A fan favorite with the Detroit Tigers for ten seasons (1974-1983), John Wockenfuss was a versatile back up catcher who also could play the infield and outfield. Known for his unusual batting stance, Wockenfuss had the uncanny ability to hit to right field on the hit and run. Wockenfuss, 64, currently lives in Maryland and runs a baseball camp. He recently spoke with Bill Dow after visiting the Tiger Stadium diamond on a recent trip to Detroit.
Recently you played baseball on the Tiger Stadium diamond. How did that come about and what was the experience like?
“The last time I was at the field was at the closing ceremonies of the last game at Tiger Stadium. It was the greatest nine years of my life playing on that field. I found out about the group the Navin Field Grounds Crews on the internet. Dave Mesrey from the crew called me and asked if I would come and visit the diamond. I said, “I have some time off, how about if I bring a bucket of balls and you get some guys together and let’s have a game?’ I got there early and some kids were taking batting practice. I broke out some new balls and threw to them and they were all jazzed up. Everybody else showed up and we had a fantastic time playing a pick up game. It brought back great memories. They even had sign for me that said “Welcome Back Fuss. That was really cool. I always wanted to come back and look at where the stadium used to be.
A couple days before that I went over to the field and sat on the bench and visualized where everything used to be. Where Jason Thompson and Kirk Gibson had hit them over the roof. I could picture where everything was, the clubhouse and down the left field corner where the bullpen was located. I spent about an hour walking around and just remembering the good days.”
What are some of your memories of Tiger Stadium?
“It was kept up extremely well, it was like a cathedral. There was nothing like it. It was home. I made a lot of friends up there. Down in the bullpen it was dirt level. There were two sisters who were always right there. I would give them baseballs and they often ran up and got me a hot dog and soda. No one ever saw it because we were so pinched in down there. If I was tired I would bring a pillow and lay down on the bottom step and go to sleep until I knew Sparky was going to use me as a pinch hitter or something. I bought a new camera and closed in on guys hitting and playing in the outfield. I sure wish I still had those photos. One of the funniest things I remember was when I was warming up reliever Steve Grilli in the bullpen and some guy three rows up yells, ‘Hey Wockenfuss, what does it feel like to be a toilet bowl having to catch that shit’? Steve and I just starting laughing and Steve has hardly thrown 10 pitches because we are still laughing and then Ralph Houk calls him into the game. It was really very funny.
You had the uncanny ability to hit to right field on a hit and run.
“There was only one time when it didn’t work. For me it was simple. I always had the bat at the end of my hands, and I didn’t want to telegraph it [so] as he was releasing the ball I let the bat slide down my hands and led with the knob and the barrel dragged from behind, and you just punched it into right field. Inside [pitches were] easier for me than away. It helped my batting average a lot.”
You had a very unique batting stance with your back almost pointing to the pitcher and the way you wiggled your fingers as the pitcher was beginning to throw. How did that come about?
“The hand thing was really just a trigger mechanism for me, part of the timing. I had a regular stance but I changed my stance in ’76. I worked with a coach and we decided I needed to close my stance and tuck my shoulder in and lead with the shoulder so I could hit the ball hard. You’re stronger that way. When I went out to hit, I am standing in the batters box and I closed up a bit. There was a stone and I had the bat in my left hand and turned my back to the pitcher and I’m kicking the stone out of the dirt and somebody said heads up and I looked and stepped and I hit it and thought, this feels pretty good. So I just started turning both feet facing straight to the back. It was wiggle wiggle, step and hit. I learned it when I played winter ball in Puerto Rico.”
What was it like playing with Mark “The Bird” Fidyrch in 1976?
“It was the greatest thing ever in the history of baseball. I talked to older guys that knew the Babe Ruth era and they said there was more excitement that summer than ever. Every place you went he packed the stadiums. Fid brought fun back to the game. I was fortunate to be on that team.”
What was Sparky Anderson like when he first came to the Tigers?
“Sparky was old school and he did not want his players to have facial hair. I cut off half of my mustache and walked into his office and I said, “tell you what Sparky I will meet you half way.” He just kind of smiled at me. I went back to the locker room and shaved it off. Later on he let us wear mustaches. I never had a problem with Sparky or any manager. If he told me to run through I wall I did. It’s just how I played the game. You did what the man said.”
Describe your thoughts on being traded to Philadelphia during spring training in 1984 and then missing out on the ’84 world championship?
“Sparky called me into his office and said we made a deal. The way I had hit and run for him was a big tool for him. I said what are you going to do without that, man? He said thanks for everything and I just grabbed my bags and packed up. That evening I was over in Clearwater [in Phillies’ camp]. I pulled for the ’84 Tigers all the way. They were my friends. I just wished I could have received one of those rings. That’s what we all shoot for.”
When you were managing the Toledo Mud Hens in 1989 you pitched against the Tigers in an exhibition game and seemed to have gotten in trouble with the ball club. What happened?
“The day before we had played a doubleheader and I had used up all of my pitchers. And after the exhibition game we had another doubleheader the next day.. I pitched the last five innings [against the Tigers in the exhibition] and got the win, allowed three hits, and one walk in five scoreless innings. I didn’t throw like I had as a kid. I was lucky the wind was blowing in. I was throwing split fingers, fastballs, and change ups and I was throwing strikes. In hindsight I should have told Sparky I was in a dilemma with my pitching staff and asked him what I should do. Neither Lajoie or Sparky said anything to me about it, but I am sure I pissed some people off. “