Ask Jeff Reed about his major league career and he laughs.
“I fooled them for 17 years,” the former big league catcher says.
Reed was joking, of course. You don’t last that long in the majors at the game’s most physically demanding position without having earned it.
When asked about the toughest pitchers he faced, Reed recalled how discouraged he was as a young player facing the likes of Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan.
“I saw those guys and I went back to the dugout shaking my head,” he said. “I said, ‘How do you hit that?’ They said ‘You don’t.’ ”
Reed figured it out well enough to play for the Minnesota Twins, Montreal Expos, Cincinnati Reds, San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs during his long career. He’s now the baseball coach at Providence Academy and has been on the Elizabethton Twins staff for 17 years.
So who were some of the toughest pitchers you faced?
“When I was young, Roger Clemens of the Red Sox ... I remember he was just a bulldog on the mound. He’d take that hat and pull it down and come right at you. He wasn’t afraid to back you off the plate, not once, but twice.
“Nolan Ryan, at the end of this career, was still tough. He was another guy that wouldn’t be afraid to throw it inside at any time. He would grunt. He would snort. He was still tough. What was amazing to me, in spring training I could always hit him well, but when he brought out that breaking ball, he was unhittable. He was nasty.
“One other guy, Dave Stieb of the Blue Jays, that dude had a slider like I had never seen before. He could tell you it was coming and you couldn’t hit it.”
How did you learn to hit major league pitching?
“When I came up, I was a defensive guy. I could catch and throw and work a staff. Those were my strengths. I learned to hit over time. Talking with a bunch of the best batters on my teams helped me a lot.
“When I got traded to Montreal, they brought in a guy name Al Tetrault. He wasn’t part of the Expos. They brought him in just to help me. That helped me greatly. When I left Montreal, he kept helping me and I paid him myself. I owe him a lot. That was the best thing any team ever did for me.”
You had an outstanding year while playing in Colorado with 17 of your 61 career home runs during the 1997 season. How much did hitter-friendly Coors Field help?
“No doubt it helped. What that probably did for me more than anything else was I created a mindset that when I was playing at home, I was very aggressive with the bat. I didn’t want to walk. I was going to swing the bat because the ball jumps there.”
Do you use that approach in your coaching?
“I try to get my kids at both levels to have that mindset. You can’t walk your way up. You have to swing the bat and be aggressive. In the minor leagues, a lot of times I had more walks than punchouts. Nowadays you never see that. That was just me. When I got to the big leagues, I found out that they don’t walk a lot of people.”
What do you remember about catching Tom Browning’s perfect game in 1988?
“What I remember about that game is that leading up to the last inning, Tom might have gone to ball 3 to one guy. He was on. Usually there’s a great play in one of those games, but everything was routine that game. I also remember it just flew by. I think we played it in an hour and 47 minutes. I had to slow him down a little bit because Tom liked to work fast, almost rush. It was just one of those magical nights.”
How tough was it to catch 17 years in the majors with the wear and tear? You still seem to be able to walk pretty well.
“I’m lucky. I did have knee surgery two years ago. I just got my elbow done this past year. I’m beginning to have a little maintenance I’ve had to do. I was lucky to play that long. I think the most games I ever played in a season was 125. It wasn’t like I was catching 145 games a year or anything like that.
How did you talk yourself back to the minors as a young major leaguer?
“My first year in the big leagues I made it out of camp. I was 21 years old and for about a month, I wasn’t getting to play. I went into the manager’s office and said ‘If you’re not going to play me, I want to go down to the minor leagues where I can play.’ The next day I was in the minors and after a week I said ‘What is wrong with me? This is brutal.’ There was a lot I needed to learn. Luckily, I learned that.”
How did you adapt to not playing every day?
“There was an adjustment once you got to the big leagues. When I was young, I was wanting to play every day. That was kind of tough. Then you learn to adapt. You learn what you needed to do to make sure you were ready to play when they call your name.
“You have to be ready every day. When they call your name, if you’re not ready and don’t produce, they’re going to send your butt down to the minors and bring up another guy. Once I learned that, things worked out for me.”