Pat Borders gets thrown off the gravy train.

The stadium scene.
Oct. 11 2004 12:01 PM

Beyond Borders

Minnesota's backup catcher isn't the first scrub to get thrown off the gravy train.

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Porous Borders

Kyle Lohse's slider skipped to the backstop, Alex Rodriguez ran home, and the Yankees beat the Twins 6-5 in 11 innings to move on to the American League Championship Series. The official scorer ruled that Lohse had thrown a wild pitch, but everyone could see who was really at fault. Minnesota's 41-year-old backup catcher, Pat Borders, had made an amateurish attempt to backhand the errant pitch. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire didn't hesitate to assign blame: "You've got to block it," he said.

Borders appeared in only two games in the series, but as this article in the St. Paul Pioneer Press exhaustively chronicles, he made enough mistakes for a whole season. For one, Twins coaches think he was tipping the location of pitches in Minnesota's Game 2 loss by moving his creaky body back and forth behind the plate. And moments before he let the Yankees score the winning run, Borders hadn't bothered to throw the ball when Rodriguez stole third base.

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Borders, who somehow managed to play 16 seasons in the big leagues, experienced the sports equivalent of karmic rough justice—a career of milking the system for millions put to a humiliating end on national television. Without a doubt the least talented player to win a World Series MVP and score an Olympic gold medal, Borders has been playing with the house's money for a decade. For the past four years, he'd sailed along as a player-coach for Tacoma, the Mariners' AAA affiliate. Usually, he'd get a late season call-up, a handful of at-bats, and a bit more pension time. The Twins acquired him this season, apparently believing that a catcher who hadn't notched more than 10 RBIs in a season since 1997 would push them over the top. Instead, Borders joined Trey Junkin as a late-career sports scapegoat.

Trey Junkin? How quickly we forget. Just before the 2002 playoffs, Junkin was lured out of retirement to serve as the long snapper—a job even cushier than Borders' decade as a backup catcher—for the New York Giants. Junkin, who morphed from a crappy tight end into a long-snapping Rain Man, spent 19 years in the NFL because he had nice wrist action. The Giants had endured a long season of short and unsteady snaps and didn't want to take any chances before their playoff game against the 49ers. As the day approached, the 41-year-old Junkin exuded hubris. "I was watching all these bad snaps and wondering: How many games are you going to lose over a snap? It was frustrating."

Not as frustrating as Junkin's snap in the closing seconds of the game. By the time it bounced and rolled the seven yards back to the holder, the play was bollixed beyond repair. The Giants lost 39-38. Five days after he unretired, Junkin was washed up again.

So, who will be the next inductee into this cruel house of shame? Third-string quarterbacks are always a good bet—since the days of Pat Ryan and Babe Laufenberg, actually getting into a game has ended the careers of more last-resort QBs than the dreaded torn rotator cuff. My money is on instant karma catching up with Ty Detmer. All the signs are there: He won a cheap Heisman and his last significant pro action came when he threw seven interceptions in one game in 2001. Now, Detmer's hiding out on the Atlanta sideline, collecting a check and waiting for his middling career to come to a merciful end. But with Michael Vick's propensity for high-speed collisions, Detmer might just have a chance to sabotage the Falcons' Super Bowl hopes. Somewhere, Pat Borders waits for company.

Stephen Rodrick is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Men’s Journal. This essay is adapted from The Magical Stranger: A Son’s Journey Into His Father’s Life published by Harpers. For more information: themagicalstranger.com

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