“Charlie was really sharp. Knew the pitchers and hitters in the league, inside and out. On top of that, he was a great receiver. Real soft hands, handled a staff well . . . he’s what you want when you think of a catcher.”
Given his resume, Torborg’s assessment stands out. From 1964 to 1973, he spent ten Major League seasons calling pitches and blocking balls. With the Los Angeles Dodgers, he caught future Hall of Fame pitchers Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, and Don Sutton. Not only that, but he also helped his pitchers achieve great success, evidenced by his catching Koufax’s perfect game (September 9, 1965), Bill Singer’s no-hitter on July 20, 1974, and Nolan Ryan’s first no-hitter (May 15, 1973).
With this invaluable perspective, Torborg admires the way Charlie blocked balls. “He was just so smooth that he made it look easy.”
Torborg also appreciated Charlie’s baseball intelligence. “He was a coach, a manager-in-waiting on the field, which is what you really need with a catcher.”
Some achieve this leadership with an animated, rah-rah style. Others are more understated. Torborg places Charlie in the understated category.
“He’s not a catcher that was hyper, jumping around . . . Charlie just had a presence about him. He was calm, collected, and the presence that he projected to everybody that was around was he was controlling the game.”
Despite having a talented pitching staff of Cy Young Award winners David Cone, Dwight Gooden, and Bret Saberhagen, the Mets finished 72-90, fifth place in Torborg’s first season as the team’s manager. Torborg explains that injuries were critical to the team’s demise.
“Unfortunately, we had fifteen surgeries the first year there in ’92. Fifteen surgeries on a team. If that sounds impossible, I thought so, too. It just snowballed.”
Torborg recalls one game against the Cubs in Shea Stadium when, within the span of thirty seconds, he learned that the team lost its two best hitters to injuries. “The trainer comes down to say something to me about our centerfielder, Howard Johnson. Has a broken hand. He said, ‘You lost your centerfielder.’”
As Torborg speaks with the trainer about Johnson’s injury, he looks out toward right field where Bobby Bonilla is playing. “Bobby goes over and dives for a ball, and he either breaks or bruises two ribs. And, he’s out. So, our third and fourth place hitters go down within thirty seconds of each other.”
Torborg describes the season as frustrating, especially after just managing the Chicago White Sox to ninety-four and eighty-seven wins, respectively, in 1990 and ’91. Although the injuries, losses, and unfulfilled expectations made the season a grind, Torborg says, “One of the positive notes for me was Charlie. I’ve got the greatest respect for him.”
The feeling is mutual. “I like Jeff,” O’Brien says. “I liked him as a manager. He would try new things. All those exaggerated shifts for certain hitters – Jeff was one of the first to do that.”
In addition to respecting his baseball savvy, O’Brien enjoyed Torborg. “I just like talking baseball with him. He’s a smart guy, and I like hearing what he has to say. I liked him as an announcer, too. He always called a smart game from the booth.”
Torborg’s and O’Brien’s paths crossed after both left New York. In 2000, Torborg served as a special instructor for the Montreal Expos while O’Brien played the last games of his Major League career there.
As someone who enjoys O’Brien’s dry humor, Torborg says he looks forward to catching up with O’Brien during spring training. “You know, you see certain guys coming from across the field, and you go, ‘Oh, no. Do I have to see this guy?’ You see other guys coming across the field, and you just smile. You say, ‘Oh, man. Glad he’s here.’ Charlie’s one of those guys. Whenever you see him, you smile.”
Maybe it’s something about wearing that protective equipment and squatting behind the plate. Maybe it’s the selflessness of helping a pitcher make it through a game with smart pitch selections. Maybe it’s simply two guys who appreciate and enjoy each other. But, as Torborg enjoys trading war stories with O’Brien and thinks highly of him, the feeling is mutual.
“Jeff Torborg is one of the kindest, most well-grounded family men I’ve met. He raised his kids the right way. Yes, sir; no, sir. That, to me, says a lot about a guy.”