Chris Stewart was never supposed to be a catcher.
In 1999, Stewart was slated to be his Moreno Valley, CA high school’s starting shortstop as a junior. But after the starting catcher quit the baseball team to join cheerleading, and the backup missed months with appendicitis, Stewart was thrust into the role.
“The coach, with no catchers left, comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, do you want to catch?’” Stewart recalls. “I tell him, ‘No. Why would I want all the bumps and bruises and bad knees? This sounds like a ridiculous idea.’ He’s like, ‘Well, you’re all we have left, so you’re catching.’”
It turned out to be the best move of Stewart’s baseball career. Though he had been playing the sport for over a decade, Stewart had only caught “sporadically,” playing more shortstop and pitcher, “like the athletic kids normally do.”
But as Stewart announces his retirement after 18 seasons in professional baseball, he has since realized that his calling was always behind the plate.
“Looking back on that, without speed, without power, without the ability to hit for a high average, I don’t think I could have played anywhere else on the baseball field,” he said. “It’s kind of funny how it all worked out. I think that moment was the reason why I was able to play baseball for as long as I would.”
Stewart began playing at five or six. While he doesn’t remember much from his first days on the field, he says that watching VHS tapes of early performances, “you could tell that I had an early knack for the game of baseball.” When he was nine, Stewart began playing in the local PONY Baseball league, and to this day, his core group of friends date all the way back to when he played for the youth Royals. And while he would go on to play in the major leagues for 12 seasons, it wasn’t immediately evident that Stewart would be able to play baseball for a living.
“I just loved playing the game,” he said. “I don’t think I was overtly better than most of the kids. I like to say that I was good enough to advance to the next level each time. I don’t believe I really stood out as the guy that was going to make it.”
Stewart went to Canyon Springs High School, and despite playing well there, did not receive a single college scholarship offer. His father suggested he write letters to local schools to gauge interest. Stewart received an offer from California State University, Fullerton, but a wrench was thrown into his plans after a Rangers scout visited his house, hoping to sign Stewart as an undrafted free agent.
“When they didn’t offer enough money or a college scholarship, there was really no interest,” Stewart said. “I think we decided as a family that the Fullerton offer would be a good one to take. We called the coach back, and the coach somehow got wind that the Rangers scout ended up in my house, so he thought I was going to sign with the Rangers. Then he went and gave that scholarship to another kid.”
Stewart and his family went back to the drawing board. A similar situation unfolded with the University of California, Riverside. Stewart had an offer in hand, was ready to make his decision to commit, and the team signed another, different catcher. Stewart didn’t know what to do. He wanted to play baseball in college, and the only option that remained was playing at the local junior college, Riverside Community College.
“In my mind, junior college is unacceptable,” he said. “I was a high GPA student and whatnot, and I thought junior college was below me and something that I’d never do. Now I’m in a position where it’s my only option, so I humbly called that coach up and said, ‘Hey, are you guys still interested?’”
It turned out to be the perfect fit. Stewart slashed .361/.444/.509 in 124 plate appearances, serving mostly as the backup catcher. His experience playing under Dennis Rogers — who Stewart calls one of the “best college coaches in the nation” — was invaluable to his growth as a baseball player.
“[Rogers] changed how I looked at the game, how I prepared for the game, and how I went about playing the game,” he said.
Despite not playing everyday, Stewart received the necessary exposure. Nine players were drafted from that Riverside team. Stewart himself expected to be selected in the 2001 MLB Draft, though he anticipated hearing his name near the end. Teams were interested in picking Stewart as a draft-and-follow player. Under that process, which no longer exists, the selecting organization would have maintained the rights to sign him until a week prior to the 2002 MLB Draft, giving them a second year of evaluation before making a firm financial commitment.
Stewart spent draft day at the field with his team, where the names were being broadcast over the field’s PA system. He recalls leaving the field in about the 10th round, and he arrived home to find a voicemail left on his answering machine.
“I still remember the message pretty well. It goes, ‘It’s so-and-so, scout with the Chicago White Sox. We drafted you,’” Stewart said. “My mind went blank at that point. I was kind of expecting 30th or later — not a big deal, nothing real immediate. I didn’t pay attention. But it was kind of cool, I got drafted, whatever. I remember the end of the message played, and I’m like, ‘Did he say something important there?’ I ended up replaying the message, and I still remember the second version that I heard. ‘This is so-and-so with the Chicago White Sox. We drafted you in the 12th round.’ At that point, I’m like, ‘Wait a second, did he really say what I think he said?’ I had to play it a third time to make sure, and sure enough, they drafted me in the 12th round.”
The White Sox did not meet Stewart’s initial signing bonus asking price. But after a successful summer playing baseball in Oregon, he received a call to have a second workout with Chicago. The next day, the team met Stewart’s — as he calls it, “ridiculous” — initial ask. For the first time, Stewart had come to the realization that he could play baseball for a living.
Fast forward five years, and Stewart had progressed rather nicely through the White Sox system. He was added to the team’s 40-man roster during the winter of 2005, and he prepared himself for a promotion if one of the big league catchers sustained an injury. As the season steamrolled forward, Stewart targeted early September as a realistic timeframe for his first call-up. But after he rolled his ankle in mid-August, he was no longer sure that it would happen.
“I probably came back before I was 100% healthy because I knew I had to get back on the field if there was going to be any chance I was going to get called up,” he said. “I got out and played. I was playing at 75%, but [it was] probably good enough. Speed wasn’t one of my greater assets.”
As fate would have it, 75% was indeed good enough.
“I remember, it was a couple days before September, the manager calls me in,” Stewart said. “He begins by asking questions, ‘Hey, how’s your ankle?’ I’m like, ‘It feels great.’ Obviously, it didn’t feel great, but I was going to say whatever it took to make sure that they were comfortable with me playing out there. He’s like, ‘Well, it’s going to have to be great if you’re going to play in the big leagues. You make sure it stays great because you’re going to get called up in a couple days.’”
Even now, that moment was one of Stewart’s favorite memories.
“You always think and dream about what it’s going to be like when you’re told those words, but until you actually hear them, it’s just something that can’t be experienced, that can’t be thought of,” he said. “I just remember there, I wanted to cry, but I’m like, ‘Stay steady, stay steady.’ I don’t think I ended up crying, but my eyes got watery. My manager gave me a big hug.”
In Stewart’s first ever major league start with the White Sox on September 27, he did something that no other catcher was ever able to do: throw out Grady Sizemore twice in one game.
“I remember Grady Sizemore,” he said. “He was the guy who could do it all on the baseball field. He was fast, he had power, he could run balls down, great hitter as well. I remember I threw him out twice in the same game. A reporter came up to me after the game and told me that it was the first time he’s ever been thrown out twice in the same game. I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s right. He tried to run on me, and that’ll be the last time he does that.’ I was digging myself. That’s what I absolutely loved doing: throwing.”
Stewart ultimately played in 12 different major league seasons, encountering different lessons at every stop. With Texas, his next organization, Stewart learned the importance of continuing to work hard, even after tasting the big league spread.
“I had that mentality of ‘I’m going to be a big leaguer for the next 15 years. Time to get used to it. All the hard work is over,’” he said. “It just dawned on me that that can’t happen.
“I think, in that moment, the player that I was was out the door, and the player that I would become was born. I had a completely different attitude, even from before I got to the major leagues. There was even a bigger drive not to waste any given opportunity.”
Stewart’s next significant opportunity came four years later. He was playing close to home, spending time in the Giants organization at Triple-A Fresno. But after Buster Posey went down in an infamous home-plate collision (one which spurred the introduction of “the Buster Posey rule”), Stewart was the team’s first call.
That year, Stewart played in 67 games, notably catching Tim Lincecum for 18 of his 33 starts. He remembers his time in San Francisco fondly.
“The city of San Francisco and the fans — I still went back as a visiting player, and fans would come up to me and say, ‘Hey, we remember when you were here, we love you, we miss you.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my God, I wasn’t even that good,’” he said.
Two years later, in 2013, Stewart played in over 100 games for the first time, this time in New York while with the Yankees. That year, Stewart was the catcher for two milestones: Andy Pettitte’s final start, and Mariano Rivera’s final save. Stewart’s 2013 season also rates as one of the best defensive catching seasons this decade. He produced +11 runs against the running game (his arm is Stewart’s personal favorite tool) and +22 more runs with his glove as a framer.
“I think all catchers, whether they truly believe it or not, will say that defense is number one and anything they can add at the plate is a bonus,” Stewart said. “That truly was my mindset going in, not only for myself, but if I could make that pitcher the best that he could be that day, then my job was done, regardless of what I did at the plate. That was the mentality that I had my entire career.
“I think there’s one metric — it’s probably not even a metric because it’s intangible — but how well a catcher works with the pitcher, how well he is at calling a game, handling the nuances of pitching staffs. That’s just something that can’t be measured. That is something that, [in order to see], you have to have eyes on the catcher. You have to be around him enough to understand how much extra that goes in. I think that’s another area that — I don’t want to pat myself on the back — but I take pride in those aspects of the game that aren’t really measurable as well.”
Pitch framing was also something Stewart thought about, but he says that it’s a much larger part of the game now than it was back at the peak of his career.
“It was always part of the game,” he said. “We used to call it ‘strike stealing’ back when I first started with the Yankees. It was, ‘Hey, how many strikes did we steal?’ It wasn’t a metric, it was just like, ‘we tricked the umpire.’ You knew yourself that you stole a strike that was a ball, so it was more of a mental note.”
And though Stewart did focus his game around his defense, there was one pitcher that he hit better than just about anyone else: Clayton Kershaw. Of the 137 players with as many at-bats against Kershaw as Stewart, no player has a higher batting average than his .529 (9-for-17). The next-closest hitter is 120 points behind.
When this stat was brought to his attention, Stewart was familiar with his success against Kershaw, but he couldn’t give any specific reason as to why this was the case.
“I can’t peg it down to anything,” Stewart said with a laugh. “He just hit my bat really well versus me hitting his ball really well. But, the funny thing is, he knows it now, too. Me being who I am, it just frustrates him more. He can expect, maybe, a better hitter getting some hits off of him. But it’s like, me, like, ‘I’m really giving up hits to this guy?’ It’s really funny. Whenever I go to the plate, it’s just kind of in the back of his head, and maybe that gives me a little bit of an edge, too, because he’s worried about what’s going to happen against this guy.
“It’s just one of those things I’m going to tell my grandkids. When I’m telling stories about baseball, I’ll be like, ‘You know that Hall of Famer, Clayton Kershaw? Well, I hit him pretty good.’ I had a lot of fun with it, and it’s just one of those weird things in baseball that happens and can’t be explained.”
After those seasons in San Francisco and New York, Stewart enjoyed another successful stop in Pittsburgh, where he played four years. But entering the 2018 season, he had a feeling that the end of his career was coming soon.
“[During] my last year in Pittsburgh, I didn’t have nearly the year I wanted to,” he said. “I had an option — a mutual option, actually it might have been a team option — but when I had a bad year there, I knew my option probably wasn’t going to get picked up. I think I was at like seven years and four months of service time. Everybody’s goal is the full pension at 10 years. That was my goal. I was getting closer; the full pension would be kinda cool. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if I didn’t get there, but it would have been kind of a cool milestone to hit.
“I had [also] heard about this magical ‘gold card’ that players talked about. It’s eight years of service time gets you this gold card. I don’t know all the details that go into it, but I’ve been told that, when you retire, you get this gold card. It’s actually gold, I think, and you go to a major league stadium and present it to a box office, and it gets you two of the best available tickets that they have for that game, regardless of the day, regardless of the game. I thought, ‘You know what? That’s kind of a cool milestone. It’s not that far away. I only have two months left to get to that full eight years.’ My gold card would be a cool memento to have in retirement. That was what I was working for. Going into last spring training, I just needed two more months and then I’d be happy.”
Stewart entered the 2018 offseason looking for a new deal, in hopes that he’d get the service time necessary to attain the gold card. Deep into the offseason, however, he had not received any calls, and it wasn’t until a week before spring training that he signed with the Braves on a major league deal. Pretty soon, after injuries to Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki, Stewart was the starting catcher. Quickly, Atlanta decided to go in a different direction.
“I remember we had a day game, and I get called into the office, and they tell me that they’ve picked up this other catcher, and I was going to need to get sent down,” he said. “It caught me off-guard at that point. I was like, ‘Alright, maybe they just need me to rest. They probably don’t want to blow me out at the beginning of the season.’”
Stewart stayed in the minors nearly the entire season, before he received a brief call-up in early September. The Braves then traded for another catcher, and Stewart was released. He played out the remainder of his season with the Diamondbacks. After accumulating a few more weeks of service, Stewart was now just a month shy of receiving the famed gold card.
“I went into this season just trying to get at least a month, with anything else being gravy,” Stewart said. “I was pretty confident that this was going to be my last year. Being away from family for so long. I’m gone for eight months out of the year. At best, I see my family half that time — half of those months that I’m gone. At worst, kids in school, I see them a quarter of the time, so like two of the eight months. That’s the big drawback for me, just being away from family and friends for so long.”
Stewart spent the beginning of his 2019 season with the Padres, but was released out of Triple-A after the team decided to go in a younger direction. He fell just 35 days short of the gold card.
“I came home with the attitude, ‘Hey, maybe this is where I’m supposed to be. In order for me to get drawn back to the game, this is going to have to be a pretty — I’ll call it a ‘golden platter’ offer that I just can’t refuse.’ Other than that, I’m ready to come home. I was kind of tired of playing the game; I didn’t want to play just to play. I felt like I was still a quality major league catcher. If teams didn’t value that, I wasn’t just going to show up and be Triple-A insurance anymore.”
Finally, after two weeks at home, Stewart decided to call it quits. After 18 years in professional baseball, including 457 major league games and one of the best defensive profiles in the sport, Chris Stewart was done with baseball. There’s still an itch for the game deep inside Stewart’s head, but every day, there’s a “clear realization” that he made the right call.
He’s excited to spend more time with his wife, his 10-year-old son, and his 7-year-old daughter. He’s getting the opportunity to go to his friend’s wedding in Hawaii. He’s serving as a counselor at a youth church camp. He’s getting to be a “professional dad full-time for the first time ever.”
“Baseball was obviously truly great for me,” Stewart said, “but my life after baseball is going to be so much bigger and so much better, and I’m excited to see what it has in store.”
Devan Fink is a Contributor at FanGraphs. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.