Reasons Abound, but "What's The Catch?"
by Chuck Rosciam
Here's the job description: Play a game three hours a day, 130 days a year, earn a seven-figure salary, become famous.
What was once a role of honor and responsibility now is shunned by today's American youth, who gravitate to more glamorous positions such as pitcher and shortstop, not to mention more glamorous sports such as basketball.
Scouts now find their catchers where they can. Some of the best are from the Caribbean and Latin America, especially Puerto Rico, where Ivan Rodriguez, Benito Santiago and Sandy Alomar Jr. were discovered. Many Americans now playing the position were blessed with strong arms but couldn't quite cut it at other positions.
Carlton Fisk was a rare natural at the position, but nowadays there is more talk his being the last of the breed. Sure, much has been made about the apparent shortage of major league caliber pitchers and how expansion will further dilute the quality. But that concern applies to catchers, too. If there's another batch of Fisks on the horizon, it's news to the men who are looking for them.
"It's not like there are a lot of Cooperstown candidates at the major league leave," said Gary Huges, scouting director of the Florida Marlins. "There's a lot of what you call journeymen. And there aren't a lot of prime prospects coming up either. We were lucky to find Charles Johnson."
Past expansions have already spread the position thin in the majors.
As Simmons knows, it takes a certain mentality to be a catcher, and if you don't believe that, just try it sometime. Suit up in armor like a warrior prepared for battle, squat for three hours and have Roger Clemens throw 95-mph fastballs at you while a distracting bat is waived in your face. Worse yet, have Tom Candiotti bounce fluttering knuckleballs past you, and when you reach the backstop to retrieve them, be the target of jeers from fans who wonder why you can't catch the darm things. Talk about a thankless job.
Count on broken fingers, arthritic knees and bruises the color of ripe eggplant. In the run-oriented National League, expect to be challenged by speedsters on the bases. With today's impatient management, expect to be platooned, which only prolongs the learning process.
Scouts also content the shortage of pitching has convinced strong-armed potential catchers to take the mound instead. Traditionally, the best baseball athletes become shortstops, pitchers, or outfielders. Not catchers. As if that's not compelling enough explanation for the catching shortage, Manager Buck Rogers, a former catcher, presents an intriguing theory of interference.
Catching runs in cycles, and there's no doubt the catching business is in a prolonged recession. Between 1931 and '37, there were six future Hall of Famers catching for their teams at the same time. But since 1965, there has been only one catcher elected to the Hall of Fame (Johnny Bench) and since 1957 only two (Bench and Yogi Berra), although Fisk and Gary Carter are likely to join Bench someday.
The shortage in young catchers can be documented through the free-agent draft, which provides a glimpse at baseball's future stars. Only two catchers were chosen in the first round in 1992, none in 1993, one in 1994, two in 1995, none in 1996, and one in 1997. Over the past five seasons, only 4 catchers went in the first round, the fewest for any five-year period since the draft began in 1965. That compares with 10 in the previous five years (1988-1962), 16 in the five years before that (1983-1987and 15 in the five years before that (1978-1982).
Why so few take the roiute is explained by the story of one who did. Charles Johnson Jr., tken in June 1992 as the Marlin's first round pick, began his career 13 years before when he came home from baseball practice one afternoon with the news most Little League parents dread.
A player with talent offensively and defensively, Johnson truly is an exception to the trend that young Americans don't want to be catchers. The catching glory years of the 1930s starred Gabby Hartnett, Ernie Lombardi, Al Lopez, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey and Rick Ferrell.
And this is nothing new!
"There's a great opportunity for boys who want to catch in pro ball today," an American League manager said when asked about a catching shortage. The manager was Ralph Houk. The comment was made 35 years ago.
So, who's taking his counsel today?
Luis Rosa, a Puerto Rico-based scout who previously signed Rodriguez, Santiago, and Alomar, said such advice is heeded in his country. With those three as role models, said Rosa, Puerto Rican ballplayers know catching can be their ticket off the island.
The first Latino to make an impact behind the plate was Manny Sanguillen, whose unique package of skills included running speed. "But I never got a Gold Glove, never started an All-Star Game, because I was Spanish," said Sanguillen, now a player agent. "I'm proud to see guys like Benito, Alomar, Rodriguez and Pena get some respect." Rosa said the American influence in Puerto Rican education has given that area an advantage over other Spanish-speaking areas for developing catchers.
Of the latest generation Americans, naturals such as Darren Daulton and Chris Hoiles share the spotlight with many converted infielders or outfielders who possess a strong arm but are short on offensive skills.
The shortage of natural catchers has allowed some marginal players to carve out suprisingly lengthly careers as backups. Dann Bilardello, for example, is with his 8th franchise over 17 professional seasons. With only 365 games in five years of big league service time proves jobs are available. "Teams need veteran catchers as backups, especially with expansion," he said. "I fit perfectly. I work well with pitchers, and I don't make much money ($167,000)."
So, what are the attributes scouts look for?
That means intimidating opposing base-runners with a powerful and accurate arm [See article on Catching Skills}, blocking pitches in the dirt, bravely standing his ground when a home-plate collision is imminent and being durable enough to keep coming back day after day. "Durability is so important, that's why my heroes are guys like Fisk and Carter, guys who lasted so long," Alomar said. "You have to be tough to be a catcher. maybe that's why a lot of Latinos are catchers. Latinos are tough and have no fear."
Old-timers look at today's premier catchers, however, and wonder whatever happened to fundamentals. Some blame the hinged catcher's mitt, introduced 30 years ago, which aloowed Randy Hundley and Bench to popularize the one-handed style of catching. "Two-handed catchers were in a better position to block and receive pitches," Rodgers said. "Today, even the good catchers cost their pitchers strikes by taking pitches out of the zone as they snatch at the ball."
Another catching controversy is Benito Santiago who has the unconventional habit of throwing to bases from his knees, and even Santiago said he hopes young catchers don't imitate him because of the inherent dangers of career-shortening injuries that come with such maneuvers. But children copying role models is a baseball tradition and many young catchers will, no doubt, be throwing from their knees for years to come -- and baseball will see young talent ending their careers early, which will only add to the scarcity in the future.