contributed, too, leaving the club battered as well as beaten. Ostensibly, there is no reprieve lurking. Any sort of move from the American League West cellar will take a supreme effort, an incredible combination of guns and booze and determination. These guys appear to be painfully short on at least two of those. Tequila, anyone?
The trade-off, or at least a small consolation, is that bottomed-out teams ("Here they are, your last-place Texas Rangers!") have a mindset--something on the order of "ah, what the hell?"--that allows them to audition young talent. Allows them to find out if Aaron Myette can pitch or Mike Young can play. They knew Cat could play. Now they're finding out where and how well.
He has been the Rangers' MacGyver, patching problem areas you were sure weren't fixable. Technically, he's a utility infielder, but saddling Catalanotto with any label is misleading and diminishing. He's appeared in more than 40 games this year, which is absurd at this point in the season for a guy who was scheduled to be a bench player, a reserve, a useful afterthought. Catalanotto came up as a second baseman, so playing there wasn't much of a surprise. Neither were his stints at third, filling in for bruised and underproductive Ken Caminiti, who the Rangers could, and should, have cut before June 1 in order to save money and face. Instead they kept a "name," which is ever so important to pathetic ballclubs still trying to lure unsuspecting fans (dopes) through the turnstiles, but that's another matter all together.
No, what has been particularly impressive about Catalanotto's play--aside from solid numbers; through Monday he was hitting .294--is his adaptability in unfamiliar situations. When it became clear that right fielder Ruben Mateo needed more seasoning (he was banished to bucolic OKC not long ago, God help him), manager Jerry Narron turned to Catalanotto yet again. Interesting, considering the 27-year-old appeared in the outfield just once before this season.
"Any time you can learn a new position and play at a high level--not just for a day, but for weeks at a time; that's what I mean by a high level--you help yourself tremendously while helping the club," says Scott Sheldon, who has a unique perspective on all of this. Last year he became only the third major-leaguer to appear at all nine positions in the same game. "You take a lot of pride in that. Not many guys have that ability. It makes the team feel comfortable. It makes the manager have confidence. Cat's done that."
Which, again, is good. And bad.
Mundane routine is a ballplayer's pal. Knowing where he'll hit in the order or what patch of grass or dirt he'll patrol is, at the least, comforting. Bouncing from post to post like a whore changing street corners is somewhat more unnerving. Beyond that, and of more long-term concern, utility players rarely come into prominence or big bucks. Each year, Tony Phillips, who has played with every team from Detroit to Anaheim, collected somewhere near 400 at-bats by filling in wherever needed. Made a living doing it, but it was hard and tiring and not very sexy. Most successful players eschew that path.