Gene Puskar, AP
Pittsburgh Pirates catcher John Buck (14) looks to the dugout during the first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals in Pittsburgh Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013.
ARLINGTON, Texas — It’s not every day that a player goes from one of the worst teams in Major League Baseball to one of the best, but that’s exactly what happened to John Buck this past summer. On Aug. 27, he was traded from the Mets, one of the National League’s worst clubs, to the Pirates, who are in contention for their first playoff berth since 1992.
“To go from worst to first and to get a chance to play in the playoffs, it’s a good experience,” he said.
The Taylorsville High product is now 33 and in his 10th big league season. Pittsburgh is his fifth team, and even though he has yet to experience the postseason for himself, he still brings a wealth of experience to a pretty young squad.
“That (experience that I bring) with a young team down the playoff stretch is huge, but I think (I also give them) another power bat off the bench who can leave the yard, and also down the stretch, someone who can give (starter) Russell (Martin) a little breather,” Buck said. “Getting that extra blow for him down the stretch is obviously huge.”
Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle likes the fact that the seasoned backstop has given him something he lacked for much of this season — depth behind the plate.
“John is an experienced defender, a veteran guy. He’s got layers of experience behind the plate — receiving, blocking, throwing, still throws the ball extremely well,” Hurdle said. “John’s been on the fly trying to learn a staff very quick. That’s a challenge at this point in time, but he’s taken it on professionally. He’s doing everything he can physically — catching guys in the bullpen, watching video, having conversations. He’s been a pro ever since he’s been here, has showed up very well.”
Of course, learning a new pitching staff over just several weeks can be tough to do, even for a catcher with Buck’s experience. However, it’s a challenge he is embracing as he’s enjoying working with a staff that has a nice mix of young arms like Gerrit Cole, the 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft, and veterans like A.J. Burnett, who started for the Yankees in the 2009 World Series.
“Good balance," said Buck of the pitching staff. "You go from a veteran power pitcher to a young power pitcher who is very eager to learn. We’ve got a lot of good pitchers who complement each other. Nobody’s the same. They’re all very different, which when you’re going against a team in a series, they’re not going to see the same person twice.”
The trade from New York to Pittsburgh, which saw Buck and veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd both shipped to the Pirates, was the third time Buck had been traded in his career. He admits that having someone else, especially a teammate he is good friends with like Byrd, accompany him to his new city softened the blow a bit of being dealt.
Buck also has the unique perspective of being someone who played against the Pirates during his time with the Mets to now being a member of the club that is looking to end a postseason dry spell that extends back to the early 1990s.
“They walked us (the Mets) off in a game we were up a couple of runs. It was the loudest game I’ve ever been a part of,” he recalled. “It’s that 10th man when you’re down the stretch in the ninth inning of a ballgame; you feel how loud it is and you get that energy from the crowd. It’s the real deal. You feel it on the other side of the ball.
"So that being said, now walking around town and being a Pirate, just going in a little diner and people say how excited they are to be part of it, how they’re enjoying the season, how they’re going to be at the game, you can tell there’s a big buzz going around town.”
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But even though Buck has built a solid big league resume, one of the few things missing is postseason experience – something he hopes will change in fairly short order.
“That’s what you play for. It’s the whole reason you put on your uniform. When you’re a kid, it wasn’t just to play that last meaningless game in September. It was to play that game to get in the playoffs or to the World Series,” he said. “Hopefully we get there with this team. Obviously, we feel like we’ve got a good chance to do it.”
Steve Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas.