Rolling dough teaches Pratt how to handle kitchen's heat


ATLANTA -- Todd Pratt does not remember much about the 1997 Super Bowl -- only the intense heat from the pizza oven.

"A thousand orders in a three-hour period," Pratt recalls. "I was supervising a full crew and I sweated harder than I ever did in my life."

His self-image was of a major-league baseball player, but he had just spent a season away from the game, working for Bucky Dent's school in Florida, and his job description at the moment was manager of a Domino's franchise.

"If I had to go back to it, I could," Pratt said yesterday. "There's nothing wrong with managing a pizza parlor."

Moving pizza never made him cry, the way baseball did, once. For the moment, he is the man who hit the home run that won the National League Division Series on Saturday, dancing around the bases, jumping into the embrace of his teammates, allowing the Mets to avoid a deciding game against Randy Johnson in Arizona.

It was one of the most important homers in the 38 years of the Mets, and it was unloaded by a man who has had trouble sticking in the major leagues, but that is one of the peculiar charms of baseball. It really is a game of backup catchers and long relievers and defensive specialists -- not just the $15 million players, but even a few guys who have pulled pizza out of an oven.

The former manager of a Domino's -- "I never did deliver" -- probably will not be starting tonight when the Mets play the Braves in the first game of the National League Championship Series. Mike Piazza says his ailing thumb is better, and he expects to play. Pratt has been the backup to a lot of catchers in his career; not all of them were Mike Piazza.

He found himself behind John Marzano in the Red Sox's system and was a backup to Darren Daulton with the Phillies in 1992 and '93. He said his greatest thrill in baseball, up until Saturday, was hearing his name announced for the 1993 World Series opener in Toronto, after which he clumped off to the bullpen, never to reappear. In 1995, he backed up Rick Wilkins with the Cubs. In the spring of 1996, the Mariners told him they could not afford him.

He went home and went to work for Dent, another man who had hit an epic home run once upon a time. Just to keep the memory alive, Dent maintains a replica of the left-field wall at Fenway Park at his school in Delray Beach in Florida.

Pratt, a right-handed hitter, would take some left-handed hacks at the wall in games against the teen-agers in the baseball school, just to renew his own hopes from his early days in the Boston chain.

While teaching teen-agers about baseball, Todd Pratt discovered he was learning the game all over again.

People had tried to tell him things about the mechanics of catching, "but maybe I was too bull-headed to listen." Now, he said, "the light bulb went off."

In the academic world, a year away from campus is called a sabbatical.

"That's a great word to describe it," Pratt said yesterday.

The Mets contacted him in the spring of 1997, and he hit his way up from Norfolk, Va. In 1998, he was having a good spring, and the Mets traded for another itinerant catcher named George Fabregas, and they sent Pratt down.

"It was the first time I ever cried after a manager talked to me," Pratt said.

He soon slugged his way back to the Mets, and this year he batted .293 with three homers in 71 games.

"Todd Pratt is a credible major-league catcher who could be No. 1 with a lot of teams," Bobby Valentine said.

At the very least, Pratt is a loyal teammate who impulsively called New York reporters "front-runners" for having counted the Mets out a few weeks ago.

On Saturday, Pratt's home run made him much, much more than the voice of clubhouse pride.

"It was the most humbling experience of my life," Pratt said. "My teammates were celebrating in the clubhouse and I was being taken from TV crew to TV crew. I didn't see my wife for a few hours. That night I had dinner with her and our two kids, and we realized how crazy it was."

Pratt can live with backing up Piazza, the way he lived with working at the baseball school, the way he lived with working for Domino's, feeling the reality of the working world singe the hairs of his forearms.

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