Catchers are anything but ignorant

Catcher Travis D'Arnaud does catching drills during a

Catcher Travis D'Arnaud does catching drills during a spring training workout at Tradition Field. (Feb. 15, 2013) (Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa)

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Like most people involved in baseball, Travis d'Arnaud did not set out to be a catcher. Who would go out of his way to wear all that heavy gear, take a pounding and bear a ton of thankless responsibility? There are good reasons that catchers have long called their pieces of equipment "the tools of ignorance."

"Honestly," said d'Arnaud, the Mets' premier catching prospect, "I just got thrown back there when I was 13 or 14. I pitched and played shortstop. But one of my teammates threw hard and somebody said, 'Trav, can you handle this?' I said sure.

"I just fell in love with it, I was involved in every play."

So like most people involved in baseball, he has come to realize that catching deserves more than a second thought. A case can be made that it is the thinking person's position. The "tools of ignorance" phrase seems deliberately ironic now, like calling a 6-10 guy "Shorty."

Good route to managing

D'Arnaud was observant enough to notice that all four of the teams that made the National and American League Championship Series last year -- the Giants, Cardinals, Tigers and Yankees -- were managed by former catchers (Bruce Bochy, Mike Matheny, Jim Leyland and Joe Girardi). "I've always heard catchers make good managers," d'Arnaud said.

Joe Torre, a former catcher, is a good bet to be inducted into the Hall of Fame next year as a manager. If nothing else, you could say that catchers are the ones who figured out a good way to get to the major leagues.

"Hey, we're smart people," said Yankees bench coach Tony Peña, a former major-league manager who is managing the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic.

Catchers -- and this includes retired ones, because once you're a catcher, you're always a catcher -- believe it is not just coincidence that so many of them are prominent in baseball's cognoscenti. (Tim McCarver, former catcher, made it to Cooperstown last year as a broadcaster for his ability to dissect and discuss the game.)

Girardi, in his office at Steinbrenner Field recently, put it this way: "I always said that as a catcher, No. 1, you see the whole field, and in a sense you manage a game as a player. You're the one person who kind of has an understanding of both facets of the game, what it's like to be a pitcher; even though we're not pitchers, we work so closely with them. And obviously, we're everyday players."

Jorge Posada, an instructor at Yankees camp after a stellar, championship career, considered the supervisory aspects of his former position: "There's a lot of preparation involved. You go through the lineup and you manage the pitching staff. You move guys defensively."

Catchers: People persons

John Buck, who is doubling as the Mets' starting catcher and mentor to d'Arnaud, said that in his role: "You have to manage personalities. What you're trying to do is get the most out of your pitcher, either that guy who you have to step on his foot or that guy you have to pat on the back. You've got to know that. That's kind of what a manager does."

Catcher is a spotlight position this year in New York, what with the Yankees trying to identify someone to replace Russell Martin and earn the spot and the Mets so heavily invested in the future with d'Arnaud, whom they acquired in the R.A. Dickey trade. And the bench coach for each team is a former catcher (Peña and Bob Geren).

This is nothing new. The only player who squats during the game stands tall in local tradition. The Yankees' greatest living icon is Yogi Berra, a former catcher who also managed both New York teams in the World Series. The past two times the Mets were in the World Series, catchers Gary Carter and Mike Piazza were the final key additions who hat made them pennant-winners.

"I don't want to say catchers are more into the game than other people, but they kind of have to be. They're involved in every pitch," said Austin Romine, a minor-leaguer who has been discussed as a possible Yankees catcher this season.

He said he volunteered when he was a youngster because of the constant activity involved. "I didn't like standing around,'' he said. "And there is a draw to the gear when you're younger."

Buck said: "If I gave my real answer, that I like to be hit with baseballs, people wouldn't buy that. It's not a position for the faint of heart, that's for sure."

Reluctant backstops

So why would anyone want to do it? Many people, in fact, do not.

"I was forced to be a catcher," said Chris Stewart, the most experienced catcher on the Yankees' roster. "I was a shortstop in high school and the starting catcher quit. The backup catcher, who was a buddy of mine, got appendicitis and I was the last man standing. It was against my will, but fortunately it worked out all right. I can't really complain. I don't think I'm really fleet afoot enough to be a shortstop in the big leagues."

Posada was equally unhappy when the Yankees converted him from a second baseman to a catcher after he had begun his pro career. Mark Newman, the head of the minor-league operation, told him it would be his best way to get to the majors.

"They brainwash you," Posada said with a smile. "But once you have success, it's fun. It was for me."

Catchers do love being managers on the field. Doing it on the bench or in the big office is another thing. Managing is like catching in that it is hard, it involves headaches and it is something that many players are not all that eager to do.

"Maybe someday," Posada said, vigorously indicating that the day is not coming soon.

Buck said, "I could see myself doing it, but I'll concentrate more on that in five or six years."

It is safe to say it is not d'Arnaud's long-term goal. When it was suggested that 30 years from now, he could be asked about his managing strategy, he just laughed.

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