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Reflections of a Catcher

Why anyone would want to be a catcher is…well, anyone’s best guess. But, if in life we are defined by our personalities, then I was destined to be a catcher.

One of my personality traits, whether good or bad, is impatience. One hot, sunny day, when I was playing second base during a Little League batting practice, I watched as every pitch that a batter did not hit sailed right past the catcher. Little Leaguers being who they are, that meant a lot of long at-bats while those of us in the field stood around, waiting for our turn at the plate. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally got to hit.

While standing in the batter’s box, I asked the catcher, who was a friend of mine, why he had trouble catching the pitches. To my amazement he answered, “I’m afraid of the ball!” So, just to help him out, I swung at every pitch that came within two feet of the plate. After I finished hitting, I asked the coach if I could try catching.

My coach said, “No, you’re too small.” Not satisfied with taking ‘no’ for an answer, I kept after him; and, although it took some convincing, he finally let me give it a try. That was nearly thirty-six years ago.

It did not take long before I felt comfortable behind the plate. Then, after catching a pitcher who could not throw the ball over home plate, I asked the coach if I could pitch. I did not have the best fast ball, but I threw strikes and let the batters get themselves out. As with my introduction to catching, I soon became comfortable pitching. More importantly, though, both experiences that day enabled me to learn a valuable lesson about catching.

Throughout my catching career, bigger, stronger players would always challenge me. Some had great throwing arms in practice, but they could not throw out a base runner during a game. Others could hit, but none of the pitchers wanted to throw to them. Faced with these facts of my young baseball life, I made a sincere effort to first become the best defensive catcher I could become, and concentrate secondly on being a good hitter.

During my sophomore year in high school, the varsity catcher, a senior, got hurt in the first game of the year. With an all-senior pitching staff, two of whom had achieved All-State recognition – including a heavyweight wrestler nicknamed ‘Flame’ – I caught the remainder of the season. Because I prepared mentally for every game, the seniors actually looked to me for leadership. I tried to remember every hitter and which pitches he could or could not hit. I told the pitchers that, if they threw to my glove and forgot about the batter, we would be successful. By the end of the season, we had become State champions.

In my senior year a new kid who had moved into town challenged me at the catcher’s position. He stood 6’2” and weighed 220 pounds. During an early season practice, he and I were warming up pitchers side-by-side. One of our lefthanders had a reputation for throwing wild, and I volunteered to catch him. My competition looked quite relieved. Little did he know that, the year before, almost to the day, the lefthander whom I was catching had let loose with a wild fast ball that hit the catcher next to me. Sure enough, the third pitch from my lefty friend nailed my new competition, leaving him unable to catch for a week or so. So much for catchers not being smart.

Over the years coaches have asked me to train young players whose parents wanted them to become catchers. The first question that I ask the players is if they want to catch. More than half say no, they hate the position.

Catching is not for everyone. After all, you are the only defensive player positioned in foul territory who faces in the wrong direction. You have to make small talk with an umpire who is blind, with batters who are the enemy, and with your own pitcher who thinks he is the second coming of Nolan Ryan. No matter how much pain the foul ball that just nicked your fingers or smashed your toes caused, you still need to throw out the next base runner and hustle to back up first base.

Looking back, all the black-and-blue scars were worth the satisfaction of knowing that I became the best catcher I could be, and that my teammates respected my efforts. Baseball is the greatest game on earth, where bonds and friendships take shape despite the heat of competition and, simultaneously, because of it.

Catcher is the greatest position in the greatest game, where strength of personality and individual will provide the surest ingredients for success.

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