Archive for April 4th, 2012

Catchers

One Tough Job

Now that the pundits have finally agreed that Mitt Romney is going to be the Republican presidential nominee, we can devote attention to something really important – the start of the baseball season.

The guy in the photo is Hall of Famer Mickie Cochrane who, according to no less an authority than my baseball loving father, was the greatest catcher who ever put on shin guards. Cochrane played 13 seasons for the Philadelphia Athletics and the Detroit Tigers, including two years as player-manager for Detroit. His lifetime average was .320, he was twice the American League MVP and his durability behind the plate was legendary.

Black Mike, as Cochrane was nicknamed, had perhaps his best year on the legendary 1930′s A’s team that included several other future Hall of Famers. He hit .357 that year, had 85 runs batted in, 10 homers and 42 doubles. He caught 130 games and struck out only 18 times all season. His career came to an early end in 1937 when he was beaned – pre-batting helmet days – by a pitch at Yankee Stadium. His skull was fractured in three places.

Cochrane died in 1962. He was only 59. The Associated Press wrote in his obituary that “it was said of him that as a master of the mechanics of catching, he had no peer.”

I go to baseball games for lots of reasons, but I spend a lot of time watching the catchers. Once again it was my dad who pointed out to me for the first time that the catcher is the only player on the diamond who has the entire game in front of him. The catchers perspective on the field is unique. Good catchers help establish the pace of the game. A really good catcher, one respected by his pitching staff, is probably worth five or six wins a season, at least, just because he’ll know when to make a trip to the mound or insist on a particular pitch at a critical moment.

The great Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller said it well: “If you believe your catcher is intelligent and you know that he has considerable experience, it is a good thing to leave the game almost entirely in his hands.”

Catchers also have the toughest, the physically toughest, job on the field. Just ask the Giants’ great young catcher Buster Posey who is thankfully recovering from a horrid injury last season. Yankee Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey, another candidate for greatest ever at the position, once said: “A catcher must want to catch. He must make up his mind that it isn’t the terrible job it is painted, and that he isn’t going to say every day, Why, oh why with so many other positions in baseball did I take up this one.”

Most catchers don’t have great speed. Would you if you were up and down, squatting and bending a couple hundred times a game? Catchers hands are often all beat up. They suffer split nails, broken fingers, bruises. It’s a tough job. The fact that a Mickie Cochrane, or a Yogi Berra, a Johnny Bench or a Dickey could play the position so well for so long is remarkable. There are only 16 catchers are in the Hall and only three of them played since the late 1960′s. It’s both a tough position and one at which it is exceeding difficult to excel.

The baseball season begins in earnest Thursday. Watch the catchers. Pitchers are a dime a dozen. Home run hitters get the ink. Catchers make great teams.