Battle Station

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

Battle Station

The extreme sportsmen who play catcher.

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Randy Johnson, ace of the Seattle Mariners, is the most thrilling, harrowing pitcher in baseball. He's a left-hander who puts the sinister back in "sinistral." He's 6 feet 10 inches tall, gaunt, with long scraggly hair, a rough complexion, humorless eyes--altogether a bit too much of that hitchhiker look. As if throwing the ball 98 miles per hour isn't wicked enough, he does it with a wild, whipping, sidearm motion, which makes left-handed batters want to dive out of the box and head back to the dugout even as the ball is crossing the plate. For many hitters, the best strategy for facing Johnson is simple: Stay on the bench.

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My brother and I watched Johnson one afternoon recently at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles. We could barely take our eyes off him.

We didn't notice the catcher.

The catcher (I learned days later, when I decided to research the subject) was Dan Wilson. He is actually one of the better catchers in the game. But needless to say, he is not a star. He's no Johnny Bench. He's not even an Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez. It is hard to be a star when you are a catcher, especially when there's the real thing, the glamour boy, the icon, just 60 feet 6 inches away on the mound.

The catcher has the least glamorous, most difficult, and most self-sacrificing job in the game. He has to do everything--call pitches, throw out base-stealers, reposition infielders, chase down foul balls, calm pitchers, doctor the ball, establish a rapport with the umpire so he calls a big strike zone, chase bunts, run down toward first base to back up the throw from shortstop and, worst of all, guard home plate even if it means getting bowled over by charging opponents. Ray Fosse never really recovered from the separated shoulder he got when Pete Rose decided to slam into him at home plate during the 1970 All-Star game. Rose set the all-time record for base hits while playing various infield positions, while Fosse became known only as the guy who got smashed.

Acatcher's life is Hobbesian. Bill Dickey, catcher on the great Yankee teams during the '30s, once got leveled by a base runner even though the guy could have slid into home far ahead of the ball. Dickey marched over to the dugout and punched the offender in the face, earning a month's suspension and a thousand-buck fine. Catching pioneer and Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan invented the shinguards and the helmet just after the turn of the century, when he got tired of getting whonked constantly--at one point some writers in New York City reported that Bresnahan had died after a particularly vicious fastball off his noggin. (According to Thomas Owens' Great Catchers, Bresnahan worked in the off-season as a private detective--a catcher's mind is never at rest, it seems.)

A catcher is something of a baseball martyr. Catchers are almost invariably slow of foot simply from years of squatting, the leg muscles shortening with time. Statistically catchers rarely put up huge career totals in home runs or RBIs because no one can catch a season's worth of games (162). Catching 130 is the stuff of an iron man. Eventually, catchers who can still hit retire to first base, a position for the fat, the stiff, the lame, and the halt.

The catcher sees everything--he's in the center of the action. Yet he is not really seen. The geometry of the game conspires to hide him. He must wear a mask. He must wear pads and shinguards. He is obscured by his posture--a squat--and the big mitt he must position in front of himself. He's more of a concept than an actual person. The catcher is merely implicit--a presumption of the game, like the scorekeeper or the grounds crew. The catcher is right there in the thick of the action, but no more interesting than the chalk lines that delineate the batter's box.

The catcher is a blue-collar worker in a game of millionaires. He wears a steel mask over a helmet whose bill points backward, a style that invariably makes even the most hardened, mature catcher seem oddly juvenile, a man who failed to grow up. All that hard work and he just looks silly.

A baseball catcher has a nickname: The backstop. He might as well be an inert mass. Yet of course it is he, not the pitcher, who is the field general. Because the pitcher stands tall, in full view, he cannot send a signal to the catcher as to what pitch will come next. It is the catcher, low to the ground, with that shadowy zone around his groin, who must call the pitch. The catcher also gives signals to the infielders, letting them know what to do in case of a double steal, or what to do if a runner at first tries to steal when there's also a runner at third. Because the catcher calls the game, he must know the hitting abilities and weaknesses of every opposing batter. The catcher is essentially the quarterback of baseball, only without the huge endorsement contracts.

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