Commentary

Catchers just don't miss a beat

'The smartest players on the field' deal with a lot of pain, but enjoy every minute of it

Originally Published: May 28, 2010
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

In less than two weeks, the Nationals will make Bryce Harper the No. 1 pick in the first-year player draft. Harper recently went 6-for-6 with four home runs, a double, a triple and 10 RBIs in a junior college game; "Baseball Tonight" analyst Bobby Valentine said he has never seen a 17-year-old baseball player this good. And Harper is primarily a catcher. His impending top selection will continue what has been a fascinating, entertaining and abundant year for catchers.

[+] EnlargeJohn Baker, right
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireJohn Baker, right, initially wanted to become a lawyer, but instead became a catcher.

So, on Memorial Day weekend, we will celebrate the catcher. In a hard game played by hard men, catchers are the hardest of men. They take a physical beating every night; they are the guys with the mangled fingers, scarred knees and dented foreheads. They are the most involved players in every game; they are the brains and the brawn of the operation at the same time. They are the only guys who wear full armor; they are the only players on the field who face the other way. To celebrate the catcher, the Marlins' John Baker will be our tour guide of the position, not just because he's a good player and his position on the scorecard is No. 2, but also because he was No. 2 in his class in high school in Alameda, Calif.

"They say catchers are the smartest players on the field, but they're also the dumbest," Baker said. "Who else would be willing to take the risk that we take? At what other position is it legal to get steamrolled by a guy who has a 60-foot running start, the catcher has to hold on to the ball, then has to go back behind the plate and make sure he doesn't screw up the scouting report? But most catchers, the better ones who have done it for a long time, don't like that stuff [a celebration]. The catcher I respect the most, Jason Kendall, doesn't want recognition. He just wants to play. He just wants to win. That's it."

The Year of the Catcher began in March, when Twins catcher Joe Mauer -- the reigning Most Valuable Player in the American League -- signed an eight-year contract extension worth $184 million. Mauer, who has won three batting titles, is on his way to becoming one of the greatest catchers of all time, and someday could supplant Mike Piazza as the greatest hitting catcher in history. And yet, typically for a catcher, Mauer is remarkably humble in every way. He was an all-state high school basketball player in Minnesota, and when asked what type of basketball player he was his senior year, he said, "I was mostly a defensive specialist."

How many points a game did he average?

"Twenty-two," he said.

Twenty-two points a night and he considered himself a defensive specialist? Only Joe Mauer.

"Whenever I'm struggling at the plate, I pop in a Joe Mauer video and watch his swing. That's how good it is," Baker said. "He is so calm and so controlled as a player. And he plays great defense. He reminds me of watching Joe Montana when I was a kid. He was so cool and calm. He never got emotional. If I was starting a franchise today, I'd start with Joe Mauer."

Mauer and other catchers have had a big year. The first three-homer game this season was by a catcher, Toronto's John Buck. When Mauer got hurt and missed a week, Wilson Ramos, his replacement, became the first catcher ever to go for 4-for-4 in his major league debut. The Mets' Rod Barajas and Henry Blanco became the first catching teammates ever to hit walk-off homers in back-to-back games. The Nationals' Pudge Rodriguez became the oldest catcher ever to go 4-for-4 with a stolen base in a game. The Rockies' Miguel Olivo became the third player since 1900 to go 5-for-5 with a walk-off home run in the same game. And on April 17, the Cardinals' Yadier Molina caught all 20 innings -- 311 pitches, in a game that lasted six hours and 53 minutes -- and he drove in the tying run with a single in the 19th inning.

"I caught 15 innings against the Diamondbacks last year, and in my last at-bat, Jon Rauch threw three pitches right down the middle, I didn't swing at any of them because I was too tired to swing," Baker said. "That's the most tired I've ever been on a baseball field. But if anyone is going to get a hit in that situation [the 19th inning], it's the catcher, because he is the most prepared for it. The physical abuse that a catcher takes in any game is incredible. [Dodgers catcher] Brad Ausmus [age 41] went on the disabled list for the first time this year. How amazing is that? And there's the mental abuse. When there is a big inning, the starting pitcher isn't blamed for it because he has … a fragile psyche. The catcher takes the brunt. After a big home run is hit, the catcher is asked, 'Why did you do that?' And the catcher says, 'Well, I didn't physically throw the pitch in question.' And the catcher is told, 'But he shook you off. You have to learn to think his way.'"

Despite the grind behind the plate, and the responsibility of calling a game, catchers this season have collectively batted .257 with a .731 OPS, numbers that rate (if not exceed) offensively with every position on the field except first basemen, third basemen and right fielders. In 15 games on May 19, seven catchers batted either third, fourth or fifth in the batting order. All five of Pirates catcher Ryan Doumit's home runs this season have come in the eighth inning or later, three have come in the ninth inning or later, and he's tied with Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera for most homers (four) that have tied the score or put his team ahead in the eighth inning or later. But he hasn't hit three homers in a game as Buck did.

As a catcher, you have to deal with every aspect of the game. You are managing a pitching staff while you are catching.

-- Florida Marlins catcher John Baker

"For John Buck to have that kind of focus for three at-bats, and still call a game, is amazing," Baker said. "It takes an incredible amount of concentration to be a catcher. Look at Pudge. After all these years, he's still a good hitter. Look at his face. He looks like he's 25 years old [he's 38]. He runs like he's 25. He has a great arm. I don't think catching keeps you young. But you have to be tough as nails and mentally strong to play the position."

Jarrod Saltalamacchia is 25 years old. He is a catcher with a bright future for the Rangers, but his career is possibly in jeopardy because he has developed an affliction: He struggles to throw the ball back to the pitcher. He can hit, catch and throw to the bases, but he can't consistently perform the simple act of throwing a ball 60 feet back to the pitcher's mound, a disease that caused Dale Murphy to switch from catcher to the outfield, and Mike Ivie from catcher to first base. They were considered Hall of Fame-bound catchers until they were forced to switch positions. Other players have developed serious throwing issues, including Steve Sax, Chuck Knoblauch and a number of pitchers, but it is more striking when a catcher has difficulty throwing the ball back to the pitcher without throwing it into the ground, or into center field.

Good or bad, catchers always have a story to tell. Moe Berg was a catcher, and was also a spy for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. The funniest player ever to wear a baseball uniform was a catcher, Bob Uecker, but he didn't do what former Blue Jays catcher Mike Maksudian did: He once ate a locust, a cricket and a 3-inch lizard, claiming "I've never been one to turn down a dare." The best nickname in baseball history belongs to a catcher: Doug "Eyechart" Gwosdz: G-W-O-S-D-Z. Dann Bilardello, a former catcher, was such a terrible hitter (he had a .204 career batting average), he once said, "My goal is to get my stats taken off the back of my baseball card."

The strangest batting line in history -- 3-0-0-4 -- belongs to a catcher, ex-Rockie Ben Petrick, who said after driving in four runs without a hit, "I thought I had a bad game until I looked at the box score." Junior Ortiz was a catcher. He named his son J.J. for "Junior Junior." The player with the biggest head (size 8) in baseball history was a catcher, Bruce Bochy, who, after hitting a walk-off homer for the Padres, walked on a red carpet to his locker where a six-pack of beer in ice was sitting in his helmet. "You can fit a six-pack in some helmets," said Bochy's then-teammate Terry Kennedy, "but only in Boch's can you fit a six-pack and ice."

This is Baker's story. After high school, he was headed to UCLA to participate in the honors program in political science, with hopes of becoming a lawyer, not a catcher. "The championship game my senior year in high school came on the same day as graduation," Baker said. "After I made my speech, I went to my game. I had my uniform on under my gown. We lost that day at the Oakland Coliseum. I thought it was the last game I'd ever play."

Instead, University of California baseball coach David Esquer asked Baker if he wanted to keep playing.

"He thought I could still hit, and he said he needed a backup catcher," Baker said. "I asked, 'Do I get priority registration?' He said, 'Yes,' and I said, 'Then I'd love to go to Cal.'"

Baker's father was a catcher at Stanford. He was drafted by the Phillies in the fifth round in 1976, played two years in the minor leagues, then went to business school. "But I had never caught before," Baker said. "They just threw me the gear and said, 'Figure it out.' Despite all the bumps and bruises, I fell in love with the position. Now I can't just watch a game. I talk to myself, I'm calling pitches, I'm thinking, 'Why are they throwing that?'"

Baker, 29, was drafted by his hometown A's, was claimed off waivers by the Marlins in 2005, then claimed off waivers by the A's in 2006, then traded to the Marlins in 2007. He has become a good hitter and a good catcher after playing 6½ years in the minor leagues. It helps that his manager, Fredi Gonzalez, was a catcher for five years in the minor leagues. Of the 30 major league managers today, 13 of them were catchers in the major or minor leagues.

"I thought it would be more," Baker said. "As a catcher, you have to deal with every aspect of the game. You are managing a pitching staff while you are catching. On days I catch, I'm at the ballpark at 12:30 [p.m. for a 7:05 p.m. start] looking at video to see what David Wright has been doing lately. A catcher develops a relationship with everyone on the team. He understands what it's like to struggle at the plate. He can relate to every player on the team. A catcher has to have a stronger interest in the game than anyone else. So when I'm watching 'Baseball Tonight,' I'm watching and supporting the other catchers."

[+] EnlargeIvan Rodriguez
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireIvan Rodriguez is playing in his 20th season in the majors, all as a catcher.

There has been a lot to watch this season, and in recent years. Rodriguez is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and his knees still feel great at 38. Mauer is on his way to the Hall. The Yankees' Jorge Posada might be, too. But when Posada recently went on the disabled list, it gave Francisco Cervelli a chance to play; he's hitting .330 in 29 games so far this season. And in their minor league system, the Yankees have two top-level catching prospects in Austin Romine and Jesus Montero. The Rays recalled John Jaso this year to replace injured catcher Kelly Shoppach; Jaso is hitting .320 with a .441 on-base percentage in 25 games so far this season.

The Indians have one of the top prospects in the game in switch-hitting catcher Carlos Santana, who will likely be recalled some time this summer. The Orioles have Matt Wieters, who won't be the next Joe Mauer, as some predicted, but he is going to be very good player. So is the Giants' Buster Posey. The Giants are so challenged offensively, they have discussed recalling Posey and playing him at first base because he's ready to hit in the big leagues, but they have an every-day catcher in Bengie Molina. The Giants don't want to retard Posey's growth as a catcher because a catcher that can hit usually should be kept behind the plate.

And then there's Bryce Harper who, at 17, appears to be bound for greatness.

It is a good time for catchers, and therefore, a good time to celebrate them.

"Jason Kendall gave me a great piece of advice the first day I met him," Baker said. "He said, 'Whenever you're on the field, never take off your mask.' Watch him. He makes a tag, his mask is on. He goes to talk to the pitcher, his mask is on. He throws to the bases, his mask is on. I asked him, 'Why do you always keep the mask on?' He said, 'No one wants to see your ugly face.' "

That is a catcher. Here's to them.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.