SAN DIEGO — He walked out to the plate, all of 5-feet-8 and 150 pounds, and assumed the position.
Joey Cora, catcher.
Mark Parent was in the dugout, having been lifted in the seventh for a pinch-hitter. Benito Santiago was on his way to the hospital, where X-rays would reveal a broken arm.
The Giants were getting ready to bat in the eighth, and the Padres were wondering what they were going to do now that both of their catchers were gone. Reliever Mark Grant was warming up, throwing to Parent. But somebody else had to get behind the plate, pronto.
Home plate umpire Eric Gregg stood on the first-base line and peered into the Padre dugout. Grant was wondering who he'd throw to when the game resumed. Most of the 27,380 in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, witnessing the Padres' 6-2 loss to the Giants, were wondering, too.
Then, a large pile of equipment with a little head, arms and feet sticking out shuffled into view. Cora.
The equipment was Santiago's. The shin guards came halfway up Cora's thighs. The rest? Well, as Grant said later, it was like pitching to a big old glove.
"He looked so funny running out there in that gear," Grant said.
Said Cora: "It felt heavy."
Padre Manager Jack McKeon had asked for a volunteer.
"That's all," McKeon said. "Who can catch?"
Bip Roberts volunteered. Jerald Clark volunteered. So did Cora. McKeon went with Cora.
"Because (Cora) was the first one," McKeon explained.
The first warm-up throw from Grant popped out of Cora's--well, Santiago's--glove. After a few more pitches, the eighth inning would begin. Ready or not.
Some say man's greatest instinct is self-preservation, and by now, Gregg's instincts were working overtime. A bit concerned, Eric?
"I certainly was," Gregg said, laughing. "Instead of getting behind him, I got on top of him."
It didn't help that when the pile of equipment had arrived at the plate, a little voice sounded in Gregg's direction.
"Hang with me, man, I've never been here before," Cora said.
Not at any level. The closest he came to catching, Cora said, was when he was in Las Vegas (triple A) and he would catch in the bullpen on his days off. But Sandy Alomar Jr. was his roommate, and Cora tried to remember how Alomar Jr. did it.
San Francisco pitcher Jeff Brantley was the first batter in the eighth, and it took exactly one swing to get Cora's attention.
"I thought he was going to hit me," Cora said. "Then the ball stuck in my glove."
Maybe, he thought, the afternoon wouldn't be a total disaster. By the time Kevin Mitchell came to the plate four batters later, Cora was beginning to feel comfortable.
"The first pitch to Mitchell, I called a ball," Gregg said. "He said, 'Hang loose, E.' "
Then, with Dave Anderson on second in the ninth, a Grant pitch sailed over Cora's head. Anderson took third.
"I said, 'What was that?' " Gregg said. "He said, 'He crossed me up, bro.' "
Anderson had singled, then stolen second--the Giants' only stolen base attempt against Cora. He didn't draw a throw; Cora couldn't get the ball out of his mitt.
"I was (angry) I didn't throw the ball to second," Cora said. "I didn't have the ball."
Meanwhile, one of the calmer men in the vicinity was Grant. Gregg may have been wary behind the plate, but Grant, who gave up three runs on four hits in two innings, said he wasn't nervous.
"You know what? I really wasn't," said Grant, whose pitches were, for the most part, called by Cora. "It was kind of funny in a way to see him back there. It broke some of the tension."
Pitcher Ed Whitson leaned over toward Grant's locker.
"There ain't enough money in damn Ft. Knox to put me back there (behind the plate)," he said.
For his part, Cora came away with some new respect for catchers.
"It was tough," he said. "I'm never going to fool around with catchers anymore. That's a tough position."
The only problem was, the Padres didn't win.
"I would have loved for us to win," he said. "I would have bragged so much about that game."
A few minutes earlier, a Padre public relations man had walked by.
"You've got to give me pictures," Cora told him. "The score card, too. Nobody will believe that."
That wasn't the only thing people had a hard time believing on this sunny afternoon. About 30 minutes later, word of Santiago's broken arm filtered into the Padre clubhouse. Somehow, the thought of catching again any time soon wasn't going to sound too good to Joey Cora.