Catch As Catch Can The Angels' Charlie O'Brien uses all his tricks to keep his career alive

April 25, 1999

"You're wrong," says Charlie O'Brien, gently correcting a
reporter. "Just by a little."

At issue is the number of Cy Young Award winners O'Brien,
Anaheim's backup backstop, has caught during his major league
career. The reporter has said 10, naming them alphabetically:
Steve Bedrosian, Roger Clemens, David Cone, Tommy Glavine, Doc
Gooden, Pat Hentgen, Greg Maddux, Bret Saberhagen, John Smoltz
and Frank (Sweet Music) Viola. Ten.

"You read that somewhere, didn't you?" asks O'Brien. "Well,
everyone always misses one. I caught Jack McDowell here. That's
11."

O'Brien, 37, takes pride in this sort of thing. He is with his
seventh team in 14 big league seasons, a startlingly long run
for a gimpy-kneed player with a career .224 batting average and
all of 54 home runs. Guys like O'Brien aren't supposed to last
that long. Good field, no hit, little marquee value, they come
and they go, the Alan Knicelys and Joel Skinners and Ned Yosts
of the game. O'Brien, however, has defied the odds. "I've earned
a reputation," he says softly of his defensive stability. "Of
course, I've always wanted to be the regular starting catcher.
That'd be nice. But that didn't happen."

Instead O'Brien, who has appeared in more than 75 games in a
season only once in his career, has gained another distinction:
"Nobody's quieter than Charlie," says Angels righthander Tim
Belcher--who's not talking about talking. He's talking about a
catcher's ability to set up for and receive a pitch so smoothly
that an umpire might call a pitch just off the plate a strike.
"Charlie never moves," Belcher explains. "Most catchers lunge at
a ball, or at least stab at it a little. Charlie? Nothing. No
movement, no jerk, no reach. He's the best catcher I've ever
seen at making pitches look like strikes." A pause. "That kind
of thing isn't always appreciated, but it makes or breaks a
pitcher."

O'Brien is not one to boast. He is a simple sort, born and
raised in Tulsa, where he picked up the catching gear at age
five and never put it down. The topic of quietness, though, gets
him blabbing. The key, says O'Brien, is familiarity with the
pitchers. If you know how the ball moves for each pitcher, you
know where to set up. "There's a way to go out and catch the
ball, there's a way not to," he says. "There are tricks and
optical illusions. Through the years I've learned them all."

Although his sleight of glove isn't likely to earn O'Brien many
Cooperstown votes, he has another claim to fame. Three years
ago, while he was with the Blue Jays, O'Brien worked with Van
Velden Mask Inc., an Ontario company, to design a catcher's
helmet that resembled a hockey goalie's mask. He intended only
to use it himself, but after other catchers saw him wear it and
asked about it, the company wound up manufacturing the
helmet-mask. "Now I watch a girls' softball game and the
catcher's wearing my mask," says O'Brien. "Other guys in the
majors have started using them. Kids use it because they can
paint things on it and look cool. Really, though, I only thought
of it so I could have a mask that would absorb more of the ball.
Who'd have thought it'd end up like this?"

He was speaking of the mask. He could have been speaking of his
career.

--J.P.

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)