Battle Station

The stadium scene.
Aug. 30 1997 3:30 AM

Battle Station

The extreme sportsmen who play catcher.

(Continued from Page 1)

Chris Hoiles, starting catcher for the Orioles, told me one day in the locker room, "We're usually the dirtiest guys on the field and the sweatiest guys on the field. We stink all the time."

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He said his gear gets really raunchy. It's no fun to strap that stuff on when the thermometer hits the upper 90s. And that squatting he does--it's as uncomfortable as it looks. Meanwhile he says of the pitcher: "All the eyes are on him. All the recognition goes to him." There's no whine in his voice. This is just reality. He knows that when a pitcher throws a no-hitter the catcher is lucky to get in the photograph in the next day's paper.

Hoiles is a big slab of a man, now 33, a veteran but not a star. The rap on him is that he can't throw out base runners. "The thing that impresses fans with catchers is arm strength," says Orioles bench coach Andy Etchebarren.

Hoiles admits he never had a strong arm. He is otherwise steady on defense and can hit home runs. He became a catcher because he grew up in Bowling Green, Ohio, in the era when Johnny Bench ruled the Reds down in Cincinnati. Meeting Bench was one of the greatest moments of his life.

"I absolutely love the position," he says. "You're right in the middle of the action. You're the one that has to make a lot of decisions. There's a lot of prestige in the position."

He means prestige in terms of the team. It doesn't carry that far beyond the dugout, though. The catcher has always been a somewhat overlooked position. Even Yogi Berra, a Hall of Famer, was never the great hero of the Yankees--he labored in the shadow of greater stars like Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. In my lifetime Johnny Bench has been the singular superstar of the position (he was once on the cover of Time magazine). There have been plenty of worthy catchers--Carlton Fisk, Bob Boone--but the ones that became most famous are those who went into broadcasting, such as Tim McCarver, Joe Garagiola, and Bob Uecker. Mike Piazza of the Los Angeles Dodgers is the snazziest young catcher and could be Cooperstown bound. (Lately I have been inexplicably tempted to use "Cooperstown bound" when talking about each and every baseball player--e.g., "Nice single there by Cooperstown-bound Aaron Ledesma.")

In the Hall of Fame there are only 11 catchers, eight from this century--fewer than one catcher per decade. That compares with, for example, 21 right fielders and 56 pitchers. Every position in baseball has more representatives in the Hall, with the sole exception of.

There is, in fact, a crisis of sorts in the catcher position. No one wants to play it anymore. Kids refuse to catch.

"There's not a whole lot of them out there," says Etchebarren.

Lenny Webster, the Orioles backup catcher, said he started playing the position because no one else would do it.

"You get beat up a lot," he says. "There are times when you have to block balls and they're not always going to hit that chest protector."

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