THE TOOLS OF INTELLIGENCE
It is hard to think about the wear and tear on catchers without wincing. I was in Baltimore this summer when Chris Hoiles, the Orioles’ main man behind the plate, returned from a long stay on the disabled list. It was nearly 100 degrees in the shade and surely hotter under all the iron and polychrome plastic of Hoiles’ equipment.
Hoiles is something of a rarity among big-league catchers these days. He is one of only a handful of catchers counted on to catch more than 100 games in a season (Ivan Rodriguez, Dan Wilson and the fragile Sandy Alomar are others in the American League; Javy Lopez, Todd Hundley, Jason Kendall and the battered Mike Piazza come to mind in the National). The usual skinny is for clubs to divide the tortures of the trade among a few good men, each willing to sacrifice his body for the team but none whose presence in or out of the lineup will be particularly consequential.
For many reasons, this represents a sea change in the game as surely as the one that has seen the demise of the complete-game pitcher. The question is whether the sea change has affected the coast line or only shifted the currents--as has the arrival of the seven-inning ace of the staff. Why should it matter at all if a catcher is part time or full time?
In the good old days, catchers were stalwarts rather than mere position players. They were captains of the ship, field commanders crouched in their bunkers behind the plate. They ran pitching staffs--serving as signal-callers and psychologists both--moved fielders left and right, flashed strategies for base-stealing and bunt defenses. They were bomb shelters against nuclear collisions with incoming runners, howitzers to nail outgoing runners. Think of the names: Cochrane, Dickey, Campanella, Berra, Bench, Boone, Fisk, Munson. These were personalities as strong as old-time movie stars. Given the nature of what they had to do, they needed to strut and swagger such as Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Jimmy Cagney, John Wayne.
During this time of the season, the stretch run, their ability to run a game was of paramount importance.
Today, catchers seem more like technocrats. They have a job to do but are no longer field bosses; yet what they do remains fairly well defined. John Stearns, a former New York Mets catcher and current Baltimore Orioles first base coach, summarizes the job description: ‘I don’t think there’s any question that the catcher is the most important and most taken-for-granted player on a team’s defense. He’s a guy who’s an integral part of every play, of every pitch of every game. Ball in the dirt, how many runs does he save?
“Think of it. Guy on third, the catcher blocks the ball in front of him instead of letting it go back to the screen. You see that and you take it for granted. You know how many years it takes to learn to do that? Blocking home plate, that’s the base you score runs on. Guys are forever trying to run you over. You’ve got to hold runners on and throw them out. Your shortstop, your middle infielder have to be great athletes, but how many plays are they in on? The catcher is there for every one of them; he’s the only guy on the team looking out at the field. Everyone else is looking in to him, and it’s important for every guy to see him bouncing around, blocking balls, taking an upbeat approach to everything he does.”
The cliche, says Stearns, is “calling” games, catchers putting down signals in sync with their pitchers. But the cliche is built on an old home truth: Catchers, when they are in their “zone,” think with their pitchers. It is as though the hand flashing the signal for a pitch and the hand releasing the pitch itself are indistinguishable, Stearns says.
“It’s almost like two guys becoming one out there,” Hoiles says. He remembers a near perfect game that Baltimore’s Mike Mussina pitched earlier in the year. It was Hoiles’ game, too, into the ninth inning when the no-hitter was broken up. ‘It just seemed like the rhythm of the game was ours--we were so in tune with each other, it was like everything I put down he wanted to throw, it was just one constant flow between two guys,” Hoiles says. “Yeah, I was very disappointed when we lost the no-hitter. It was like I lost it.”
But what about the business of catchers being generals in the dirt?
Catchers today simply do not have that kind of command. Many pitchers call their own games. Seattle’s Randy Johnson says he shakes off his catcher, Wilson, “about 40% of the time.” Atlanta’s Lopez says his pitchers will shake him off ‘about 20% of the time and maybe with John Smoltz it’s more. The Orioles’ Jimmy Key says, “I’m the kind of pitcher who studies hitters and knows what I have to do to get people out, so I’m not looking for catchers to call games for me. Some guys do, but I’m not one of them.”
Many teams, too, call games from the bench. And moves against baserunners are even more likely to be controlled from the dugout. “We take care of the running game,” Orioles coach Ray Miller says. “We just don’t want the pitcher and the catcher to ever have to worry about being second-guessed.”
Stearns thinks most catchers don’t mind having staffs help hold runners. “You know the running game has become so much more prevalent than it used to be,’ he says, ‘and that’s one of the reasons the games last so much longer . . . a lot of posturing goes on out there between the mound, the catcher and the baserunner . . . and a lot of that’s coming from the coaching staff.”
What, then, is left for a good catcher to do? What kind of difference can he make in this age of sea change and new lines of command? For one thing, pitchers still rely on catchers. Johnson says anybody can go out and catch him but that things change when the athletic Wilson is behind the plate. Wilson is tall (6-3), rangy and exceptionally quick. He has the build of a shortstop rather than a catcher, and he plays his position that way.
“If I give up a hit or a walk, if there’s a runner on base,” Johnson says, “I know that if I get the ball to Dan quick enough he’ll throw anybody out. I don’t think there’s anybody in our league with maybe the exception of Pudge Rodriguez who’ll throw out an Otis Nixon (Dodgers) or a Brian Hunter (Tigers). Dan can do that. That makes a tremendous difference for me.”