The San Diego Padres had just beaten the New York Mets 3-2 last August. WWOR-TV in New Jersey replayed a wild pitch from the 10th inning that bounced past Padre catcher Benito Santiago—one of four such pitches between these two teams in three games that month—and broadcaster Steve Zabriskie, a former minor leaguer, said, "Well, there wasn't anything Santiago could do."
"On the contrary," interjected Zabriskie's partner in the booth, Tim McCarver, a former major league catcher. "This run, and most of the runs that score this way, are indeed the fault of the catcher. Santiago's job is to stop those pitches. That's just not good catching. I'm not singling out Benito Santiago. Not many catchers today would have stopped those runs either. They should, but...."
McCarver's voice is just one in a chorus bemoaning the current state of catching in the major leagues. "Catching today is a disaster." says Birdie Tebbetts, a former All-Star catcher for the Detroit Tigers and now a scout for the Baltimore Orioles. Says Joe Nossek, a scout for the Houston Astros, "The toughest thing to find today is a good catcher." One coach, when asked to list the five best catchers in the American League, said, "There aren't five good ones."
Consider this: Before 1985, no catcher past the age of 36 had ever caught 100 games in a season. That year, both 37-year-old Bob Boone and 37-year-old Carlton Fisk passed the 100 mark. Boone, who as a free agent signed with the Kansas City Royals in November for $883,001, and Fisk, who re-signed with the Chicago White Sox for $1.2 million in February, are now 41. In a poll of managers, coaches and scouts (page 30), Fisk and Boone are still ranked as the best defensive catchers in the American League. "I respect Boone and Fisk tremendously," says bullpen coach Glenn Ezell of the Royals, "but it's kind of sad that two 41-year-olds are the best."
Consider this: Toronto Blue Jay Ernie Whitt, 36, was second in the American League in games caught last season. The Houston Astros' Alan Ashby, 37, Los Angeles Dodger Rick Dempsey, 38, and the Texas Rangers' Jim Sundberg, 37, all finished the season as platoon regulars.
Consider this: There were 16 catchers in the majors last year who were released or allowed to leave organizations as minor league free agents. Seven of them were platoon regulars at some point last season: Sundberg, Sal Butera (Toronto), Rick Cerone (Boston Red Sox), Brian Harper (Minnesota Twins), Larry Owen (K.C.), Jamie Quirk (K.C.) and Geno Petralli (Texas). Petralli, you may recall, is renowned for having been found by the Rangers in 1986 working in a Dr Pepper plant after being released by the Cleveland Indians three and a half weeks earlier.
Consider this: The two most one-sided trades of the 1980s came within five days of one another because the Royals and Cardinals were desperate for catchers. On March 27, 1987, Kansas City traded righthanded pitcher David Cone to the Mets for catcher Ed Hearn. Last season Cone was 20-3 for New York, and Hearn, who was hurt, played only seven games for the Royals. Five days after the Cone trade. St. Louis sent Andy Van Slyke, Mike Dunne and Mike LaValliere to the Pittsburgh Pirates for catcher Tony Pena. Van Slyke & Co. have turned the Pirates into a championship contender, while Pena (.263 last season) has had little impact on the Cards. "Most of the time, you can't even talk about trading for a good everyday catcher," says Montreal Expo manager Bob Rodgers. "So those things will happen."
"I sit in back of home plate almost every day." says Toronto scout Gordon Lakey. "When my son Ryan [age 7] told me he wanted to be a catcher, I figured that's like aspiring to be the CEO of IBM. I'll be able to retire early."
Most kids these days aren't like Ryan. "Catching is work. Hard, dirty, tough work," says Angel manager Doug Rader. "Few kids want to work that hard. Most kids have a psychological block about catching."
"It's a societal thing," says Rodgers. "Mothers don't want their kids back there, getting hit by foul tips and bats and being run over trying to block the plate. Fathers don't want the good athlete son catching, because he could get hurt. High school and college coaches put their best athletes on the mound or at shortstop."
That's American kids Rodgers is talking about. He adds, "In five or 10 years, 70 percent of the good young catchers will be coming out of Latin America." He cites San Diego's discovery of Santiago in Puerto Rico; despite his aforementioned troubles against the Mets, Santiago is considered the best young catcher in the game. And behind him, the Padres have Sandy Alomar Jr., who's coveted by most every team in the majors. Alomar, too, is from Puerto Rico.
"The success, glory and money that will be heaped upon Santiago and Alomar will probably inspire a lot of Latin kids, who will see that catching is the fastest way to make it," says Cub Latin American scouting coordinator Luis Rosa, who signed both Santiago and Alomar when he worked for the Padres. "There are already some very good-looking young Latin kids around. Boston has an 18-year-old Venezuelan kid named Alex Delgado. Toronto has a 16-year-old named Carlos Delgado from Puerto Rico, as well as Francisco Cabrera [a 22-year-old Dominican who hit 20 homers last season for the Blue Jays' Double A Knoxville farm club]."
In contrast to the blooming of Latin catchers is the virtual absence of black American catchers. In the 1950s and '60s, the majors were graced with Roy Campanella, Elston Howard, Earl Battey and John Roseboro. among other black receivers. But the last black to catch 100 games in a season was Earl Williams with the '72 Orioles. Last year only four blacks caught in the majors: Terry McGriff and Lloyd McClendon of the Reds. Carl Nichols at Baltimore and Darrell Miller with the Angels. Only Miller caught as many as 40 games. None hit better than .221. And there are no black catching prospects on the horizon.
Is this the black quarterback syndrome? Do baseball coaches and managers think blacks incapable of handling pitching staffs? "I don't think so." says Montreal scouting director Gary Hughes. "The problem is more that the best athletes—black or white—get moved to other positions. Gary Sheffield (page 92) was a catcher. But he's such an exceptional athlete, can hit so well and has such a great arm, he got moved to shortstop for fear catching would wear him down. Dave Stewart was a catcher with a great arm. As soon as he struggled hitting, they made him a pitcher. The problem goes further. Baseball isn't getting enough blacks, period. Football is. Especially the big fullback-linebacker types that we'd make into catchers."
The influence of role models has been a strong determining factor. "The black athletes in baseball that kids emulate are Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis or Ozzie Smith," says Hughes. "The Latin kids can look up to catchers like Pena or Santiago, but who can the black kids look to?" Indeed, not many kids are likely to tell their parents, "I want to be the next Lloyd McClendon."
Meanwhile, the search goes on. In the last 15 June drafts, 43 catchers were chosen in the first round; less than half have made the majors, and only four have caught 100 games in a season. It's a desperation game. "Teams have been badly burned by the best-catcher-available syndrome." says former Rangers and Indians general manager Joe Klein. "Usually, the best catcher available is a future backup or Triple A guy." In 1983 the Blue Jays decided they had to draft a catcher with the ninth pick of the first round and chose the best catcher available instead of the player they rated the highest, thereby taking Matt Stark instead of Roger Clemens. The White Sox have used three high first-round picks in the last decade to find a young catcher and have ended up with backup Ron Karkovice and two nonprospects.
The best available catcher and the best available athlete are simply not the same thing. Says Toronto scout Tim Wilken, "Often the good football players who do choose to go to baseball do so because of the relative life expectancy of the sports. Those kids aren't going to go behind the plate. The majority of high school and college catchers are the worst athletes. Hence, many of the best catchers in the big leagues are converts."
That's true. Because catchers are not being developed at younger ages, major league systems have had to create them. "You convert players with quick feet, strong arms and good bodies who can't run," says Padres manager Jack McKeon. The list of converts is impressive. Fisk was a high school shortstop-pitcher. Boone was a Double A third baseman with the Phillies. Lance Parrish of the Angels was another third baseman who converted in Double A. Gary Carter, now of the Mets, was a high school shortstop-pitcher whom the Expos drafted as a catcher because of his arm and the way he took control in practice. Milwaukee's B.J. Surhoff was a high school shortstop who switched to catching at the University of North Carolina. Boston's Rich Gedman was a pitcher-first baseman. Oakland's Terry Steinbach, a third baseman-DH.
"Converting a player is fine, but the problem is that there's so little catching around that if a converted catcher shows anything at all in the minors, he gets rushed to the majors before he learns the position." says McCarver. "From the beginning the emphasis isn't put in the right places. Young catchers are taught the wrong priorities. How do teams usually win? With pitching. The catcher's first concern is the pitcher. Or should be. But management only talks about catchers who can hit. Go in to negotiate or arbitrate your contract, and they talk about offensive statistics. It's all wrong." Says another catcher-turned-broadcaster (for the Red Sox). Bob Montgomery. "In spring training count how many balls catchers practice blocking in defensive drills, then count how many extra swings they take in the cage. They've got the whole thing backwards."
"The game's so offensive-minded, teams don't look for Jim Hegans anymore." says Pirate manager Jim Leyland. Hegan, who backstopped the extraordinary Cleveland pitching staffs in the late 1940s and '50s, is regarded by many as the best defensive catcher of the last 40 years. His lifetime average was .228, but his '48 Indians won the World Series and his '54 Indians were 111-43.
The worst news is that something of a vicious cycle has set in. Desperation begets expedience—and impatience. "The shortage of catchers compounds the weakness throughout the industry." says McKeon. "Since the shortest way to the big leagues is as a catcher, it means that in the position where a kid needs the most experience he is getting the least. I managed Dale Murphy in Richmond in 1976, and I guarantee he would have been one of the greatest catchers who ever lived. But he had a mental block throwing in spring training the next year, and since the Braves had built him up as their savior, they moved him to first base, then the outfield. If they'd given him another full year of catching in Triple A. he'd have been fine."
There are a few signs of enlightenment. Darrell Parks, who plays in the Minnesota system, is considered a top catching prospect, but the Twins want him to return for a second year at Double A Orlando. "We could ruin him if he were rushed," says player personnel director Bob Gebhard.
The modernization of the game has itself proved an enemy: "The catching fundamentals are terrible, starting with the new gloves that have made one-handed catchers out of everyone," says Tebbetts. Until the Cubs' Randy Hundley came along in the mid-1960s, all catchers had used stiff, unhinged, pie-plate gloves that necessitated the use of the right, or meat, hand to catch the ball. Hundley changed to a flexible model that was more like a first baseman's glove.
Then along came Johnny Bench and Fisk with hands like Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith. "They changed catching, but not for the best," says Tebbetts. "Too much reaching. Too much blocking of balls with their gloves instead of shifting their bodies. Too much backhanding. And. with the right hand way back [most one-handed catchers keep their meat hands behind their backs to save them from being injured], by the time most of these guys get the ball out of their gloves and are ready to throw, they've given the runner a couple of extra steps. Too often, when a scout talks about a good young defensive catcher, he's talking about seeing the kid throw in infield practice. Catching's a hell of a lot more complicated than that."
"The fundamental purpose of a catcher never gets taught to most kids," says McCarver. "If a catcher can't block a tough pitch in the dirt with a runner on third in a one-run game, the pitcher won't let his best curveball or split-finger go for fear it'll end up at the screen. You'd be surprised how many times during the season a pitcher gets blamed for a hanging curveball or split-finger, and the reason he hung it is because he's afraid his catcher won't catch the tough one." Ashby has been subjected to much criticism in Houston because of his weak throwing arm—he threw out only 16% of opposing runners last year—but several Astro pitchers give him much of the credit for the success their staff has had the last few years. "You never see Dave Smith or Mike Scott afraid to throw their nastiest split-finger with the runner on third," says Pittsburgh pitching coach Ray Miller. "They all know Ashby will put his nose in the dirt and block the ball. The Mets all know that with Carter, as do the Pirates with LaValliere and the Dodgers with [Mike] Scioscia."
There are a few good young all-around catchers emerging: Santiago, 24, Alomar, 22, Surhoff, 24, and perhaps the Cubs' Damon Berryhill, 25, who will start for them this season. Steinbach, 27, has made giant strides in his short time catching; and despite two seasons that were plagued with injuries. Boston's Rich Gedman, 29, still is respected around the league. And the Rangers claim that they don't care what Chad Kreuter, 24, hits (he batted .265 in Double A); manager Bobby Valentine wants him to be the regular catcher because he can catch and throw.
But physical skills, of course, are only part of the equation. A catcher has to think as well as he can throw. "He has to think like a manager." says Ezell. It is certainly no mere coincidence that 10 current major league managers were catchers at some time in their careers.
"There are all kinds of kids who have all kinds of tools, but if they don't have high concentration levels, they probably can't catch," says McCarver. One of the best prospects in the Oakland system is Scott Hemond. He was an All-America catcher at the University of South Florida and has an arm that has been likened to Santiago's and Alomar's, but the Athletics have made him into an infielder, where they expect big things from him. "His problem was that he has a once-a-week, high intensity football mentality," says one Oakland coach. "He couldn't keep his concentration for the catcher's grind."
It's arguable that catching today is far more difficult than it was in the 1950s, primarily because the running game is now so dominant. Says Leyland, "With artificial turf, faster athletes and the way basestealing is taught, I'm convinced that even some of the great catchers of the past couldn't have thrown out guys like Vince Coleman." It used to be that the standard for a catcher in nailing runners was 50%. No regular catcher attained that degree of proficiency last year. The best was Santiago, at 44%. National League catchers threw out an average of 29%, American League catchers, 31%.
"Throwing in the American League is a lot less important than in the National." says Rodgers. "It's a totally different game in the National League [in 1988, there were 1.86 steals per National League game, 1.34 per American], and if you don't think defense first, offense second, you can be run into the ground."
"There are more big turf parks in the National, while all the American League parks but Kansas City are home run havens." says Miller. "Without the DH, you have many more close games, so speed is more important. So there are catchers in the American League who couldn't play in the National."
"There are players who steal in the American League but can't in the National." says one scout. "Alfredo Griffin is a good example. He stole 26 in 1987 for Oakland. He stole seven for the Dodgers in '88. There's no Santiago in the American League who absolutely intimidates everyone." Santiago's arm—described by McCarver as "the best I've ever seen"—accounted for eight of the National League's 22 catcher pick-offs last season. He threw out seven attempted stealers from his knees.
But as great an arm as Santiago has, he is not yet considered to be a superb all-around catcher. "He needs to learn to handle pitchers and to call a game, and he has a long way to go blocking balls, learning to frame pitchers and deal with umpires," says Steve Boros, who is a scout with the Dodgers. McKeon, Santiago's manager, says. "Benito has to do a lot more than hit .300 and throw out runners to be considered a real good catcher."
But the other managers aren't shedding any tears for McKeon. With all the junkyard refugees and converted DHs out there masquerading as major league catchers. McKeon should be thankful that he's starting the 1989 season with a fresh young talent like Santiago. Remember, the two best catchers in the American League are older than five major league managers.
Catch AS eaten can
Who are the best? An SI poll of coaches, managers and general managers produced these ratings of the top receivers in both leagues. The comments are a compendium of the views of those polled.
1. Bob Boone, Kansas City. At 41, he's still in great shape, gets rid of his throws quickly and is accurate. Runs his staff with authority. Can't move as quickly to block pitches as he used to, but he's a pro's pro.
2. Carlton Fisk, Chicago. With his offense, he's the best all-around catcher in the league. Drawback: He runs the game at his pace and tends to slow pitchers down, upsetting their rhythm. But he knows hitters and hitting.
3. Joel Skinner, New York. Exceptional velocity on his throws—his arm is a great equalizer. Good hands, works pitchers well.
4. B.J. Surhoff, Milwaukee. Superb footwork, average but accurate arm. Tremendous athlete and competitor. For one big game, he might be the catcher.
5. Andy Allanson, Cleveland. Has improved greatly after being rushed to the majors. Good arm, accurate. He's not afraid to speak up or to get dirty.
1. Mike Scioscia, Los Angeles. Terrific handler of pitchers and may be the best in the game at blocking the plate. His arm isn't what it once was, but comes up big in key situations.
2. Mike LaValliere, Pittsburgh. Does everything well, from blocking balls to throwing. Needs to sit every fourth day or so, or his throwing falls off.
3. Steve Lake, Philadelphia. The classic old-style catcher: He can't hit a lick, but he can catch and throw with the best of them.
4. Gary Carter, New York, Doesn't throw well anymore, but does everything else. There's no one you would rather have blocking a ball in the dirt with two outs, a runner at third and a one-run lead.
5. Benito Santiago, San Diego. He has some flaws, and he can go into funks when he isn't hitting. But he intimidates runners more than any other modern catcher. May prove to have the best arm of all time: throws from everywhere, anytime.
Ron Karkovice, Chi.
Benito Santiago, S.D.
Joel Skinner, N.Y.
Sandy Alomar Jr., S.D.
Charlie O'Brien, Mil.
Mike LaValliere, Pitt.
Mike Heath, Det.
Damon Berryhill, Chi.
Bob Boone, K.C.
Mike Scioscia, L.A.