Perhaps it is by necessity that the catcher’s personality is quite often the polar opposite of the pitcher’s—after all they are at opposite ends of a flying mass of leather and stitching. It stands to reason that they think and behave differently.
The major league catcher is often a burly individual with a broad chest and muscular legs. It’s a case of form following function since, in essence, the catcher is the backstop. Nothing should get by him. Catchers are talented athletes, but they’re rarely the standout stars that pitchers are. One might argue, however, that a catcher’s talent is more diversified than that of the pitcher or any other position.
If we break down the catcher’s physical responsibilities we see a complicated list of duties. Of course there’s the continual crouching, but let’s chock that up to endurance more than athleticism. There’s, well, catching. Imagine a 90-mile-an-hour ball hurdling toward you. You have 60 feet to track the ball down, position yourself, and make a smooth grab. Or, perhaps it’s a curve ball that, by definition, bends as it reaches the batter. It’s meant to fool the batter, but the catcher must still make the catch. So there’s catching. Closely related is blocking. A well-taught catcher knows not to try to catch a ball in the dirt. Instead, he positions his upper body in front of the runaway pitch and blocks it from passing by. Everything must stay in front. Throwing. A catcher must have a strong arm to nail would-be base stealers and his delivery must be quick. And then there are the miscellaneous tasks such as grabbing deceptively arcing fly balls, physically blocking home plate when a runner is inbound, and laying down a tag. The physical demands make for an impressive list.
Still, physical prowess is arguably second to what goes on inside the catcher’s head. The catcher studies opposing batters, memorizing their strengths and weaknesses. He nonchalantly checks the batting stance, hoping to ascertain a competitive advantage that he can relay to the pitcher. If the game is played right, the catcher tells the pitcher what pitch to throw. (Lately, it seems that often the pitch is signaled in by a coach—but only the catcher, in the middle of the action, truly knows what pitch should be thrown. ) The pitcher must know the umpire who stands behind him. Does he call low or high strikes? Is he being stingy with the breaking ball? And, since we’re discussing understanding others, the catcher must understand the hurler. Does the current pitcher have his good stuff tonight? Is he in a good mood? How will he react if a call doesn’t go his way? Part negotiator, part psychologist, the catcher plays a constant, multifaceted game of chess.
As much as the pitcher is the center of attention, the catcher is in the shadows. Any discussion of catching should include mention of Roger Angell’s poetic description of the position in Season Ticket. Angell writes:
Most of all, the catcher is invisible. He does more things and (except for the batter) more difficult things than anyone else on the field, yet our eyes and our full attention rest upon him only at the moment when he must stand alone, upright and unmoving, on the third-base side of home and prepare to deal simultaneously with the urgently flung or relayed incoming peg and the onthundering base runner—to handle the one with delicate precision and then, at once, the other violently and stubbornly, at whatever risk to himself.
Catchers are the solid, often quiet, leaders of the team. If they’re doing their job well, they are indeed almost invisible. They tend to put team before self, collective success above individual accomplishment, doing higher than talking. A happy catcher is one who doesn’t seek the limelight because the limelight, right or wrong, is sixty feet away.
Pitchers and catchers…we need them both, on the field and in life. Which are you?
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