Sunday, February 24, 2008

Johnny Estrada, 31, signed a one-year, $1 million contract at the end of January with the Washington Nationals to be their backup catcher.

Estrada was a 17th-round pick by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1997. A switch hitter, Estrada’s best season came with the Atlanta Braves in 2004, when he hit nine home runs and 36 doubles, drove in 76 runs and batted .314.

He has an unusual offseason. On Nov. 20, Estrada was traded from the Milwaukee Brewers to the New York Mets for pitcher Guillermo Mota. Then the Mets non-tendered Estrada, basically cutting him loose and making him a free agent. He also had knee and elbow surgery but is expected to be ready by Opening Day.

Thom Loverro recently caught up with Estrada.

Q: It was a strange offseason for you, wasn’t it?

A: I was joking with my wife and my buddies that I was getting my resume together and putting applications in at Waffle House, just in case. It was nerve-racking at times, and it really got to the point where I stopped worrying about it. I figured it would all work out somewhere.

I kind of came to grips with the fact that I was going to have to sign a deal to come in as a backup and try to compete for a job. I wanted to make it the best situation it could be for me and my family and the future. I came in here on a one-year deal. I will be a free agent again next year. The market wasn’t that good this offseason. It was weird being traded to the Mets, then being non-tendered. The jobs weren’t there. They were filled. But I think this is a good situation.

The last couple of years, going to teams that hadn’t won in a while was a challenge for me, and I liked the end result. Going to Arizona, we competed right up to the end, and last year in Milwaukee we just fell short. I feel good about being a part of that. We improved last year there and put a winner on the field, and I was a big part of that and hopefully we can do the same here.

Q: What was your impression of the Nationals last year, playing against them?

A: I know if I was in the NL East, playing against them down the stretch last year, you saw they were a dangerous team. I think it pumped them up that they could mess up that race, and it showed on the field.

Q: Anything you do this winter off the field that was of interest?

A: I am a diehard Oakland Raider fan. On Sunday I am either down in the trenches at a Raider game or in my basement watching them on television. I have been a Raiders season ticket holder for a few years. It’s been rough, but I am not a front-runner. I bleed silver and black. I would have issues if they weren’t in Oakland, but I am a Raider fan.

I had two surgeries at the end of the year, so that kind of put a nick in my offseason. Me and my family usually take a vacation somewhere, and we didn’t have a chance to do that because I had to rehab for a couple of months. It has become a routine for me not knowing where I am going to be, going to a new team and having to reacquaint myself with a lot of people. It doesn’t get any easier. I don’t like it. I am trying to have a home here for the next three or four years, hopefully.

Q: Was there a particular ballplayer you admired when you were growing up?

A: Carlton Fisk. My Little League team was the White Sox, and I was the catcher. I admired the way he played the game, even at the end of his career. That’s one of the reasons I wear my pants the way I wear them. I wear them high, like he did. He wasn’t the best catcher in baseball, but he was a gamer. He went out there every day and he played on winning teams. So I latched on to him.

Growing up in the Bay area, I went to A’s games all the time. My heroes were Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, the Bash Brothers. It is kind of sad seeing how all that turned out now. I remember sitting in the bleachers and waving to Rickey Henderson. He used to talk to us. He always waved to the fans and did some showboating for us, which you always enjoyed as a kid. It was fun back then. The A’s were dominant then.

Q: You have two guys here who have been starting major league catchers, yourself and Paul Lo Duca. But your role has been defined so far as a backup and bench player. It happens in sports all the time, but is there ever tension between players who do share time at the same position?

A: This is the first time I have been in this situation. It makes it easier when you can mentally prepare yourself for what you are going to do. They were up front with me here and told me what I need to do and what their thinking was, so I am coming in here with that in mind.

I am just going to try to do what I do and make their decisions tough. Those aren’t my decisions to make. That is the coaching staff and management. As a player, all you can do is work hard and make those decisions tough on them, rather than make it easy by not doing your job. We’ll see what happens.

Q: You’ve been to Washington as a visiting player. Have you gotten around the city much?

A: I’ve been to the monuments and done stuff like that but never really been around the city and seen the different areas. Going to that God-awful RFK Stadium as a visiting player, I am looking forward to the new stadium. I can’t wait to see the new ballpark. I am looking forward to it.

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