Paul Lo Duca learns the hard way

Paul Lo Duca, Billy Wagner

Paul Lo Duca and Billy Wagner share a high-five after nailing down a Mets win. Claiming Joe West’s strikes could be bought with Wagner’s classic Chevy sends Lo Duca from high five to out five hundred large . . .

You can accuse one of baseball’s two most notorious umpires of anything you like. Call him a craven self-promoter. Say his strike zone behind the plate is more flexible than politician’s policy positions. Tell the world he’s a meathead for complaining about the length of a baseball game between two certain teams over whom he appoints himself judge and jury.

Those won’t get you hauled into court to answer for defamation. But say on the air that Joe West’s strikes could be bought for the price of using your pitcher’s classic automobile and it’ll cost you six figures. Especially when West wasn’t even behind the plate in the games in question when you caught that pitcher.

Former major league catcher Paul Lo Duca is learning the hard way after losing a defamation lawsuit West filed in 2019. That year, Lo Duca accused West, the single most notorious umpire this side of Angel Hernandez, of being very generous calling strikes with relief ace Billy Wagner on the mound, after Wagner agreed to let the chunky umpire use the lefthander’s 1957 Chevrolet any old time he chose whenever they were in town together.

That’ll cost Lo Duca $500,000 plus interest paid to West after a decision in Manhattan Supreme Court Monday, during a session to determine damages for which Lo Duca didn’t even show up according to numerous published reports.

Lo Duca claimed on a 2019 sports betting podcast that he talked to Wagner after a game in which Wagner both advised Lo Duca to set up a little more inside on the hitters and suggested West would give Wagner the inside corners a little more generously. Why? Here’s Lo Duca himself aboard that podcast:

We’re playing like a really tight game against the Phillies and Billy Wagner comes in from the bullpen. I used to go to the mound every time and like, ‘What’s going on?’ and he’s like, ‘Hey, Joe’s behind the plate. Set up a couple more inches inside. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Joe hates me.’ He’s like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no. Joe loves me.’

I go, ‘He hasn’t given us the corner all day.’ He’s like, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ He literally throws 10 pitches and strikes out three guys. Joe rings up all three guys. Eight out of the nine pitches were at least three to four inches inside, not even close. Guys were throwing bats and everything. Joe walks off the field.

I get back into the clubhouse and I’m like, “What the [fornicate] just happened just right now?” And Wagner just winks at me. I’m like, “What’s the secret?” He’s like, “Eh, Joe loves antique cars so every time he comes into town I lend him my ’57 Chevy so he can drive it around so then he opens up the strike zone for me.”

I’m like, “This guy’s been throwing me out for the last 10 years of my life and all I needed to do was rent him a ’57 Chevy?”

'57 Bel Air

A 1957 Chevrolet, the kind of car Billy Wagner didn’t use to buy strikes from Joe West.

There were two problems with Lo Duca’s revelation, as things turned out. Problem One: West countered, and the records support him, that he was never behind the plate when Wagner was on the mound with Lo Duca catching in either 2006 or 2007, the two seasons Lo Duca spent with the Mets. Problem Two: Wagner himself submitted a December 2020 affidavit denying he talked to Lo Duca about buying West off with a vintage Chevy or anything else.

Manhattan Supreme Court Judge John Kelley found it too simple to rule in West’s favour when Lo Duca didn’t show up Monday or respond directly to West’s suit otherwise. As of this writing, Lo Duca hasn’t responded to the court ruling and Wagner hasn’t spoken publicly about the case or the critical conversation he denies ever happened.

West remembers working only one Mets-Phillies game behind the plate in the 2006-2007 time frame and Wagner wasn’t on the mound at any time during the game—which ended on a home run, not three straight punchouts. Unlike on a lot of occasions when he calls strikes balls, balls strikes, outs safe, and safes out, West was dead right about that.

You can look it up. In 2006-2007, the Mets played 27 games that ended in walk-offs. Their record in those games: 18-9. (That’s a .667 winning percentage in those games, for those scoring at home.) They included two walk-off games with the Phillies in each year; the Mets won only one of those games:

9 May 2006—Final score: 5-4, Phillies. The walk-off blow: Mets reliever Aaron Heilman’s throwing error on Bobby Abreu’s grounder, allowing David Delluci (two-out triple) to score the winner. Billy Wagner: didn’t pitch. Paul Lo Duca: caught and batted second in the lineup. Home plate umpire: Doug Eddings.

23 May 2006—Final score: 9-8, Mets, sixteen innings. The walk-off blow: Carlos Beltran’s leadoff home run off Phillies reliever Ryan Madson. Wagner: pitched the 11th; fly out, two swinging strikeouts. Lo Duca: caught the entire game and batted second. Home plate umpire: Jeff Kellogg.

28 August 2007—Final score: 4-2, Phillies. The walk-off blow: Ryan Howard’s two-run homer off Guillermo Mota. Wagner: didn’t pitch. Lo Duca: caught and batted seventh. Home plate umpire: Joe West. Most likely, this is the game West himself remembers.

30 August 2007—Final score: 11-10, Phillies. The walk-off blow: Chase Utley’s RBI single through the hole at second, after Tadahito Iguchi singled to tie the game and stole second. Wagner: pitched the ninth and surrendered the tying and winning runs. Lo Duca: entered the game in the eighth taking over for Mike DiFelice and batting eighth. Home plate umpire: Ed Hickox.

Four times the Mets and the Phillies played games ending in walk-off hits in 2006 and 2007. Joe West was the plate umpire for one of those games, in which Wagner didn’t pitch but Lo Duca caught. In the two games in which Wagner did pitch, he struck out two of his three batters in the first game but struck out none of the batters he faced in the second game.

As a matter of fact, Wagner was credited with the pitching wins in three Mets walk-offs in 2006 and two in 2007. So we should have a look at those, too:

9 April 2006, vs. the Marlins—Final score: 3-2, Mets. The walk-off blow: David Wright’s sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth. Wagner: pitched the top of the ninth, worked his way out of a two-out jam by inducing a ground out to second base, no strikeouts. Lo Duca: caught the entire game and batted second. Home plate umpire: Ed Montague.

1 May 2006, vs. the Nationals—Final score: 2-1, Mets. The walk-off blow: Lo Duca’s grounder to relief pitcher Gary Majewski on which Majewski’s throwing error trying to start a double play allowed Endy Chavez to score the winner. Wagner: pitched a spotless ninth with two swinging strikeouts and a ground out right back to the box. Home plate umpire: Chris Guccione.

19 May 2006, vs. the Yankees—Final score: 7-6, Mets. The walk-off blow: Wright scoring Lo Duca with a fly single off Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. Wagner: struck the side out swinging in the top of the ninth. Lo Duca: of course, caught the entire game and batted second. Home plate umpire: Alfonso Marquez.

23 June 2007, vs. the Athletics—Final score: 1-0, Mets. The walk-off blow: Wright’s RBI double. Wagner: shook off a leadoff single in the top of the ninth to get a bunt ground out, a fly out, and a swinging strikeout. Lo Duca: started the game but came out for a pinch hitter in the sixth. Home plate umpire: Marvin Hudson.

21 August 2007, vs. the Padres—Final score: 7-6, Mets. The walk-off blow: Luis Castillo’s RBI single. Wagner: pitched the ninth and surrendered a game-tying run on Kevin Kouzmanoff’s sacrifice fly, during a rough inning in which he surrendered a single, a walk, and a hit batsman to load the bases for Kouzmanoff. Lo Duca: didn’t play. Home plate umpire: Angel Hernandez.

Five times between 2006 and 2007 Billy Wagner ended up the pitcher of record in walk-off wins by the Mets; only once did he get credit for the win when the Mets walked it off after he’d surrendered a tying run. Paul Lo Duca was behind the plate for Wagner in three of the five. Joe West didn’t call balls and strikes in any of those five games, including the one such game in which Wagner did strike out the side—against the Yankees, not the Phillies—with Lo Duca behind the plate.

West plans to retire after this season. Trying to bring Lo Duca to account, West’s legal team pressed his fear that the Lo Duca podcast appearance would injure his chances to be elected to the Hall of Fame, especially considering he stands to break Hall of Fame umpire Bill Klem’s record for games umpired. As The Athletic points out, umps elected to Cooperstown earn a lot more on the rubber chicken and autograph circuits if they have the Hall of Fame on their resumes.

Never mind whether or not you think West belongs in Cooperstown. Lo Duca forgot one of the key lessons we learn at ages younger than Lo Duca’s when he first made the Show: Look before you leap. The tide may have receded.

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