Their cumbersome equipment of shinguards, chest protector and face mask are known in baseball circles as the tools of ignorance .
But catchers at San Pedro High needn’t worry about their image. On the contrary, the school takes pride in having produced several of the finest players ever to crouch behind a plate in the South Bay.
Two former Pirates--Alan Ashby of the Houston Astros and Brian Harper of the Minnesota Twins--have enjoyed successful major league careers as catchers. Nick Castaneda, another ex-San Pedro catcher, is a first baseman in the Kansas City Royals’ farm system.
Some experts say Dale Johnson, a powerfully built junior with a cannon arm, will be the next Pirate catcher to play pro ball.
It wouldn’t surprise Jerry Lovarov, San Pedro’s veteran coach.
“Dale is right there with any catcher I’ve ever had as an 11th-grader,” he said. “In terms of arm strength, I think he’s a little stronger than all those other kids.”
An unassuming Johnson shies from comparisons to San Pedro’s catching greats. He’s more concerned with improving his game than measuring up to the memory of Ashby and Harper.
“I guess I take pride in knowing that they came from San Pedro,” he said. “But I don’t think about it much.”
Johnson’s thoughts are entrenched in the present, not the past.
San Pedro has won nine consecutive Southern-Pacific Conference games and sits atop the standings with a 12-3 record largely because of the exploits of its 5-foot-11, 198-pound catcher. His three RBIs Tuesday helped the Pirates beat Carson, 15-5, and improve to 15-8 overall with two league games left before they advance to the L.A. City Section 4-A playoffs.
Although he missed three games because of a slight knee injury, Johnson leads the team with a .425 batting average (31 for 73), five home runs and 30 RBIs, the proverbial triple crown of baseball.
“He’s an excellent hitter,” Lovarov said. “He can hit the fastball, and he hits the curveball as well as any player I’ve had. That’s rare. Usually it takes a number of years to learn how to hit the curveball.”
Johnson is just as highly regarded as a defensive player.
Narbonne Coach Nick Van Lue, a former assistant at San Pedro and Harbor College, says Johnson is nearly impossible to steal bases on because of his strong arm and quick release.
“You can’t steal bases off him,” he said. “You have to steal off the pitcher when you play San Pedro.”
Van Lue has the numbers to back up his statement. In Narbonne’s 12-1 loss to San Pedro last Friday, he timed Johnson’s throw from home plate to second base in 1.9 seconds. Most high school catchers throw in the 2.2 to 2.3 range, he said.
“He’s probably one of the best catchers I’ve seen in a long, long time on the high school level,” Van Lue said. “He’s extremely intelligent behind the plate and he has a major-league arm. That’s what the scouts look for.”
Said Banning Coach Syl Saavedra, whose team trails San Pedro by one game in the Pacific League: “I’d love to have him.”
Johnson said he strengthened his arm in the off-season by playing hours of catch and lifting weights. He regards his receiving skills as the area that needs the most work.
“I need to block the ball better,” he said. “I have to move quicker.”
However, Lovarov has no complaints. He says Johnson, aside from his playing skills, helps the team by bringing enthusiasm to games that rubs off on San Pedro’s other players.
“He’s a kid that comes to play,” Lovarov said. “He’s always fired up. I have to calm him down sometimes.”
Johnson admits he’s a “take-charge guy” on the field. Away from baseball, the burly athlete seems reserved and uncomplicated. He began playing organized ball when he was 5 years old and says the sport has occupied much of his time.
“I’ve caught most of my life,” he said. “I enjoy it. I guess I’ve been catching so long I just got used to it.”
Johnson’s early development can be traced to excellent youth baseball programs in San Pedro.
“It’s a fantastic thing to have in a little town like that,” Van Lue said. “It’s the same thing with El Segundo. By the time the players get to high school, they have a pretty good idea how to play the game.”
Johnson was so accomplished when he started high school that he became the Pirates’ starting catcher last season as a sophomore. Lovarov said only one other catcher, Castaneda, has started as a 10th-grader during his 28 years as head coach.
Lovarov, 58, says finding a competent catcher is vital to building a strong team.
“I think everybody who coaches does the same thing,” he said. “You try to build strength up the middle. You have to work from somewhere. I’ve always felt that you have to develop a good pitcher and catcher first and work from there.”
To achieve that goal, Lovarov has had to convert many players to catcher from other positions. For example, he said Ashby and Harper were infielders before he moved them behind the plate during their junior years.
They made the move willingly. Others need coaxing to play catcher because of the unglamorous nature of the position and its physical demands.
“Very few kids like to play catcher,” Lovarov said. “It’s a lot of hard work. You damage your fingers and everything else. But all the good ones loved to catch after you got them back there.”
Johnson loved catching from the start. Some may consider that ignorant. But if he can follow in the footsteps of Ashby and Harper, it might turn out to be the smartest move of his life.
SAN PEDRO HIGH’S TOP 10 CATCHERS * 1985 Richard Tamayo (1st Team All-City) 1982 Derek Alkonis (1st Team All-City) 1980 Nick Castaneda (1st Team All-City) 1977 Brian Harper (1st Team All-City) 1973 Howard McKnight (1st Team All-League) 1969 Alan Ashby (1st Team All-City) 1962 Elias Gomez (1st Team All-League) 1954 Fred Bower (1st Team All-City) 1947 Marco Guglielmo (1st Team All-City) 1938 Horace Evans (3rd Team All-City) * Information supplied by Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles