Don Noble
12:35 pm
Mon February 27, 2006

The Catcher: Baseball Behind the Seams

Rob Trucks, who holds the MFA from the University of Alabama, published a pair of books, The Pitcher and The Catcher, in what will be a series, a book for every position, "Baseball Behind the Seams."

Baseball, America's greatest game, follows the cycles of nature. Reborn each spring, around Easter, the baseball season matures, ripens, and flowers in the summer and then comes to its close with the last game of the World Series, just a few weeks before the winter solstice. This is a sad time for baseball fans. But what methadone does for heroin addicts, football does for baseball fans: it eases the pains of withdrawal. The Super Bowl, however, is a tragedy. Now there is nothing. What to do?

From mid-January until opening day, the darkest season of the year, baseball people watch baseball movies: classics like The Pride of the Yankees, established great films such as The Natural and Bang the Drum Slowly, and modern entertainments such as A League of Their Own, Mr. Baseball, Major League, and, recently, Fever Pitch.

And baseball fans read baseball books.

Rob Trucks, who holds the MFA from the University of Alabama, published his interviews with pitchers who spent only a few games in the major leagues under the title Cup of Coffee. Now he has published a pair of books, The Pitcher and The Catcher, in what will be a series, a book for every position, "Baseball Behind the Seams."

The Catcher is a compact little book, just like catchers were traditionally--shorter than average, sturdy, stocky, able to take punishment, and, Yogi Berra's malapropisms notwithstanding, smarter than they look. Based on more than fifty interviews with major league catchers including Charles Johnson, Lance Parrish, and the great Yogi himself, The Catcher is organized by topic: "the plays," "a day in the life," and so on.

Baseball fans are famously mad for statistics, and Trucks has put heaps of data into this book. There is also an extensive timeline of catching milestones: for instance, baseball was played for many years before Fred Thayer in 1876 wore the first mask, a fencing mask. The use of shin guards began in 1907, and they were modified from those used in cricket.

These protective devices, along with the chest protector, have become known as "the tools of ignorance." Of all the players, catchers get injured the most, from wear and tear--they assume the squatting position more than 18,000 times in a season--and most especially in collisions with runners trying to score from third base. The runner has a perfect right to plow through the catcher, breaking his leg and/or knocking him unconscious from time to time. So there is always a shortage of catchers. A young man's best chance to become a major leaguer is to be a catcher.

But catchers don't feel sorry for themselves at all. They are in fact the field captains. They call every pitch and pitch-out. They control all play, and they alone of the nine are in a position to see the entire field. The catchers Trucks interviews often wonder why outfielders don't just get bored; defensively, they are so seldom part of the action.

Catchers learn the nuances of the game better than anyone, and consequently a high percentage of catchers go on to be managers, very successful ones. Mike Scioscia, Bob Brenly, and Joe Torre are all ex-catchers.

There are lots of anecdotes in this book, baseball players being naturally more colorful storytellers than football players or basketball players, lots of reminiscences, and discussions of catchers' particular problems. Catchers are embarrassed if they fail to catch the pitch and it gets past them. This happens most often with a knuckleball pitcher. How do you catch the knuckleball? Bob Euker says, "Wait'll it stops rolling."

There are people who like to say that baseball is boring. How embarrassing for them. As the poet John Berryman writes, "'Ever to confess you're bored // means you have no Inner Resources.'" To say you are bored by baseball is to admit you have no soul.

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