Knowing all about the tools of ignorance

Dioner Navarro is among four catchers in Dodgers camp who are developing a special bond.

Originally Published: February 28, 2006
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

The four Dodgers catchers were lined up, so symmetrically: 42-year-old Pat Borders, Sandy Alomar Jr., 39, 23-year-old Russ Martin and Dioner Navarro, 22. They come from the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada and Venezuela, respectively, and they range from 6-foot-4 to 5-foot-10 in height, yet they speak the same language, that of a catcher, which is different than all others in baseball.

It's a scene that is not often, if ever, seen in one clubhouse: two catchers that old -- "Don't tell anyone that I'll be 40 in June," Alomar said, smiling -- and two catchers that young and talented. "They're old enough to be their fathers,'' said Dodgers third base coach Rich Donnelly. "The best part is, the old guys are as enthusiastic as the young guys, and the young guys are as smart as the old guys. We've got the World Baseball Classic right here."

Dioner Navarro
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesDioner Navarro, 22, is the youngest of four catchers in Dodgers camp this spring.
The four catchers do most things together on the field, and blend nicely off the field. "I learned something from him watching him [Navarro] yesterday," said Borders, who was playing pro ball before Navarro was born. Martin smiled and said, "I guarantee we're learning a lot more from them than they are from us. It's so great for me to be here because I grew up in Montreal, and Pat was one of my heroes when he was with the Blue Jays. He was the MVP of the World Series [in 1992], and now I'm wearing the same uniform as him.''

Alomar, who is new to the Dodgers this spring, has talked extensively with both young catchers about their approach to the game, and about catching. His locker is next to Navarro's. "He is a good listener and learner,'' Alomar said of Navarro. "I've met many, many young players who aren't. There's not much that he needs to know. He's a very good catcher now.''

In an era when few players talk about the game, the catchers sat and discussed the quickest way to get rid of the ball, the location of their thumb inside the catcher's mitt and the proper way to block the plate. When Borders spoke, they all listened, because he has been catching the longest, having been moved from third base at age 23.

"They put me right in the game behind the plate,'' Borders said. "The first hitter I caught, I got hit in the throat with a foul tip, then I got my thumbnail torn off in the same at-bat. I thought to myself, 'What in the hell am I doing back here?'" His difficulties behind the plate didn't last long, and here he is -- more than 20 years later -- still in a major league camp.

"Do your knees hurt?'' he was asked.

"No," he said. "They feel great.''

Twenty years of squatting, and they still feel great.

"Pat is on cruise control," Alomar said. "If your knees don't hurt at 40, they'll be good forever."

It's not just a unique collection of catchers, it's a very important one for the Dodgers. Chances are, they will keep two catchers, one old and one young. Alomar will likely be the old catcher, the backup. He lost 20 pounds in the offseason and has been moving well this spring.

The young catcher, the starter, is a 50-50 proposition. Navarro caught 50 games for the Dodgers last season, hit .273, had 20 walks, 21 strikeouts and had an on-base percentage of .354, nearly 40 points higher than that of the average catcher in the major leagues. Martin hit .311 with nine home runs, 78 walks and 69 strikeouts in 409 at-bats last season for Double-A Jacksonville.

Martin was supposed to catch for the Canadian team in the World Baseball Classic, but early in spring training, he asked Dodgers manager Grady Little, "What are my chances of making the team?" When Little said "it's a coin flip," Martin chose not to play in the WBC because he wanted to concentrate on winning the job with the Dodgers.

"That was a very hard choice," Martin said. "That's something I always wanted to do for Canada.''

Martin grew up as a hockey player as well as a baseball player, and, like Borders, he signed professionally as a third baseman. But he was switched to catcher after his first year and has developed into an excellent receiver who can throw. "It took me two or three years to get comfortable back there," Martin said. "But now, I feel good back there."

Martin spent part of the winter catching Dodgers closer Eric Gagne, who is continuing his comeback from elbow surgery. "He's throwing very well," Martin said. "His changeup is as filthy as ever." The two have spent a lot of time together this spring because they're battery mates, Canadians and they both speak fluent French.

"We speak French all the time, out on the field sometimes, but not when anyone else is around," Martin said. "We decided that we could speak French during games. I wouldn't even have to go to the mound, I'll just yell to him in French, no one will know what we said.''

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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