Doing some yard work over the weekend, I had to do a lot of squatting. It's just a damn shame when you get to the point where a day's worth of honest work will almost put you in the hospital. I was so sore for the next couple of days that I looked like Matlock on his last case hobbling around the scene of the crime.
In order to find pain-easing entertainment from the comfort of my barcalounger on the evening of my worst torment, I watched the first game of the 2002 World Series. I haven't been that interested in watching these overpriced and over hyped guys play the game of my youth in the last few years, but there's something about this one that's caught my eye. Maybe it's Barry Bonds and his "fuck you" attitude toward the media. Maybe it's the fact that both coaches used to work for Tommy "Mobs and Pasta" Lasorda, who was the longtime manager of my arch nemesis team, the LA Dodgers. (This hatred for the Dodgers comes from my love of the Yankees back in the Maris and Mantle days. The Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to LA in 1958, and they were always considered the West Coast dynasty team to rival the Yankees' control of the East.) But I think it was watching Benito Santiago more than anything else which drew me into this Series.
Benito is 37 years old. He's old enough to have some of the same aches and pains I have. But Benito squats for a living. I bet he could have done that yard work I did 24 hours a day for a week and still be saying, "Hey, 'dis all you gots?" I've never heard him speak, so forgive me for using my own assumptions about the sorts of words which should be coming out of that mouth. I can tell you, just by looking at his face and by the way he plays the beloved game, that he's smart and he's mean and he's been hurt enough to tell horror stories that would scare the kids coming up from AAA ball, if he wanted to.
I loved baseball when I was a kid, and I've even caught a few games in my life. But it was never a position I really wanted to play for any length of time. I think it was the hassle of having to don and doff all that equipment each inning that bothered me, more than the position itself. Hell, I don't even wear a watch nowadays. Most days, the total number of items that I put on during a normal day is eight, and none of them are jewelry or accessories. Two socks, two shoes, two underwear items, pants and a shirt. Have you ever seen all the stuff a catcher has to wear? They jokingly refer to the gear as the Tools of Ignorance. Can you imagine how they sweat when it's 110o and the sun is right there in the middle of the sky and the pitcher is carrying each batter to a full count? It was a New York Giants catcher in 1907 who put on the first shin guards. He got laughed at quite heartily that day. This was the final piece of all the array they don each game, after the glove, the chest protector (1885), and the mask, which came into popularity around 1890. Back then, it was a sort of fencing mask. The mask this guy for the Angels is wearing this year looks like a Star Wars action figure accessory. Anyway, this is the main reason I usually wound up playing shortstop, second base, or center field.
Back in the beginning, in the mid-1800s, catchers would stand far behind the batter's box and catch pitches on the first bounce. A runner wasn't thrown out in a professional baseball game until 1871, around the time catchers began to get closer to the action.
The names of famous catchers may be unknown to many folks, even baseball aficionados. Gary Carter, Mike Piazza, Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Thurman Munson, Roy Campanella; but I bet you know the most-quoted catcher of all time, and the guy who used to catch my favorite pitchers on the Yankees, Yogi Berra, don't you? I bet you didn't know that Yogi hit the first pinch-hit home run in a World Series in 1947, did you? Those of you who are into baseball right now know Benito Santiago.
I'm really surprised that it's taken me this long to fully appreciate what a catcher does in a ball game.
Nowadays, I love to watch these guys work, especially since squatting has become a life-threatening experience for me. Watch their eyes and their glove as a 93 mph fastball rises just a few inches as it crosses the plate. The batter swings and misses the missile by less than a molecule of air, and even the umpire jumps just a fraction. The catcher watches the pitch right into his mitt and then immediately surveys the bases to check and see what every one of his enemies has in mind. His enemies are anyone who managed to reach base and could then possibly cross his prized territory, his holy land, home plate.
Watch him as he catches a breaking ball that missed by just a couple of inches and then surreptitiously draws the mitt back across the outside corner of the plate, giving the umpire the illusion that he might have not seen what he just saw. The relationship between the umpire and the catcher must be a wonderful one, indeed. The umpire counts on the catcher not to allow the ball to hit him, but he's counting on this from the con man who would eke out a strike by any means possible.
Watch the catcher direct the pitcher and tell him not only what pitch to throw but exactly where to throw it. Watch as he waits until the last minute, when the pitcher's eyes connect after the windup, and then sets his mitt in Position A. Watch his disappointment when the ball arrives at Position D- and he has to dig it out of the dirt across his body in order to keep the runner on first base from advancing.
Watch him point to an outfielder who's out of place for a hitter who has pulled the ball in every at-bat so far in a Series.
But, most of all, watch him do the two things he prides himself on, above all else:
» If one of his enemies thinks he will advance a base due to his lack of prowess with his throwing arm, watch him become the strongest arm on the team. When he has to stand out of a crouch and throw a runner out trying to steal second base, this is when he is the Gladiator of baseball. I don't know this for a fact, but I would bet you that catchers pride themselves on their percentage of runners caught stealing above their batting average.
» Then, when there is a close play at his prized piece of real estate, his sacred ground, home plate, watch as he gives up life and limb to block any access. Some of the most memorable moments in baseball have come in the form of collisions worthy of the WWF.
When you listen to Tim "Buckethead" McCarver announce the ball game tonight, you can assume the reason he knows so much about the game is because he was a catcher. "Buckethead" sounds pretty chipper, but out of the 80 major league baseball players who have committed suicide, 13 percent were catchers. This is second only to pitchers, who make up a whopping 45 percent. This means that almost 2/3 of the suicides in professional baseball have come from the battery.
We used no mattress on our hands,
No cage upon our face;
We stood right up and caught the ball,
With courage and with grace.
--George Ellard ... 1869 Red Stockings
Some of these historical facts were obtained from the Encyclopedia of Baseball Catchers, online.