FORT MYERS, FLA. – The Twins were in a tussle with the Chicago White Sox for the American League Central title through the late summer of 2003.
Weak-hitting Tom Prince had been dropped as a backup catcher in early July, leaving Matthew LeCroy and his shaky receiving skills to give a break to A.J. Pierzynski.
And then came the stretch run and there were close to none of those.
Pierzynski was given a day off on Aug. 14 and then caught 11 in a row. He was given a day off on Aug. 28 and then caught 21 in a row.
"Gardy was trying to kill me," said Pierzynski, in reference to manager Ron Gardenhire. "I think he finally sat me for one of those goofy Saturday games where we had to start in the morning to get the Dome ready for Gophers football."
Pierzynski then laughed at his Gardenhire remark and said: "Actually, I wanted to play every game, and Gardy knew he could count on that.
"I was never looking for a day off. My goal when a season started was to catch 162. It wasn't realistic, obviously, but it would have been cool to give it a shot.
"Why not? It's just another position. Cal Ripken played 2,600 in a row as a shortstop, and that's a tough position."
A.J.'s memory of the day off in September 2003 was accurate: The Gophers were playing Louisiana-Lafayette in the Metrodome on Sept. 20, and Gardenhire allowed LeCroy to catch Johan Santana vs. lowly Detroit.
Total, Pierzynski was the starting catcher for 131 games, and caught 1,165⅔ innings as the Twins won the division. That was a career high, but only Year 2 in a streak of 12 seasons in which A.J. caught more than 1,000 innings.
"The ironman catcher … you were part of an extinct species," I said in a phone conversation.
Pierzynski said: "Almost. There's still Yadi [Yadier Molina], one of the all-timers as an everyday catcher. Salvador Perez, when he's healthy, he catches all the time. J.T. [Realmuto], he's catching most of them.
"There are a few, but I don't like the way it's going with two catchers splitting the job with so many teams. I would have hated it."
There were 10 players that started 100 or more games as catchers in 2019, MLB's last full season. Realmuto started 130 for the Phillies and Yasmani Grandal, now with the White Sox, started 124 for the Brewers.
Molina started 108 in a season in which he missed five weeks because of an injury.
Yes, there remain a few, but the ironman catcher is not a major part of baseball's future — certainly not in the opinion of Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, 39, and entering his third season with consecutive division titles.
I was reminded vividly of Rocco's catcher usage when looking up the numbers for a Mitch Garver article last week:
Garver had a phenomenal slugging season in 2019, with one home run every 10 at-bats, and he started 73 games at catcher and Jason Castro started 72.
Garver never got his bat going in the 2020 mini-season, then had an injury in late August that made room for rookie Ryan Jeffers to impress Baldelli.
The Twins have been straightforward in talking about a two-catcher system — Garver, 30, and Jeffers, still 23, both righthanded hitters — as spring training winds down.
Baldelli was asked about the future of catchers starting the bulk of a team's games and said: "It depends on the team and your personnel. Yes, overall in the game, there are going to be less guys trying to catch 120 games than maybe we've seen in the past.
"With our group, we have two regular catchers. We have guys that are excellent options."
How often might one catcher start the three games of a series?
"Unless there's an injury of some kind or someone's nicked up, probably not that often," Baldelli said. "And that works well for us; it works well in a production sense, and it normally works well for keeping these guys healthy, feeling good for their next start."
What if one of your catchers is "smoking hot"?
Baldelli offered a snippet of Rocco humor: "Smoking hot! Being hot is one thing, but if someone is smoking hot, it does make you think real hard about it.
"Even in smoking-hot territory, we're going to most likely divvy those games up, with maybe one guy getting a few more at-bats … but it's not going to be completely production-based on a regular basis.
"Most of our decisions are mapped out days ahead of time. And a vast majority of the time, we stick to that."
In a way, that's no different from Gardenhire, and Ozzie Guillen, and other managers when A.J. was on the roster. They also had it mapped out for days on end for the lineup card:
26 (or 12) Pierzynski, C
Yes, A.J., the workload was astounding, but how about those unending aches you're limping around with as a 44-year-old civilian in Orlando, those tortured knees you're using to climb in and out of chairs at Fox Sports studios?
New hips, new knees, new shoulders — all of the above?
"I'm perfect," A.J. said. "I've had no problems. All original. My knees are fine. Hips, shoulders … also fine.
"I could get in the catcher's gear and play a baseball game right now."