In basketball, the point guard is the coach on the floor, making sure his team runs the offense properly, keeping his teammates involved, getting the ball to the scorers when they’re open. In football, the quarterback does much the same, only with the added danger of facing the 300-pound defensive linemen eager to separate man from ball.
But in baseball, the catcher is a different kind of animal altogether. He’s a scout and a coach. He’s a psychiatrist and a self-help therapist. He’s the first one to sacrifice his body and the last line of defense. And if he wants to make big-time money, he’s going to have to hit, too.
“It is the most difficult position to play over the course of a whole season in all sports, and the demands are very real,” says Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who caught nearly 1,400 games in a 13-year career with the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Not only the demands physically, but the demands to perform when you’re not feeling 100 percent, the mental part of it. It’s extremely taxing.”
That’s a strong statement, and Scioscia should know, as in addition to his many years as a catcher, he also played high school football. Of course, as happens when discussing any topic like this, not everyone is going to agree: “Quarterback is probably way tougher, to be honest with you,” says Cleveland Indians catcher and former high school quarterback Lou Marson, citing football’s speed and playbook complexity as the difference makers. “But yeah, (catching’s) definitely tough.”
No matter what side you come down in the issue, there is no doubt that catching belongs in the discussion among toughest jobs in sports, if not the toughest of all.
‘YOUR BODY GETS NUMB’
Any discussion about the hardships of catching has to begin with the physical toll it takes on an athlete’s body. Foul balls frequently glance off various body parts. Pitchers throw wild pitches in the dirt, and the catcher must throw himself in front of it to keep runners from advancing. Long swings by batters occasionally club the back of the catcher’s helmet, or his outstretched hand. And catchers are marked men whenever there is a close play at the plate. Dare to block the plate and the runner might assume the role of linebacker, flying in at breakneck speed for a vicious collision.
And then there is the non-stop squatting. Up and down, up and down, thousands of times over the course of the six-month long season, often through three- and four-hour games in the stifling heat of Texas, California, Florida and Georgia.
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In Scioscia’s estimation, a catcher might be 100 percent physically on the first day of the season, and then it’s all downhill from there. The strain will cause a catcher to lose weight, and thus strength, over the course of the season. Kurt Suzuki of the Oakland Athletics, a bit slight for the position at 5-11, 190 pounds, says he changed his diet radically over the offseason, bulking up to 205 to help him keep from wearing down as quickly during the long season.
“It drains you,” says San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy, a former catcher who logged more than 800 games behind the plate between the majors and minors. That’s why a lot of guys aren’t able to do it, and I always admire guys who can catch 140-150 games (in a season). That’s not easy to do. It’s tough on a body, and by the time you get to August or September, they’re feeling it.”
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Every catcher has a different way of dealing with the wear and tear, but the bottom line is that’s exactly what they all must do. They know it’s just part of the job description.
Seattle Mariners catcher Miguel Olivo claims that the most difficult time is the first two months of the season, when his body is adjusting to being sore every day. Eventually, he says, “your body gets numb. … Then, you’re in pain so much of the time, you don’t even feel it anymore. Last year I got hit so many times, I got used to it.”
“You go through stretches where you’re really feeling it,” Posey says. “Maybe you get beat up a little more with foul tips and what not, and then you have a couple weeks where you feel good. So I think it’s just a matter of trying to take care of yourself off the field as much as possible.”
‘YOU’RE A LEADER BY POSITION’
As physically strenuous as it is to play the position, most catchers say that it’s the mental aspect of the job that is truly draining.
“You’ve got to be mentally tough, as well as smart,” says Seattle Mariners third base coach Jeff Datz, who is also in charge of the team’s catchers. “Know the game, run the game, lead the game. You’re a leader by position, and we want our guys to take charge whether they’re 22 years old or 38 years old.”
Datz is charged with instructing Jesus Montero, a 22-year-old slugging phenom who has much to learn about the non-hitting requirements of the position.
"It's a process," says Datz, preaching patience. "Guys don't usually step in and shine right away."
And running the game is, when it comes right down to it, the catcher’s main job. Every position player is expected to hit, but for most catchers, hitting comes secondary to defense and game planning. Last season, for example, 56 major leaguers hit .280 or better and only three of them (Yadier Molina, .305; Alex Avila, .295; Miguel Montero, .282) were catchers. And of the 64 players to hit 20 or more home runs, only three (Carlos Santana, 27; Brian McCann, 24; Matt Wieters, 22) made their living behind the plate.
There is just so much more to the job description. Catchers must scout opposing hitters, watching video and pouring over statistics in order to formulate a plan for each game. Every series requires a new plan for a new opponent, and adjustments are made from game to game depending on what happened the night before. All of this in addition to getting time in the batting cage to hone their hitting stroke.
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“I’ll get to the field early enough to where I can go in the cage and hit, and do all my scouting reports,” says Suzuki, a career .258 hitter. “I take a lot of time scouting. You’re looking at video, looking at charts, looking at stats. I get there early enough to where I do all that, and still have enough time to go in the cage and get my hacks in.”
Once the game begins, the job is not done. A catcher must adjust his plan depending on how his pitcher is throwing that day. Sometimes a pitcher’s best ammunition might not be working, alternatives are necessary, and a catcher must improvise to get his hurler as deep into the game as possible.
“It’s very similar (to playing quarterback) because the quarterback is in charge of the huddle,” says Leary. “And even though the pitcher has the last say because the ball is in his hand, the catcher is there to guide him.”
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And when things go awry and the pitcher begins to lose his composure, the catcher must coax him back into the game mentally. Sometimes it takes a pat on the back, sometimes it takes some tough love, but when it comes to pitchers, it’s not one-size-fits-all.
Bochy remembers once heading to the mound to confer with veteran right-hander Goose Gossage, a future Hall-of-Famer closer and gruff intimidator on the mound. Gossage wasn’t exactly welcoming to visitors on his mound, and dismissed his catcher with a curt “OK, I got it.”
“Everybody is different,” says Bochy. “You have to go out there with one guy and give him the business, the next guy you may have to support, to give him some confidence. So everyone is different and you have to understand that.”
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