When catcher Chris Herrmann returned to the dugout after launching his first home run as a Seattle Mariner, Denard Span saw what many in Safeco Field did not.
“He said, ‘Man, you were smiling before you even hit first base,’” Herrmann said.
Contrast that home run on July 5 to where Herrmann was three months earlier. Back then he was sitting on his couch in Scottsdale, Arizona, wondering if he was going to play this season, while also helping his wife take care of their then-six-month-old son.
“It’s been a crazy year,” he said.
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He’s since reached base safely in six of his past eight starts and he’s been dialed into more duty with Mike Zunino heading to the 10-day disabled list because of a bone bruise in his ankle that will keep him out until after the All-Star break.
Herrmann had opportunities to sign with other teams, but as more of a utility player than a catcher. The Mariners gave him a chance to focus on catching, though with the option of playing other spots if needed late in games.
That’s a plus for the Mariners because Herrmann also gives the Mariners’ a left-handed bat off the bench when Zunino’s healthy. They have typically carried an eight-man bullpen and three bench players on their active roster, so Herrmann’s ability to play first base and the outfield gives manager Scott Servais more freedom to make late-game changes.
“He’s got power and he controls tuhe strike zone and he’s left handed,” Servais said. “All of those things contribute to the fact that if you can catch, you are going to be around in this league for a while.
“Great job by the guys in our front office for recognizing if we have issues or anything with Z, we have a guy we can plug in who has pop in the bat and he’s learning the pitching staff.”
One problem: Herrmann hasn’t been around the Mariners pitchers. It’s the first time he hasn’t had a major-league spring training to work with his pitching staff, so he’s had to take the crash course. On his first start on May 27, he found out that day he was going to play and catch Mike Leake and the right-hander’s seemingly 30-pitch arsenal.
“I was talking to Skip about this – when you go to spring training with a team you get to learn a lot about the pitcher and what their personality is and what they like in certain situations,” Herrmann said. “It’s hard. I’m still trying to figure out what works best with each pitcher.”
But what’s important, to him, is that he’s catching.
“I want to be a catcher,” Herrmann said. “I don’t want to be a utility player.
“If you want me to play in the outfield, I will. But I don’t want that to define me as a baseball player. I want to be a catcher. That was a major thing I talked with my agent about is my label. For so long in the big leagues it has been utility and, honestly, catcher is where I take the most pride.”
But he’s dealt with this for much longer than the big leagues.
Go back to Tomball High School in Texas.
He had played catcher throughout Little League, but he said his high school coach looked at him and told Herrmann he was far too athletic to sit behind the plate.
“That was when catchers were all big and overweight and I’m kind of lean,” said Herrmann, who’s listed at 6-feet, 200 pounds.
So he played second base and first base and earned end-of-season accolades at those positions, including second base on the Houston Area All-Star team. Then in college he played second, third, outfield and only occasionally caught.
His University of Miami biography notes: “He has the ability to play multiple positions on the infield, including catcher.”
Then a scout for the Minnesota Twins noticed him catching on of Miami’s intrasquad game and saw him throw a pair of runners out trying to steal.
“They liked it,” he said with a laugh.
So the Twins drafted him in the sixth round in 2009 as a catcher, though he spent rookie ball in the outfield before splitting time between outfield and catcher the following season. He made his major league debut with the Twins in 2012 at catcher.
After never having played more than 57 games in a season with the Twins, Minnesota traded him to Arizona before the 2016 season. In his first season with the Diamondbacks, he played in 56 games — catching in 31 of them — and batted .284.
Last year, he got into 106 games, hit 10 homers but batted just .181. He thought he would be on Arizona’s roster in 2018, but the Diamondbacks released Herrmann on March 26, three days before Opening Day.
Herrmann spent the next two weeks wondering where his next stop would be.
“I wasn’t sure there was going to be another job,” Herrmann said.
“I was just on my couch, watching TV, playing video games (he’s an avid Call of Duty player), hanging out with my son. I had to keep up with baseball, obviously, too, so I went to the cages every day and luckily there was a cage in Scottsdale I could hit at for no charge, which was great. But I just had my phone on me every single day, just anxious to hear from any teams that wanted me.”
The Mariners offered him a minor-league deal and he signed on April 9.
Herrmann was called up from Triple-A Tacoma near the end of May with an opt-out date approaching in his minor-league contract that would have allowed him to become a free agent and sign with another team if he wanted to. He said Rainiers manager Pat Listach had asked what Herrmann’s intentions were.
Herrmann replied that he had no idea that was even approaching.
“I didn’t care if I started in Triple-A, I just wanted to play baseball,” Herrmann said. “That’s all I cared about. Single-A, Triple-A, Double-A – I don’t care. I just want to play.
“Whenever you have something taken away from you that you really love, you realize how much you would do to get it back. It was tough – it was really quiet for a week and a half.”