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Hot Toddy : Mets' Hundley Is Closing In on Record for Home Runs by Catcher

September 05, 1996|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He broke his left hand in a collision at home plate in 1994 and broke his left wrist in another last year.

"There's so much arthritis in there already that I know I'll probably lose the use of it at some point in the future," Todd Hundley said.

"It hurts like hell almost every day, but that's the way it is as a catcher. My dad gave his body to the game. I'm going to lose my wrist to it.

"It's like football. If a catcher comes out with everything he came in with, he has to be very lucky."

Hundley will give more than his wrist to the game. His bat should soon be going to the Hall of Fame.

With 39 homers, the New York Met catcher is one shy of Roy Campanella's major league record for the position, set in 1953.

Johnny Bench hit 45 in 1970, but only 38 as a catcher.

Hundley's improbable assault has also enabled him to break Howard Johnson's National League record for home runs by a switch-hitter in a season, which was 38.

If Hundley gets 40, he will become only the second switch-hitter to reach that plateau. Mickey Mantle did it four times.

Mantle? Campanella? Who would have thought it?

Hundley hit 29 homers in 1,452 minor league at-bats. Defense kept him in the big leagues after his 1990 arrival at 20.

He totaled 31 homers in 566 at-bats during injury- and strike-shortened seasons in 1994 and '95.

At 27, he is a stocky 5 feet 10, 185 pounds. Sluggers Mark McGwire, Frank Thomas, Albert Belle and Mo Vaughn might use him as a barbell.

"I never anticipated that Todd would hit 38 or 40 homers a year, but I thought he could be in the 25-to-30 range," said father Randy Hundley, the former Chicago Cub catcher.

"If you project what he did in each of the last two years over a full season, that's about where he'd be.

"I think he's gotten stronger over the years and learned a lot about himself and the game. Home runs also have a way of perpetuating themselves.

"I mean, if you start off a season hitting them, you tend to develop a confidence that you can keep doing it. It's almost a Yogi-ism. The more you hit, the more you're going to hit."

The frequency with which Hundley has hit them prompted Roxie Campanella, Roy's widow, to visit him in the dugout at Dodger Stadium recently.

Campanella wished Hundley well and said later that her husband thought Dodger catcher Mike Pizza would be the one to break his record.

"But he would also be the first to congratulate Todd," she said. "He felt the record was there to be broken and didn't care who did it.

"He'd give credit to anyone who was good enough to do it. I think it's great that it's happening."

Hundley said he was honored to have Campanella's widow take the time to introduce herself, honored to be mentioned in the same category.

"I've seen pictures of him, read about him and talked to my dad about him," Hundley said of Campanella. "He was a Hall of Fame catcher who could flat-out hit. Who knows? He might have hit 50 some year [if his career hadn't been ended by the 1958 car accident]."

The pursuit, perhaps, is weighing on Hundley. He has only one homer since Aug. 21.

Hundley batted .209, .228 and .237 in his first three seasons with the Mets, then jumped to .280 last year. He is currently at .271 with 106 runs batted in. He has tied Darryl Strawberry's club record for home runs and needs 11 more RBIs to tie Johnson's club record.

How strange. The Mets always told him to concentrate on defense, not hitting. He heard it so often that it would have been easy to start believing he couldn't hit, wouldn't hit, "but you learn to tune it out. I wasn't going to let it mess up my career."

"His learning curve is still rising," said Dallas Green, fired recently as the Mets' manager. "I don't think we've seen the best of him yet. Offensively and defensively he's something special, but he'll be even more dangerous when he learns the strike zone a little better and recognizes off-speed pitches. He has an uppercut swing, a great power swing."

Hundley came to the majors as a pull hitter. Batting instructor Tom McCraw convinced him he could use the whole field without having to be a slap hitter. Now he's trying to keep it simple . . . leave his brain in the dugout, he said, and hit the ball hard.

"I've proven that I can hit home runs, but I'm more concerned with being a consistent run producer--driving in runs and scoring them," he said. "I mean, what's a home run? Nothing more than a long fly ball or line drive. Thank God they put fences out there because I certainly couldn't keep running that far."

Other factors play into Hundley's offensive emergence. The young catcher who came to the majors thinking he had to be a body builder and tore up his shoulder in heavy weight work now concentrates on flexibility and has moved with his wife and three children from Illinois to Florida, two miles from the Mets' spring base, so he can maintain a winter program in warm weather.

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