It’s possible that Mike Heath was the best defensive catcher in the Gold Glove era who never won the award. Heath was known for his excellent throwing arm and was skilled at handling pitchers and blocking pitches. But early in his career in the Yankee organization, the second-round pick out of Tampa got pigeon-holed as a backup player, finding it difficult to shed the stigma of being a part-timer.
But after serving mostly in a secondary role, Heath’s career turned around dramatically when he got the chance to play for Sparky Anderson and the Tigers in the 1980s. In five seasons in the Motor City, Heath gave the ivory-haired skipper a jack-of-all-trades option off his bench. And if there was something Anderson really loved, it was a role player who could wear many gloves. Few managers resurrected as many careers for bench players as did Sparky. During his time with Detroit, Anderson loved to have guys like John Wockenfuss, Heath, Dave Bergman, Tony Phillips, and Mickey Tettleton at his beck-and-call.
Mike Heath was drafted by the New York Yankees out of high school in 1973 and started his pro career as an 18-year old. The thick-necked Heath was originally a middle infielder, albeit a stocky one. He didn’t look like the nimble, thin-wasted shortstops popular in baseball at that time. In six seasons in the Yankee minor league system, Heath didn’t look much more than roster-filler. The team tried him all over the diamond, eventually working him out at catcher where Heath’s throwing arm was a great asset. Though his path to the majors was blocked at that position by all-star Thurman Munson, he had a chance to serve as a caddy. Chasing pennants under George Steinbrenner, the Yankees continually traded their top catching prospects in the 1970s. Heath made his big league debut during the Yanks’ wild ’78 season when manager Billy Martin was fired, replaced by Bob Lemon, and then reintroduced as the next “manager-in-waiting” at the old-timer’s game in July.
Living a dream that few rookies get to experience, Heath was on the postseason roster and appeared in the World Series for Lemon and the Yanks in ’78, getting a chance to catch in the World Series win over the Dodgers. After six years paying his dues in the minor leagues, Heath earned a World Series ring in his first season in the big leagues.
But his time in New York was short-lived. Before the winter meetings that offseason, Heath was included in a massive ten-player trade between the Yankees and Rangers. The key players moving were Sparky Lyle going to the Rangers and Juan Beniquez and young lefty Dave Righetti going to The Bronx. Heath was little more than a throw-in.
But the lowly A’s needed a useful player like Heath, so they traded for him in 1979. For the next seven seasons he was a staple on the Oakland roster, usually forming one-half of a platoon behind the plate with guys like Jim Essian and Jeff Newman. He started to round in to a guy who could “run into one” now and again, hitting as many as 13 homers for the A’s in their expansive ballpark. All the while, Heath filled in at right and left field, third base, and even shortstop on occasion. If there had been an all-star spot for utility players, Heath could have been up for it every year. Also, he did something very unusual, he learned how to play catcher mostly at the big league level, and he got very good at it. On September 29, 1983, he caught a no-hitter thrown by Mike Warren.
Just as the A’s were starting to build the team that would win three consecutive pennants in the late 1980s, they dealt Heath during the 1985 winter meetings to get some pitching help in the form of hot-headed St. Louis ace Joaquin Andujar. It looked like a great trade for the Athletics, but Andujar only managed to win 15 games for Oakland in two seasons. Heath found himself in a Cardinal uniform playing for legendary manager Whitey Herzog. But he barely got to learn his way around the National League when Detroit general manager Bill Lajoie nabbed him for the stretch run in 1986.
Detroit got Heath by accident, really. He wasn’t even on their radar. The club had perennial All-Star Lance Parrish and several promising catching prospects in the pipeline in the mid-1980s, such as Dave Engle, Orlando Mercado, Dwight Lowry, and Matt Nokes. But the Tigers found the need for him and acquired Heath from the Cardinals late in the 1986 season when Lance Parrish was sidelined and on the disabled list. When it became apparent that free agent Parrish might not return in 1987 (and he didn’t, opting to sign a deal with the Phillies after contentious negotiations with Detroit’s front office), Heath was kept around as insurance. Still, Sparky figured the young Mercado or Nokes would man the tools of ignorance in a post-Parrish era.
In the first few weeks of ’87, Heath had forced his way into the lineup and as late May 13th his batting average was over .400.
“I finally found out how we can score runs,” Sparky said in May when his team was scuffling in the depths of the AL East. “I’ll just let Heath bat one through nine and we’ll be fine.”
But of course, everyone knew Heath wasn’t going to hit like Harry Heilmann all year. He came back to earth with the bat, but his leadership from behind the plate, some key hits, and his versatility, were valuable to Sparky in 1987 as the Tigers roared to baseball’s best record. For the season, Heath posted career-best offensive numbers: a .281 average, .430 slugging percentage, and an OPS of 760, easily his best. For a guy known as a good-field, no-hit catcher/utility player, it was a welcome surprise. In a season when the Tigers got contributions from a deep bench, Heath’s 93 games split between catcher and eight other positions (the only position Heath didn’t play was pitcher) were a godsend for Sparky.
Anderson started Heath in Game One of the American League Championship Series against the Twins and Heath made the decision pay off. In the third inning he belted a solo homer off Frank Viola that briefly tied the game.
In 1989 in only 937 1/3 innings behind the plate, Heath had 66 assists, the highest total in the American League. His arm was accurate and he helped cut down the running game in a down year for the Tigers, smacking ten homers as well. Sparky was impressed by Heath’s ability to control the running game.
“I’ve said all along that only [Joel] Skinner of the Yankees has an arm that can match [Heath],” the Detroit manager said.
Heath played his fifth and last season for Sparky in 1990, appearing in 122 games, mostly behind the dish for the Tigers but also seeing action in right field and even playing one emergency inning at shortstop.
Then in 1991 the Tigers signed Mickey Tettleton, who was sort of the “A-List Mike Heath.” Tettleton was a switch-hitting catcher with great power who could also play the corner outfield, first base, and fit well at designated hitter when needed. With Tettleton in tow, the 36-year old Heath was no longer needed, but he appreciated his time on Detroit.
“I fit into how Sparky wanted to run things with the Tigers,” he told Peter J. Wallner in an interview later. “I loved playing for the Tigers; it was a great time in my life. Sparky was phenomenal. I got to play under Billy Martin [in New York], Bobby Cox [in Atlanta] and Sparky. So I was pretty fortunate because Sparky was the type of manager I needed at that point in my career – he was great to talk to.”
Heath signed a contract with the Braves and spent the first three months of the ’91 campaign with Atlanta before suffering a shoulder injury that ended his season. He tried a comeback with Tacoma in the A’s organization the following year, but seeing as how he was 10-12 years older than most of the players in the league, he wasn’t going anywhere and retired with a sore elbow. He’d played more than 1,300 games in the majors, hitting .252 with more than 1,000 hits, 86 of which were home runs. He also had that ring he won in his very first season in The Show.
After his playing career it wasn’t a surprise that Heath’s name popped up a few times when the subject of toughness was brought up. He managed briefly in the White Sox farm system but quit when he became frustrated with modern ballplayers. “There were guys you couldn’t pinch hit for,” he told MLive in 2015. “I wanted to talk to a catcher and I had to go through a catching coordinator.”
Sparky Anderson once described Heath as “intense” and admitted that he misjudged his new player when he first arrived in Detroit in 1986. But in time, the Detroit manager came to find out what others who had managed Heath knew: he was scrappy and useful. Those two words may not be very dynamic, but on a baseball team they can make a big difference.