Hernandez a 'fearless' leader
It's a job few players would sign up for. But Ramon Hernandez takes great pride in being able to take a hit.
Even though Ray Fosse didn't have the ball, and even though it was only an All-Star Game, the Cleveland Indians catcher planted himself squarely in front of home plate at Riverfront Stadium in 1970.
Unfortunately for Fosse, the one-hop throw arrived at almost the exact instant as Pete Rose, who led with his shoulder. Rose bowled Fosse over as easily as a 16-pound ball does a pin. The ball went flying, allowing Rose to score the winning run as fans went crazy.
It's the kind of play you don't see very often anymore. Scouts say blocking the plate has become a lost art, and at least one points to the often-replayed Rose-Fosse highlight as a contributing factor.
"It kind of took the glamour out of it,'' one scout cracked.
Fosse didn't go for X-rays afterward. Nor did he land on the disabled list. But his left shoulder, which had been turned toward Rose, was a mess, and he was never the same as a hitter. "It limited my power,'' Fosse said. "I got my strength back in my shoulder, but I never regained my home-run power. My swing had changed.''
Is it any wonder that the swipe tag has become a staple of the modern catcher? When the great catchers of the past, the Bill Dickeys and Roy Campanellas, were getting plowed into by runners, their pain was seldom broadcast around the world. Nor did they have agents whispering Fosse's name as a warning.
Not all of the current catchers are focused on their survival skills, of course. But some of the most observant scouts and coaches draw blanks when quizzed about catchers who are known for taking home plate away from baserunners.
At the moment, it seems, no catcher wears black and blue like Mike Scioscia and Jim Sundberg did not so long ago. The guy who is considered the role model for modern catchers, Ivan Rodriguez, has never been fond of planting his 5-foot-9 body in front of fast, bulked-up runners. Perhaps that's why he has averaged 126 games a year over his 14-year career.
Catchers earn acclaim for either their batting or the quickness and velocity of their throws to second base. The ability to block sliders in the dirt, a specialty of catchers like Damian Miller and Mike Matheny, ranks next in the standard skill set. The only time anyone seems to worry about whether a catcher can stand his ground against a baserunner is when it happens with a game on the line.
While there was no broad consensus, San Diego's Ramon Hernandez received the slightest of edges over Anaheim's Bengie Molina as the guy most likely to get an out in that situation. Padres backup catcher Miguel Ojeda also received a mention, with a scout citing a play he made during the recent Caribbean Series. But it's Hernandez who gets the nod.
"That guy is fearless,'' one scout said of Hernandez. "Pitchers love him because he's going to do anything he can to help them, even if it means getting crushed by a runner. His technique is really good.''
Yet, Hernandez missed a month last season after a collision with Toronto's Howie Clark. He held on to the ball for an out, but then sprawled in the dirt after taking the hit. Doctors said the injury would have been worse than a strained ligament had he not been wearing a brace on his left knee, which he had injured five years earlier.
"It's one of those plays where you've got to put your body into it,'' Hernandez said of the collision with Clark. "It's not going to scare me. It might happen again later. It's not going to be the first or last time I'm going to get hit.''
In a collision at home plate, the advantage goes to a catcher if he gets the ball in time to set his body. Few catchers wound up on the right side of more collisions than Scioscia, who spent 13 of his 14 seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Scioscia, now the manager of the Angels, has been a mentor for Anaheim's Molina brothers, Bengie and Jose (their younger brother, Yadier, will be a regular with St. Louis this season). Bengie has twice won Gold Gloves and is considered a tough guy who holds his own against runners.
He put the burly Jermaine Dye on the disabled list with a separated shoulder in 2003. A few days later, he took care of Ken Harvey, who is equally massive. But it was Molina who paid the price later that season.
In an awkward play, Molina reached out to tag Minnesota's Dustan Mohr, who was streaking to the plate. This is one spot where a player does not want to get his arms extended -- catchers are taught to keep their hands close to their bodies -- and Molina was left with a broken wrist.
"He's aggressive, that's for sure,'' one scout said. "I'm sure he's learned a lot from Scioscia. He was the all-time great at that.''
It's a title Scioscia might hold forever.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.
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