Huckaby knows it's special to wear Blue
Dodgers 1991 draft pick back where he began his career
VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Every dispatch with a "GLENDALE, Ariz." dateline brings with it, in these parts, another dose of melancholy.
Local citizens are resigned to losing the Dodgers, their spring visitors for 60 years. It's not a matter of if, but when.
While links to the past fade with the years, the old-timers remember the good old days, and one old-timer actually happens to be a current player.
Yes, the journeyman catcher Ken Huckaby on the non-roster list is the same one the Dodgers drafted in 1991. For a sense of how long ago that was, Scott Elbert -- the Dodgers' top pitching prospect and the youngest player reporting to camp this week -- was 5 years old when the Dodgers took Huckaby in the 22nd round.
And when they took Huckaby, it wasn't with the expectation that he'd still be crouching 16 years later. Fittingly, Huckaby credits his longevity to his Dodger Blue upbringing.
"The year I got here, they had Daryl Strawberry and Eric Davis, Orel Hershiser and Mike Scioscia. It was Scioscia who turned my career around," Huckaby said of the current Angels manager and longtime Dodgers catcher. "He taught me the mental part of catching and calling a game and he's one of the main reasons I'm still playing.
"Sosh had the ability to communicate with pitchers. He said he learned that from Roy Campanella, who was here with him every spring. I learned it from Mike and I learned it from John Roseboro, another former Dodger catcher who was here each spring.
"I've tried to explain to other players what it was like, coming up like that at that time. To be able to call home and say, 'You know who I saw today? Sandy Koufax.' Or Don Drysdale. When you're 20 years old, those guys are bigger than life."
Huckaby didn't turn out bigger than life on the field. He spent his first 11 professional seasons in the Minor Leagues before finally making a Major League appearance. He has played the equivalent of one full season -- 161 games -- in the big leagues over the last six seasons -- with Arizona, two stops in Toronto, Baltimore, two stops in Texas and last year with Boston. He also was recalled by the Dodgers in 1996 but did not appear in a game.
He's now 36. He's played for 21 managers. He's been released (technically granted free agency) 11 times. He lost all chance of making the Red Sox last Spring Training when his surgically repaired knee blew up and he spent most of the year in Triple-A Pawtucket.
He knew when he signed with the Dodgers as a free agent what would be his role. He's essentially an insurance policy and he'll be spending the season at Triple-A Las Vegas mentoring the kids, unless something not very good happens to expected starting catcher Russell Martin or his All-Star backup, Mike Lieberthal.
However long he's around, though, Huckaby will soak it in. And whoever is willing to listen will hear what it was like back in the day.
"The Dodgers are different, they really are," he said. "When I was here, they stressed discipline, they set the bar high and it had an effect on me my whole career, subconsciously. My whole career, I show up at Spring Training at 6 in the morning and by noon during the season. I just do and it's because of what was expected of me here.
"They would take us to meetings every night and Tommy Lasorda would talk one night about motivation or they'd show a film about the 100-year history of the organization. Maybe at the time you thought it was tedious, but looking back, I was lucky and I'm proud of it. They instilled in you that it was special to wear the uniform."
And now he's back at Dodgertown. The clock is ticking on the place -- and on him -- but for now they're reunited.
"It's not the same Dodgertown as when I was first here and I'm not the same either," he said. "Nobody thought I'd be playing my 17th season and I'm resigned to where I'll be going. Normally, I've come to camp out to prove something to somebody, but that hasn't worked. This year I'm coming in to do what I do and have a good time, and I'll be where they want me to be. You never know what happens."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.