instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Ode To The Catcher on the Cusp of Spring Training

What follows is a commentary I delivered on Wed Feb 3 for a BAIP-Live Zoom based on Upper West Side of Manhattan.  Don't let BAIP - Bloomingdale Aging In Place - deceive you. These are the most engaged and lively people I know.  

 

90-year-old photographer Manny Kirchheimer, who was interviewed on the show, offered words to live by.  He said he keeps going on with his craft because his"work is fun." 

 

I present my talk in CAPS because that is how I read it and it brought back some fond memories of my radio days. 

 

I'M ONE OF THOSE BASEBALL NUTS WHO BELIEVES THAT THE GREATEST SENTENCE IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE IS "THE PITCHERS AND CATCHERS HAVE REPORTED TO SPRING TRAINING."  IN A FEW DAYS,  IF THE VIRUS IS UNDER CONTROL, THOSE WORDS WILL BRING SOLACE TO MILLIONS OF BASEBALL FANS ACROSS OUR BASEBALL-HUNGRY LAND. 

 

YOU SEE, PITCHERS AND CATCHERS NEED THE EXTRA TIME TO PREPARE BECAUSE THEY ARE INVOLVED IN EVERY PITCH OF THE GAME.  THEY ARE CALLED THE "BATTERY" BECAUSE THEY PUT A CHARGE INTO THE GAME.  

 

MORE GLAMOR HAS ALWAYS BEEN ASSOCIATED WITH PITCHING THAN CATCHING - THINK OF CHRISTY MATHEWSON, DIZZY DEAN, SANDY KOUFAX, TOM SEAVER, AND TODAY IN OUR TOWN,  GERRIT COLE AND JACOB DEGROM. 

 

BUT CONSIDER THIS.  THE CATCHER IS THE ONLY PLAYER WHO LOOKS OUT ON THE FIELD - THE OTHER EIGHT LOOK IN TO GET SIGNALS AND LOOK FOR LEADERSHIP.  THINK OF WHAT THE POSITION DEMANDS  - TO DO ONE'S THINKING IN A CROUCH, WHILE WEARING A BULKY GLOVE, HARD MASK, CHEST PROTECTOR, AND SHIN GUARDS.

 

THE MACHO, CONSERVATIVE WORLD OF BASEBALL DID NOT AT FIRST WELCOME CATCHING GEAR.  A FEW YEARS AFTER THE 1869 CINCINNATI RED STOCKINGS WON THE FIRST WIDELY-RECOGNIZED PRO BASEBALL TITLE,  ONE SPORTSWRITER WAS ALREADY YEARNING IN VERSE FOR "THE GOOD OLD DAYS":  

 

"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." 

 

IN 1907, WHEN NEW YORK GIANTS CATCHER ROGER BRESNAHAN FIRST PUT ON HIS INVENTION OF SHIN GUARDS, HE WAS BOOED BY FANS AND EVEN SCORNED BY PLAYERS, BUT THE INNOVATIONS WERE HERE TO STAY.  THOUGH SOME BRANDED THE GEAR "THE TOOLS OF IGNORANCE," IT BECAME OBVIOUS THAT A TEAM COULD NOT CONSISTENTLY WIN WITHOUT A

GOOD CATCHER.

 

IN THE GREAT POST-WORLD WAR II GOLDEN AGE OF NEW YORK  BASEBALL, WE WERE FORTUNATE TO WATCH THE WORK OF TWO FUTURE HALL OF FAME CATCHERS, YOGI BERRA OF THE YANKEES AND ROY CAMPANELLA OF THE DODGERS. 

 

THEY WERE FEARED HITTERS ON OFFENSE, BUT THEY ALSO CONTROLLED THE GAME ON DEFENSE. THEY KNEW HOW TO GUIDE THEIR PITCHERS THROUGH TOUGH SPOTS, AND HOW TO USE IDLE CHATTER TO DISRUPT THE CONCENTRATION OF OPPOSING BATTERS.  

 

IT IS NOT SURPRISING THEY BOTH LEFT A LEGACY OF MEMORABLE QUOTATIONS.  "IT'S NOT OVER UNTIL IT'S OVER," BERRA FAMOUSLY SAID, KNOWING THAT A SINGLE MISPLACED PITCH COULD TURN VICTORY INTO DEFEAT.  CAMPANELLA ADDED, "TO BE GOOD, YOU GOTTA HAVE A LOTTA LITTLE BOY IN YOU."

 

THE ART OF CATCHING HAS ALSO CAUGHT THE FANCY OF MANY A DISCERNING FEMALE OBSERVER.  WATCHING ON TELEVISION THE 1979 WORLD SERIES BETWEEN THE ORIOLES AND PIRATES, MAVERICK FEMINIST WRITER GERMAINE GREER MARVELED AT WHAT SHE CALLED "THE GROIN COMMUNICATION" BETWEEN ORIOLE CATCHER RICK DEMPSEY AND PITCHER MIKE FLANAGAN. 

 

SHE ALSO FOUND IT WONDERFUL THAT IN BASEBALL ALL THE AGGRESSION WAS "STYLIZED," AND THAT VIRILE MEN COULD PLAY THE GAME WEARING EYEGLASSES.

 

A FEW YEARS LATER  IN 1992, THE SCREENWRITERS OF "A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN," PENNY MARSHALL'S DELIGHTFUL INSIGHTFUL MOVIE ABOUT THE ALL-AMERICAN WOMEN'S BASEBALL LEAGUE, MADE A NOTEWORTHY ADJUSTMENT. 

 

THEY TURNED GEENA DAVIS'S MAIN CHARACTER, DOTTIE HINSON, INTO A CATCHER AT THE CENTER OF ALL THE ACTION - ALTHOUGH THE REAL LIFE MODEL FOR DOTTIE WAS THE OUTSTANDING FIRST BASEMAN DOROTHY KAMENSHEK. 

 

SO WHEN SPRING TRAINING SOON STARTS ANEW, DO KEEP AN EYE ON THE METS FREE AGENT NEWCOMER JAMES MCCANN TO SEE IF HE REALLY HAS COME INTO OWN AS A CATCHER.  

 

AND YANKEE FANS, DO CONTINUE TO WORRY ABOUT WHETHER YOUR OFT-MALIGNED  CATCHER GARY SANCHEZ  WILL EVER LEARN THE BASICS OF THE POSITION.   BECAUSE AS CASEY STENGEL SAGELY NOTED, "WITHOUT A CATCHER YOU WILL HAVE A LOT OF PASSED BALLS."

 

That's all for now.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it!  and please stay positive in attitude, test negative with the virus.

4 Comments
Post a comment

Why Bobby Thomson Day Will Always Be Special To Men Of A Certain Age + Thoughts on Upcoming "Final Fours" in Both Leagues (updated version)

Way back in the way back of the mid-twentieth century, on Wednesday afternoon October 3, 1951 at 3:58p, New York Giants third baseman Bobby Thomson waited for an 0-1 pitch from Brooklyn Dodger reliever Ralph Branca.

 
"There's a long drive, I think it's gonna be," shouted Russ Hodges on WMCA Radio 570 AM.  And micro-seconds later, Hodges shouted not once but four times: "The Giants win the pennant!"  Over in the WMGM 1050 AM radio booth, Red Barber quietly said, "It's in there for the pennant." 

 
I was only nine years old, but I was listening on my parents' old floor model Crosley radio. It might have been to Barber and not Hodges, but Your Honor, I just don't remember.  

But I do vividly remember telephoning my father at his office with the good news because he was a Giant fan from the days of John McGraw. 

 
My boys had been down 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth and the odds didn't look good for the Polo Grounds nine. Giants owner Horace Stoneham had retreated to the center field clubhouse to greet the lads on a good try after the game.

 

But once Alvin Dark singled to lead off the inning against previously dominant Don Newcombe, ears perked up and hearts began to leap. When my favorite Don "Mandrake the Magician" Mueller singled Dark to third, we had tying run at the plate! True rally in making.

 

Monte Irvin popped out but Whitey Lockman doubled home Dark to cut lead to 4-2.  

 

There is nothing like baseball drama in October.  Don Mueller broke his ankle sliding into third so there was a pause as he was helped off the field.  Clint Hartung, who never lived up to the ballyhoo as The Hondo Hurricane, came in to pinch-run. 

 

Don Newcombe was out and Ralph Branca made the long walk in from the bullpen far away in left field. Coach Clyde Sukeforth is said to have advised manager Chuck Dressen that Carl Erskine had just thrown his vaunted curveball in the dirt and Branca was safer pick. (Though Thomson had homered a few times in the past against Branca.)

 

And on the 0-1 pitch Thomson swung and soon Russ Hodges was shouting, "They're going crazy, they're going crazy."  I've never believed that Thomson knew what pitch was coming.  I heard from a reliable source that a few days before Whitey Lockman died, he made a definitive comment:  "He still had to hit the ball, didn't he?" 

 
It was 69 years old today - the birthday of Hall of Famer Dave Winfield who was born in 1951.  It remains a special moment (with apologies to Brooklyn Dodger fans who were heart- broken but hey you guys won enough pennants - and we were both rooked six years later when the teams left for California.)

 

Once the expanded playoffs came into baseball with wild cards were added for best record without winning a division title, Russ Hodges' dramatic call would have lost a little flair.  It would have gone:  "The Giants Win The Pennant! . . . And The Dodgers Win The Wild Card."

 
Which brings us to October baseball in 2020.  The "final fours" in each league could be very dramatic best of five series.  All will be played in "bubbles" in warm weather sites in Texas or southern California.

 

The pandemic has caused this adjustment, but for decades "warm weather" sites has been a dream of many high-rollers in baseball and television circles. After all, their argument goes, who can afford World Series prices anyway? 

 

Three of the four divisional series could be called grudge matches, especially Yankees versus Tampa Bay Rays who won season series 8-2. With a no-name lineup of seemingly interchangeable pitching and batting parts, the Rays are defiant in their disregard for Yankee "aura and mystique" (to use the phrase of the politically righter-than-right Curt Schllling). 

 

That series will be played in San Diego. If the Dodgers won enough in their last years in Brooklyn, what can be said about the Yankees and their entitlement?  So let's bring those games on, starting Monday night Oct 5 on Fox channels for five consecutive nights if necessary.

 

I must say though I cannot root for Yankees, third baseman Gio Urschela's defensive and offensive performance against his former team Cleveland was truly awesome. It's an overused word these days but certainly true.  He has to have made the people of Colombia very proud.

 

In Los Angeles, the Oakland Athletics hope to get revenge on the Houston Astros who won the World Series in 2017 but were admonished for their high-tech and low-tech sign-stealing escapades. 

 
Dusty Baker has done a helluva job in his first year managing the Astros who everyone likes to hate. Houston players have hardly been repentant for their role in the scandal. 

 

But I can never root against a Baker-led team and so I'll say, "Let the best team win . . . without excess chicanery." 

 
In the NL "final four", the Southern California freeway battle between the Padres and the Dodgers will be played in Arlington, Texas, where the World Series will also be held in the Rangers' brand-new billion-dollar Globe Life Stadium.

 

If San Diego can get back its two starters Clevinger and Lamet that missed the triumph over the Cardinals, it says here that the Padres may have enough hitting to give the Dodgers a run for their money. And their left side of the infield, Manny Machado at third and Fernando Tatis Jr at shortstop, can be spectacular.

 
The Dodgers look exceptionally well-balanced and certainly have a lot to prove after winning 7 NL West titles in a row - now 8 - without a World Series title to show for it. 


The other NL matchup is not exactly chopped liver.  A well-balanced Atlanta Braves team that shut out the Reds twice in the first round faces the 2020 Cinderellas, the Miami Marlins, the "Bottom Feeders" derided by a Phillies broadcaster early in season, now have the last laugh. Philadelphia didn't even make playoffs. They will play in Houston.

 
With the NHL Stanley Cup now in the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning and the NBA title likely going to LeBron James' LA Lakers, MLB will have the stage to itself n October as it should be.  (I omit from this discussion the NFL and its bowdlerized season.)  

 

In closing, let's clink glasses to three Baseball Hall of Famers who left us in rapid fashion recently:  Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, and Bob Gibson.  

 

And to three lesser lights who etched their names in the Baseball Book of Achievement:  Lou Johnson, Jay Johnstone, and Ron Perranoski.   "There is no wealth but life."

 

That's all for now.  Be well and stay well and as always, take it easy but take it.

Post a comment