Day after day, Josh Thole endured the stench of cow manure.
With animals below his feet, he would hit ball after ball in "The Barn," an abandoned hayloft equipped with a batting cage. That family-owned property in rural Aviston, Ill. - about 10 miles from his hometown of Breese - is where an 8-year-old Thole first honed his skills under the watchful eye of his father, Mike, and American Legion baseball coach Jason Rakers.
"It was always stinky and freezing cold. You know, Illinois winter," Thole said with a smile. "I just got through it because I didn't know anything else. I never knew what it was like to go in a million-dollar facility to hit and work out."
The reason he religiously hit in "The Barn" is the same reason he insisted on catching knuckleballer R.A. Dickey in spring training and the reason he gave up playing basketball when he arrived at Mater Dei Catholic High School. He wanted to give himself every opportunity to make the big leagues.
With the recent departure of Rod Barajas, Thole, 23, is the Mets' everyday catcher, responsible for keeping a streaky rotation on track and Dickey's pitches from hitting the backstop. In only a few months, he's emerged as a clubhouse favorite and, more importantly, continues to impress the Mets with his baseball IQ.
"He brings the makeup, the desire, the intelligence," said bench coach Dave Jauss, who works with Thole on his defense. "With the tools he has and being an intelligent player with a great work ethic, those things will develop on a daily basis and I see him as a championship, everyday catcher."
It was the Marlins who expressed the most interest in Thole before the 2005 draft, even calling him during the 12th round to say he was their guy. But they passed him over, leaving the door open for the Mets to select him in the 13th round.
"It took the breath out of me," Thole said. But now he is content with what happened.
"He's not one of those power-hitting catchers, but he's a contact hitter," Buffalo Bisons manager Ken Oberkfell said of Thole, who is hitting .294 after going 2-for-5 in last night's 6-5 win over Florida. "He uses the whole field, he knows how to work a count, he's not afraid to hit with two strikes on him. He's not going to hit you 15 or 20 home runs, but I see a guy who's capable of driving the ball into the gaps."
Thole also put the time in behind the plate. He insisted on catching Dickey in Port St. Lucie and again in Triple-A Buffalo to improve his defense, even though it wasn't easy.
"There was nobody to catch his first bullpen and I said, 'I'll do it,' " Thole said. "I had no experience [with knuckleballers], so the first time was kind of tough. And when they had said he was going to Triple-A to start the season, then I was just like his little puppet and just followed him around and played catch with him every day."
Frustration would come, but never mount. For Thole, the goal was to learn a skill that few catchers would want to discover, let alone perfect.
He has an uncanny ability to put teammates, and most notably pitchers, at ease. Perhaps it's his Midwestern drawl, his easygoing demeanor, or just his ability to accept criticism.
"His communication is pretty good and I think a lot of pitchers love that," backup catcher Henry Blanco said. "They have to have a guy, first of all, that they can trust."
Oberkfell, who also is from southern Illinois, saw firsthand Thole's preparation and ability to relate to pitchers. "He listens," he said. "He'll be talking to veterans, he'll pick their brain and he doesn't forget it. I know the pitchers here loved throwing to him."
For Thole, this is more than a dream fulfilled. It's the reward of hard work along the way. But he, more than anybody, knows there's more to be done.
"I'm not even close to where guys like Rod or Henry are, guys that have had great success in the big leagues," he said. "I just sit back and think, 'I can't take anything for granted.' There's no reason to say, 'Well, I have everything now.' "
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