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Flaherty happy to cede flash to team

Ex-Rays catcher is working hard to win backup job with star-studded Yankees.

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 20, 2003

TAMPA -- He is taking fielding drills with other catchers in the darkened confines of Legends Field, and it's as if no one knows he's there.

He is walking along a barricade of fans and, but for a few autograph seekers who holler across the way, it's as if no one cares.

Former Devil Rays catcher John Flaherty, a nonroster invitee to the New York Yankees' spring training, would have it no other way.

Entering his 12th season, Flaherty, 35, wants to concentrate on making an impression on his new team, and being lost in a galaxy of some of the game's biggest stars has its advantages.

"It's been a nice change for me in that I went from being one of the oldest guys, one of the guys that had to deal with the media a bit more and take some of that responsibility, to here, where I don't have to deal with it," Flaherty said. "I can go about my business and no one knows I'm here. There are so many All-Star players here, so many Hall of Fame players here and so many great personalities that the change suits me just fine."

And what a change. Flaherty, one of the key figures on the field and in the clubhouse during the Rays' first five seasons, found himself splitting games last season with rising catcher Toby Hall. With Tampa Bay moving toward its young players, the time had come for Flaherty to look elsewhere.

"The Yankees had shown some interest from the get-go and some other teams were telling me they wanted me to be their No. 1 guy, and obviously I still have that desire to play every day," said Flaherty, who was born in New York. "I was pretty excited about that. In the meantime, you're turning down jobs for backup positions and they are filling up quickly.

"At the last minute those opportunities were taken away from me. In a roundabout way, I called (Yankees GM) Brian Cashman back and the Yankees were more than willing to offer a minor-league invitation to spring training. There are no promises, but if you're going to be a backup, this is the place you want to do it."

The road won't be easy. Jorge Posada is a fixture and his backup, Chris Widger, had a solid season last year and has a guaranteed contract.

"Instead of using camp as a tool to get ready for the season, I came in camp in better baseball shape," Flaherty said. "From the get-go, you have to open up some eyes. But to tell you the truth, if teams in this league don't know what I can do now, after 10 years, then there's something wrong. What I have to do is come in and show that I'm healthy, show that I can still do some things behind the plate or at the plate."

Flaherty has some experience catching Yankees pitchers Roger Clemens and David Wells but said that may not mean much.

"The bottom line is that they have to make a decision," he said. "Chris is the backup from last year and he did very well. I feel like I probably have to do some great things to unseat him."

Flaherty, who hit .260 with four home runs and 33 RBIs in 76 games for the Rays last season, said he still feels a connection with his former teammates on the other side of the bay.

"I spent five years over there and I have (vested interest)," he said. "I want to see that place turn around sooner, rather than later. I want to see those guys do well. I pay attention to them every day when I open up the paper. I wish everybody well. We all have bumps in the road, but when it's all said and done, they treated me well for those five years, as did the fans.

"I'm proud of the fact that win or lose, playing well or not, I went about it the right way for five years. Being a professional athlete, that's your job. Whether you're winning or losing, playing well or not playing well, you have to go out every day and do it and be a pro, and I feel like I did that for the Devil Rays."

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