All-Star experience overwhelming to Braves catcher
By Mike Bauman / MLB.com
Johnny Estrada's .863 OPS at the break leads all National League catchers. (Ben Platt/MLB.com)
HOUSTON -- Johnny Estrada checked the sheet showing seating assignments for All-Star player interviews and smiled.
"I was looking on this sheet, just being at a table sitting next to Mike Piazza," Estrada said, "and I felt like I should have had to pay. I thought they were going to give me a bill later."
There is no doubt that the Braves catcher deserves to be a National League All-Star. Estrada will be Atlanta's lone representative at the 75th All-Star Game on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
With a .332 batting average and solid work behind the plate, his All-Star credentials are more than in order. But his success story is not an overnight success story.
Estrada, 28, put in more than enough time in the minor leagues, stuck first behind Mike Lieberthal in Philadelphia, then last season behind Javy Lopez with Atlanta. Estrada hasn't forgotten that part of the baseball experience.
"Oh, I remember it, man, like it was yesterday," Estrada said Monday. "Non-roster to invitee to big league camp. Just kept working every year, just kept trying to work hard in the off-season and then work during the season to get the best out of my abilities. It's nice to be rewarded this way."
Estrada had one previous extended shot in the big leagues, filling in for an injured Lieberthal for part of the 2001 season. Estrada hit just .228 and did not stick.
Johnny Estrada / C
Weight: 210 lbs
Bats: S / Throws: R
"Looking back on that time, I let a lot of things affect my play," he said. "I probably wasn't mature enough mentally. It was a tough situation for a 24-year-old kid straight out of Double-A. I thought I was ready but I probably could have been a little bit more prepared mentally."
Life changed for Estrada in December, 2002, when the Braves traded Kevin Millwood for Estrada. It was seen in some quarters as a one-sided trade, merely a financial move by the Braves. Estrada's performance has made it impossible to see the trade in that light now.
"It was like an early Christmas present for me and my family," Estrada says of the trade. "The Phillies had just signed Mike Lieberthal to a contract extension. It was like new life for me. I knew that Javy Lopez was still over here, but he had one year left on his deal. Sure enough, things worked out for me. I think they worked out the best for both sides. I'm grateful for the opportunity."
The Braves may have given him the opportunity, but it was up to Estrada to make the most of it. He figured that this was finally his time.
"I just turned 28 years old, and I've had to spend the last two years in Triple-A, knowing inside that I felt that I was ready for a chance to show what I could do and it never came," he says. "I just had to bide my time and accept the situation, which was tough to do. Any given year I could have just hung my head and sulked about it and not had good years. But I didn't let that happen and that was part of the maturing process.
"I'm grateful that the Atlanta Braves organization thought that highly of me to see what I could do and give me give me a chance. I was just a hungry ballplayer looking for a second chance at the Major League level. I got it this year and I'm just trying to take advantage of it."
The Braves, more injured and much younger than usual, have not succeeded in the way they did while winning 12 straight division titles. Estrada is their lone All-Star representative. But they are still solidly in contention in the NL East. And the atmosphere in Atlanta is a breath of fresh air for Estrada.
"Playing for Larry Bowa and then playing for Bobby Cox is kind of opposite ends of the spectrum," he says with a small smile. "Bobby Cox has an uncanny ability about getting the best out of his players. You look at our ball club this year, as many young guys, as many first-time Major Leaguers that are getting a chance to play. And look at how well they've done. He creates that atmosphere there, that relaxed atmosphere. He's always pumping his players up. He's always positive. Whatever success we've had this year with all the injuries we've had is a tribute to Bobby Cox who sets the tone at the top and trickles on down to the players."
What might have been a now-or-never situation has definitely become now for Johnny Estrada, All-Star catcher.
"I pretty much don't have any more room for error at this point," Estrada says. "I'm 28 years old. I needed to have a good year this year and I'm glad to be healthy this year and having a productive season."
Michael Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.