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CATCHER OF THE WEEK: Todd Hundley—Catcher ON The Rye

Todd Hundley, doing his best impression of how Cub fans watched him play for their team.

In my 40 years of following the Cubs, I have seen a great many men come through town while donning the tools of ignorance—they collectively comprise a tapestry that ranges the entire characteristic gamut.  From the outstanding (our current catcher, one Willson Contreras, who after these past 40 years is well on his way to being the best of them all) to the terrible (Todd Pratt), to the mediocre (Todd Servais), to the serenaded (Jody Davis) to the portly-and-mustachioed (Barry Foote…as well as the Hispanic version of Barry Foote–Hector Villanueva), to the seemingly-washed-up-before-finding-his-way-into-the-same-clubhouse-as-Barry-Bonds-and-suddenly-showing-life-again (Benito Santiago), to the promising-but-ultimately-disappointing (Damon Berryhill), to the strike-breaking (Damian Miller), to the curiously-named (Gabor “Paul” Bako) and on and on and on and on.  I could literally spend hours going over the litany of catchers and where they fit in the pantheon of Cubs history.

And then there’s Todd Hundley. 

I’m not sure how to best characterize Hundley’s tenure with the Cubs.  It was definitely bad and definitely disappointing.  There was very little—if any– good that came out of it.  To some, like the inimitable Bad Kermit, Hundley was the Number 1 Worst Cub in their lifetime.  To others, he was merely the most hated.  By any measure, Todd Hundley is probably not only the most loathed catcher in franchise history but is definitely in the team photo for most loathed Cub overall, nestled somewhere in between Milton Bradley and LaTroy Hawkins.  That’s quite a trick for someone who otherwise would seem to have been given a rather sizeable head start, what with the fact that he was not only a local kid, but the son of one of the most popular Cubs of the 1960’s.

Randy Hundley, of course, was the catcher of the 1969 Cubs whom Leo Durocher wore down to a nub.  Playing for a team that played all 81 home games during the day, Hundley freaking averaged 153 games a year between 1966 and 1969 (with an average of 148 starts).  In 1968 he played in 160 games (156 starts).  As a catcher!  He had a fine season in 1969 when the Cubs made a run at the postseason for the first time in 24 years as he slashed .255/.334/.391.  Of course, having played in 151 games in 1969, Hundley’s workload would be reflected in his .151/.240/.221 September/October.  He finished the season with a .725 OPS after a .461 OPS in the season’s  final 27 games, as his nosedive effectively mirrored his team’s.

It was Hundley’s uncomplaining toughness, combined with his folksy, West Virginia charm, that endeared him to Cubs fans.  It was this popularity that Hundley was able to bank on when he pioneered the idea of grown-assed adults suiting up and fulfilling their childhood ambition with fantasy camps, which are now prevalent across the country. 

And it only took his son less than 2 years to squander the goodwill that Randy spent a lifetime accruing.  How big of an asshole must you be to pull that stunt off?

Because Randy was employed by the Cubs, and was well-liked, he settled his residence in northwest suburban Palatine, where he raised his family. Todd followed in his father’s footsteps as a catcher, matriculating through the local program before starring at Fremd High School. Thanks to the genes he inherited and the resources provided by his father, Todd was a standout from an early age. Years after he had made it to the bigs I had a conversation with someone whose son played against Todd in travel baseball, and this guy still remembered how Hundley would race down the first base-line on every ground ball to back up the throws to first base, something no other catcher at that level did. He was clearly destined for the major leagues from an early age and so it was no surprise when the New York Mets selected Todd in the second round of the MLB amatuer draft, just two weeks after his 18th birthday.

Hundley made his debut in 1990 at the age of 20, and by age 23 he was an everyday catcher for the Metropolitans. Hundley entered the record books in 1996, when he broke Roy Campanella’s single-season mark of home runs by a catcher when he walloped 41. The following year he improved upon his .906 OPS with a .943 mark. That season–1997–proved to be his peak, as injuries began to pile up. The Mets acquiring Mike Piazza in mid-season 1998 led to the short-lived experiment of having Hundley play left-field, after which he was dealt to Los Angeles where he resumed playing behind the plate. After 2 decent seasons in Los Angeles, Hundley was a free agent.

To this day I remember having a conversation with a co-worker who was every bit a Cubs fan as I was and we were in agreement in being against Hundley signing with the Cubs. Although he was only 31 years old, was a local guy and had been an All-Star as recently as 3 years prior, indications were that he was definitely on the downside of his career, and the idea of signing him to a multi-year deal seemed rather risky.

Turned out we were optimistic in our assessment.

Hundley’s first day as a Cub portended his entire Cubs tenure. On Opening Day, manager Don Baylor started Joe Girardi at Catcher and Hundley wasn’t shy about voicing his displeasure. When he was given an opportunity, he failed to back up his grounds for malcontentedness, going hitless in his first 14 plate appearances. He did manage a 9-game hitting streak that April, but of course delivered exactly one hit in all but one of those games in the streak, as he went a meh 10-37. At the end of this streak his average stood at .212, and that proved to be .004 less than his season’s high-water mark. At the end of play on June 9th, his average stood at .200, and after dipping below that mark the next game, he never reached it again for the rest of the season.

Making matters worse was the fact that the 2001 Cubs were, for most of the year, competitive. They were in first place from April 15th through May 12th, and again from May 27th through August 12th–no thanks to Todd, who was rocking a .179/.259/.295 slash line (.553 OPS) in 174 plate appearances when he went on the Disabled List June 18th. At the time of his injury, the Cubs were 41-26 and held a 5 game lead in the division. Imagine where they might have been had they gotten anything out of Hundley in 2001.

In his absence, the Cubs added Robert Machado to the roster and Machado and Girardi were doing just fine holding down the catcher spot when Hundley insisted on returning to the roster and bellyaching his way into the lineup. On the morning of his first game back, the Cubs were in first place, with a 60-42 record, 4 games up on Houston and 8 1/2 games up on St. Louis, whom they had bested in a thrilling game the day before. In Hundley’s return, he came to the plate for the first time in the second inning, with runners on first and third and 2 outs, with the Cubs down 1-0. He struck out looking on 4 pitches to kill the rally. The Cubs took the lead in the 4th inning and appeared to have starter Andy Benes on the ropes when Hundley came to the plate with 1 out and a runner on second…and he promptly let Benes off the hook with a weak popout to centerfield. He was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the 6th with the Cubs down 3-2 (and probably bitched about it), and Miguel Cairo drew a walk in Hundley’s stead before Hundley’s defensive replacement Machado lined a double down the left-field line to tie the game. The Cubs eventually lost the game and Hundley’s season only got worse from there. While he did homer in his next game on August 1st, it turned out to be his only homerun for the entire month of August. Hundley did hit 7 homeruns in September but only had 9 hits overall that month. Inexplicably, Hundley got over half the starts at catcher in the last 2 months and it’s probably no coincidence that the Cubs faded from contention during this time. He finished the season with an abhorrent .187/.268/.374 slash line (.642 OPS) in 276 Plate Appearances, his first year of a four-year contract worth $23.5 million dollars that Cubs President (and at the time, acting GM and noted dumbass) Andy MacPhail handed to him (you’ll have to take my word for it that a 4 year, $23.5 million dollar deal was a BIG contract in 2001).

Nobody in their right mind would have expected a turnaround the following season in 2002, and Hundley did nothing to assuage this pessimism, as he followed up his dismal 2001 campaign with a slightly improved-but-still-underwhelming .211/.301/.421 slash line (.722 OPS) in 303 Plate Appearances. Unlike the 2001 Cubs, the 2002 Cubs were bad from the start, and didn’t sniff contention all season so Hundley’s putrid play didn’t seem to hurt so badly. If his 2002 season would be remembered for anything it would be the day he hit a 6th inning homerun in an eventual loss to Cincinnati and, upon touching home plate, proceeded to give the finger to the hometown fans sitting behind the Reds dugout. Yes it’s a shitty thing to boo your own players for poor performance (as opposed to poor effort), but it’s an equally shitty move to make a show out of trying to stick it to them, while you’re massively underperfoming and getting paid handsomely for the privilege.

If there’s any good that came out of the Todd Hundley Era, it was when then-General Manager Jim Hendry, whom one can only assume was employing some sort of Jedi mind-trick, managed to unload Hundley back to the Dodgers with 2 years remaining on his exorbitant contract. In exchange, the Cubs received two other veterans whose careers had stalled–Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek. Both Karros and Grudzielanek proved to have critical roles on the 2003 Cubs as that team came within 5 outs of a pennant. The fact that they helped us forget that Todd Hundley ever existed might have been their biggest contribution, however.

Hundley’s Cub contract was so awful that he managed to collect the final $7 million of it while sitting on his couch in the north suburbs while emptying bottles of Crown Royal and Vicodin. He was “granted” Free Agency on October 29th, 2004–over a year after he played in his final big league game on September 27th, 2003. He will forever go down as one of the most disliked players in Cubs history.

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