A New Sheriff in Town It was easy to steal in Milwaukee until Henry Blanco took over at catcher

July 09, 2000

Like a five-star chef walking into a fast-food kitchen, Henry
Blanco didn't have to exert himself to improve the catching in
Milwaukee. Last season every game was a track meet for Brewers'
opponents--Milwaukee allowed 177 stolen bases, by far the most in
the majors. More alarming was how feeble a fight Milwaukee put
up: Opponents had an 80% success rate. The Brewers might have
caught more runners by installing a pitch-back screen behind the
plate and letting balls ricochet down to second base.

Blanco, meanwhile, gunned down 37 of 96 base stealers in 86 games
with the Rockies in 1999, his first season as a major league
catcher. "As soon as I saw him, I felt like he was one of the
better defensive catchers in the league," says Milwaukee general
manager Dean Taylor, who acquired Blanco as part of a four-team,
nine-player trade last winter. "I knew he was the guy I wanted."

Despite his tepid offensive production (a .226 average with 21
RBIs at week's end), Blanco, 28, has more than rewarded Taylor's
faith. Base runners--of which there have been many, as no team has
allowed as many walks as the Brewers--no longer romp around like
caffeinated rabbits against Milwaukee. At week's end Blanco had
thrown out 19 of 31 runners attempting to steal, a
major-league-leading 61.3%. "We're at the point that we want
teams to run," says Brewers manager Davey Lopes. "Good base
stealers will get theirs occasionally, but a catcher like Henry
eliminates everyone else."

The thieves Blanco has nailed would never guess that he took up
catching only four years ago. Signed by the Dodgers as an
18-year-old third baseman in 1989, Blanco's progression through
the organization was slowed by his less-than-intimidating bat. He
hit a combined .247 with 61 home runs in 10 minor league seasons,
and before the '96 season L.A. approached him about becoming a
catcher. "It was a lot of work," says Blanco, who grew up in
Caracas, Venezuela, "but it turned out great. Now I love to
catch."

In his first season behind the plate, at Double A San Antonio,
Blanco cut down 38 of 92 (41.3%) base stealers. He kicked around
in the Dodgers' system for two more years, missing much of 1998
recovering from shoulder surgery and a broken right hand, then
signed with the Rockies as a minor league free agent. By
midseason last year Blanco had become Colorado's every-day
backstop. "Blocking balls, throwing, handling pitchers--he does
all that well," says Lopes. "And he's fearless at [blocking] the
plate."

That fearlessness cost him in April, when he was spiked by the
Braves' Quilvio Veras. Blanco spent two weeks on the DL with a
lacerated index finger on his throwing hand; in his first game
back he nailed Arizona's Tony Womack, last season's National
League steals champ.

An average major league catcher takes about two seconds to catch
the ball and get it to second base; the Brewers' staff regularly
clocks Blanco at around 1.85 seconds. "Henry's got an incredible
arm," says Brewers coach Gary Allenson, "but his footwork toward
the bag is the best I've ever seen." When Blanco nabbed Houston's
Roger Cedeno on May 16, he was timed at a stunning 1.75 seconds.
"Pudge [Rodriguez] is the guy all catchers measure themselves
against, and rightly so," says Lopes. "Let's just say Henry is
the best in the National League."

--S.C.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO

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