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.

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.

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."

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."

Many of the top catchers these days are immigrants--once again filling jobs that native-born Americans are reluctant to do.

Baseball has never been allowed by the intelligentsia to be simply a game played with a ball--it must always be a metaphor for something grander, like democracy, the re-creation of the Garden of Eden, the rights of the individual vs. the needs of the collective, or whatever. In this annoying tradition, let me suggest that the plight of the catcher is symbolic of a dire trend in American society--call it the decatcherization of daily life. We just don't get dirty like we used to. We don't sweat. We finesse our way out of trouble, using the checkbook, rather than choose a brutal collision and trust that we will hang on to the ball.

We refuse to live uncomfortably, and in so doing lose all sorts of knowledge that can only come with the grit of hands-on labor. The problem with so many jobs in today's economy is not that they pay poorly but that they are vaporous, the mere manipulation of words and symbols and concepts. Michael Pollan, the writer and magazine editor, writes in A Place of My Own about how he had become so disconnected with the physical world that he finally decided to hammer together a writing hut in his backyard, a desperate attempt to make contact with real objects.

The affluent classes are more comfortable than ever--we can barely, dimly imagine the world, just two generations ago, when millions of Americans cherished the Sears Roebuck catalog for its utility as toilet paper. It is now considered normal to travel several blocks or even miles to find a place that charges more than a dollar for a cup of coffee. But what great coffee! We cherish our comfort, our good food, our friendly beverages. In summer we condition our air so that we will not sweat--except when we go to the gym, where we pay someone money so that we can use our muscles. We are outfielders now. We laze about in the grassy fields of life. We wonder if someone will hit us the ball.

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