|One Hard Way to Play Ball|
By DAVID WALDSTEIN
New York Times
June 16, 2012
It was a typical moment in an ordinary game on an average day for a major league catcher. This one happened to be May 30 in Anaheim, but it could have been August in Kansas City or March in Tampa.
The Yankees’ Russell Martin, standing behind home plate armed with five pounds of equipment, known affectionately as the tools of ignorance, bent his knees and lowered his torso to the ground like a Transformer toy recoiling into its compact shape.
Balancing on his toes, he tilted his shoulders forward and placed his right hand behind his right leg to protect it from the hard white rock hurtling toward him. Behind the plate, he was, yet one more time, in his crouch. It is a distinctive bit of physical positioning for the men who play perhaps the sport’s most important position.
It can also be a miserable and merciless place to make a living.
In Anaheim, Martin raised his gloved left hand to receive the full-count pitch, a slider, from relief pitcher Rafael Soriano in the ninth inning of a one-run game. The ball slid, all right. Right into home plate, where it bounced up and, as hundreds of balls do every year, found one of the many unprotected and vulnerable parts of Martin’s body.
With the chance that the batter, Alberto Callaspo, might swing and miss for strike three, it was incumbent upon Martin to block the ball to prevent it from scooting behind him.
He blocked the ball. With his neck.
He wasn’t exactly intending to use his neck. But some part, any part, of his body is always being called into duty, and on this occasion it happened to be his neck. It’s the way the job works.
The ball drove into Martin’s throat like a punch from an angry welterweight, and it momentarily staggered him. He coughed, caught his breath, shook his head. After a brief pause — it’s mostly all catchers ask for, or get — he was back down in that familiar, vulnerable, dangerous crouch, ready for the next pitch in the dirt, the next possible foul tip, the next angry punch.
“Any time you get hit in the neck, you panic for a second,” Martin said. “I was hit directly in the Adam’s apple last year, and for a second you’re scared for your life. But this was more the side of my neck. I held my breath for a second, and then when I could breathe, I realized I’d be O.K. So I got back down for the next pitch.”
Getting down for the next pitch — again and again, across scores of games and hundreds of innings and in service of thousands of pitches — is the essence of Martin’s job. He is, as a professional baseball catcher, at once trusted and vital, exposed and embattled, relied on by his team and most likely underappreciated by fans.
From the first day of training camp in late winter until the end of the season in the fall, a catcher will make innumerable critical decisions affecting the outcomes of games. He will take hundreds of tipped and bouncing balls into dozens of protected and unprotected parts of his body.
And he will put untold stress and wear on his knees, legs, back and neck. Just by getting into his position.
“It’s the hardest position to play, by far,” Tim McCarver said. “People don’t realize half of what goes into it.”
McCarver caught 1,387 major league games from 1959 to 1979, and his right middle finger was split open nine times from foul balls, usually off the bats of right-handed hitters trying to bunt Bob Gibson’s slider. He had a knee replaced two years ago, at 68, and his left hand still swells from the incessant impact of catching baseballs. Even with a mitt for protection, his hands wound up beaten like flour dough, and today the index and middle fingers on his left hand frequently go numb.
Other veteran catchers describe the identical condition, often in commiseration with one another.
“I saw Johnny Roseboro, and he told me he split his finger open so many times he had to have surgery to remove all the scar tissue,” McCarver said. “I’ll see John Bench and Carlton Fisk and Darren Daulton, other guys who caught a lot. When we get together, we talk about the way we walk, and our knees, and our back, the way we feel in general. It’s only natural. It’s a small fraternity, and we all share the same battered experiences.”
Sandy Alomar Jr. caught 1,324 games for seven teams in the major leagues from 1989 to 2007, and he caught hundreds more in the minors. He has had 10 operations on his knees, including seven on the left alone.
“I feel lucky I can still walk,” Alomar said, laughing. “Considering how much abuse you take, I feel like I’m ahead of the game.”
Seven years into his career, Martin, a 29-year-old health and fitness obsessive who has done intensive mixed martial arts training, says that any damage he has incurred thus far has been more momentary than long-lasting. He has hope, if not precisely confidence, for the future of his body.
“So far, my knees feel fine,” Martin said. “Maybe the toll it takes on your knees is a myth. But there is definitely a lot of abuse associated with the position. I guess it can add up.”
The New York Times set out to chronicle one season in the life of one catcher. In effect, to add it up: the exhilarations, satisfactions and challenges, the mechanics of the position and the mental slog of playing it day after day, the bruises and the boredom, the obvious plays and the hidden decisions.
Here, then, is a rough accounting a third of the way through Russell Martin’s 2012 season: 54 games; 4461/3 innings; 392 putouts including strikeouts; 11 outs made at the plate, including a rough one last month and a critical tag Saturday to preserve a tie in a game he would catch 14 innings without relief; two balls in the neck; and the occasional smack on the back of the hand or the head by an overswung bat.
Then there was this, a new injury for a catcher deep into a career full of physical insults: during a game in Baltimore on May 14, a foul tip clipped Martin’s mask and drove one of the metal bars into his chin.
“I didn’t have my mask aligned right, and the metal bar underneath jammed into my chin,” he said. “I was just careless. It went away. Sometimes, I won’t even remember. I’ll be hanging out with my girlfriend and she’ll tap me on the arm or something, and I’ll be like ‘Ow, that hurts.’ And it turns out I’ve got a bruise there I didn’t even know about.”
Pain for others at the position has been more considerable in 2012. As of June 10, 16 catchers were on the disabled list for various injuries. The Washington Nationals lost two catchers in three days in May. The Detroit Tigers have two on the disabled list. One of those is Alex Avila, who is out with a hamstring injury, but he was also knocked from a game after he was dazed by taking a foul tip square in the mask. Mets catcher Josh Thole sustained a concussion when he was knocked over on a play at the plate May 7; he missed close to a month.
Martin’s father, a jazz saxophonist with a gift for metaphor, has developed his own way of capturing the catcher’s season-long assignment:
“Standing right in the middle of the freeway.”
Discomfort Is Job 1
Go ahead, try it: crouch low, with your rear end nearly touching the ground. Stay there. Hurt yet? O.K., get up. Now get back down. Hurt yet? Hurt worse?
Squatting like that is not, well, normal. And actually, catchers don’t even like calling it squatting. They prefer to call it crouching. Who better to know?
For the average sports fan, after all, sitting on a bar stool for the duration of an American League game is challenging enough.
Indeed, it’s not easy to imagine any other jobs that require anything like it. A mechanic? A preschool teacher? A detective checking out a spent shell casing? A couple of minutes at the most, right? Even snake charmers sit cross-legged some of the time.
For a grown man, then, coiling his 200-pound frame over and over into the catching position is not always done without consequence.
“I couldn’t even get into a crouch now if I wanted to,” said San Francisco Giants Manager Bruce Bochy, who is 57 and was a catcher in the major leagues for nine years. “And if I did somehow get into it, I don’t think I could get out of it.”
Bochy said that when he played, his thighs grew so large he could not buy trousers off the shelf; his pants had to be tailored to accommodate his massive upper legs.
The crouch today is taken for granted in baseball, as familiar to the game as the grass. But catchers did not always squat behind the plate. In the early days of baseball in the middle of the 19th century, according to historians at the Baseball Hall of Fame, catchers stood far back from the plate and caught pitches on a bounce, without a glove. Because of this, fields needed to be manicured so that the area behind the plate was even and smooth, intended to produce uniform bounces.
But in the 1870s, a Harvard student named Fred Thayer invented a mask for the university team’s catcher, James Tyng. Inspired by masks that fencers wore, Thayer fashioned his out of wire and leather, much like today’s catcher’s masks. It changed the position forever.
Tyng, and those who followed, were able to move closer to the plate, and soon catchers began to crouch, enabling them to form a target with their new gloves in the strike zone.
Catchers usually have two basic crouches. The primary position is a relatively relaxed pose, with the knees bent at an acute angle and the heels pointing together, much like a camper stoking a fire.
But when there is a runner on base, the catcher will go into his secondary position, a hop, or side step. Here, the knees are at more of a right angle, the body weight more on the balls of the feet, allowing the catcher to more quickly and effectively spring into action and throw out a potential base stealer.
Most catchers use the same fundamentals in their crouch, with slight variations, like putting one knee below the other to set a lower target. Others, like Tony Pena, now a coach for the Yankees, were notable for extending one leg to the side, flat on the ground. But this unusual, somewhat balletic-looking stance, can be done only when no runners are on base.
“Sometimes your body is just right for catching,” said Pena, who caught 1,950 games over 18 seasons. “If it’s not, you learn pretty early and you play something else.”
Pasty After Pastry
Russell Martin’s father, Russell, was born and raised in Montreal. When his dreams of becoming a professional football player ended shortly after high school, the elder Martin worked renovating homes. But at 26 he picked up a friend’s flute, then a tenor saxophone, and a new vocation was born.
The elder Martin had natural musical ability and a willingness to work at it. He played in the Montreal Métro, especially at the Villa-Maria stop because of its grand acoustics.
So when his son was born, the elder Martin gave him the middle name Coltrane, an homage to John Coltrane; not solely for his music, but also for his free, independent spirit.
The family bounced around Canada before Martin’s parents separated. When Martin’s mother remarried, she took Russell, then 8, and his sister to Paris.
Russell was fluent in French, and he quickly perfected a Parisian accent, said his mother, Suzanne Jeanson. Still, there were some issues with his fitting in. He was taunted and bullied as an outsider.
“It was a shock to him, because he was always an outgoing kid who made friends easily,” Jeanson said. “He had to learn to defend himself, which he got quite good at.”
But more significant for the eventual major leaguer, Martin’s athletic future became imperiled in Paris. And not by France’s lack of everyday baseball options for youngsters.
No, it was a French patisserie in Issy-les-Moulineaux in southwestern Paris, and its chocolate croissants, that almost doomed Martin’s rise to the major leagues. Crouching as a catcher is hard enough. Doing so with a soft and expanding midsection is harder.
“I ate them every day,” he said. “When I got back to Montreal in the summer, my dad couldn’t believe how much weight I had put on.”
Martin’s father concurred. “It broke my heart,” he said. “I took him out to the field to play ball, but he couldn’t move the way he had before.”
Playing his horn in the Métro, the elder Martin made enough money to take time off in the summer to play baseball with his son and get him back into shape. Eventually, he sent Russell to the prestigious Édouard Monpetit high school.
At the time, Russell was one of the most athletic kids in his corner of Montreal. And like most kids in Montreal, he played a little hockey. He mixed in, too, some fun with the saxophone and drums. But in baseball he stood apart. At that stage, though, he stood apart as a shortstop and an outfielder.
Like Coltrane, catching, it seemed, was going to be an acquired taste. A sophisticated and at times shocking acquired taste.
Up. Down. Etc.
There are many ways to appreciate the physical toll a catcher endures. The ball in the throat in Anaheim was one way. A game between the Yankees and the Orioles on May 2 was another.
That evening at Yankee Stadium, Martin and Ivan Nova, the right-hander who was starting that night, walked to the bullpen at 6:35. Once they arrived, Martin got behind the plate and into his crouch. He repeated that close to 50 times. He fully stood up exactly four times, once during the national anthem.
The Times counted the number of times Martin got into his crouch in the course of the night. In all, counting pregame warm-ups with Nova in the bullpen and the 8 to 10 warm-up throws before each inning, he did it 311 times.
In the first inning, Martin stood up and then went back down into the crouch 19 times, and spent 7 minutes 30 seconds in his crouch. The longest inning was the seventh, in which he moved up and down 54 times and spent 10:48 squatting on his way to nearly an hour in the crouch.
The math grows ugly. Last season, Martin’s first with the Yankees after he signed as a free agent, he started 118 games, meaning he spent roughly 106 hours in the crouch. In his seven-year career, he has spent the equivalent of almost 28 days crouching.
“I would never want to do it,” C. C. Sabathia, Martin’s teammate with the Yankees, said of catching.
The physical penalties paid by the catcher, of course, are not often characterized by the spectacular violence of a wide receiver clotheslined by a safety. Neither are they frequently accompanied by the angry acoustics of a crunching hockey check into the boards.
The price paid, as much as anything, is one of plain, penetrating exhaustion, both mental and physical. It is about enduring a grinding, dirty routine, where, in St. Louis or Arlington, Tex., in August, a catcher can shed 10 pounds in a game. In 2007, when he was with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Martin started 143 games behind the plate.
Three times this season, Martin has caught at least six games in six days. From May 11 to 17, he caught seven consecutive games, and once, from June 5 to 13, he caught nine in a row.
“When you’re going through it, you don’t notice it,” Martin said of the grind. “It’s when you stop for a day or two and then the aches from the foul tips and the fatigue kind of bubble to the surface and you’re like ‘Whoa, did I get hit by a train?’
“Sometimes I’d rather just plow through and keep playing, just soldier on, because it almost feels harder when you’ve been off for a day and you come back.”
Fast Track to the Majors
It is not as if catching lacks its distinctive charms. And to be honest, there aren’t a lot of them.
But here’s one: when a catcher crouches in his spot, he faces the opposite direction of his teammates; the complete game is before him. He sees it as no one else. That perhaps helps explain why so many catchers become managers.
“I feel like I have the best view because I got a big jumbo-screen TV in front of me all day,” Martin said, by way of describing his vantage point. “I can just sit there and watch that.”
It was never a lock that Martin would find his way behind the plate.
But then came a dewy morning in February 2003 on Field No. 2 at Dodgertown, then the Dodgers’ spring training and Class A minor league headquarters in Vero Beach, Fla. A massive young pitcher from the Dominican Republic named Jose Diaz, at 6 feet 4 inches and 255 pounds, stood on a covered mound waiting to fire fastballs at Martin, the Dodgers’ latest project.
Diaz, known as Jumbo, could throw baseballs hard, 97 to 100 miles per hour. But he was frighteningly wild, and he provided quite a test even for a seasoned catcher, let alone a neophyte.
As a handful of coaches and evaluators from the Dodgers’ minor league staff looked on, Martin stood 63 feet away, fully outfitted in what for him was new equipment. Then he crouched.
Diaz wound up, coiled and unloaded. Martin caught the pitch, and at that moment, he was a catcher.
Martin was being converted from a third baseman. Although he played shortstop and center field during his childhood in Montreal, third base was his position in the minor leagues after the Dodgers drafted him on June 4, 2002.
Although he was selected to play third, the Dodgers worried that he did not have enough power at the plate to play the position.
Jon Debus was the Dodgers’ catching coordinator, and he had the idea that Martin might make a good catcher. The Dodgers called it cherry-picking. If Debus thought a player had a better chance to progress to the majors as a catcher, he was allowed to pursue a switch. That was how Mike Piazza, an early first baseman, became an All-Star catcher for the Dodgers.
Debus consulted with others, including Terry Collins, the current Mets manager, who was the Dodgers’ minor league field coordinator at the time.
“I said, ‘Hey, this guy’s a pretty good third baseman — why do you want to mess with that?’ ” Collins said. “But Debo knew what he was doing. Martin had the kind of athletic ability to pull it off.”
Martin was almost immediately on board. He had caught a few games in college in Florida, so there was some familiarity. Besides, he had always heard that the fastest way to the big leagues was as a catcher.
“I always felt like I could play any position,” he said, “but they felt like that was the best-suited position for me, so I gave it a shot.”
Giving it a shot meant hours of practice with Debus, a former catcher, on the fields in Vero Beach. And practice meant things like putting on equipment and squatting behind the plate while Debus fired balls into the dirt in front of him as Martin practiced blocking them with whatever part of his body got there first.
He had to learn the proper techniques for crouching, both the primary and secondary stances. He had to learn how to present a target to the pitcher, how to frame the pitch properly to induce a strike call from the umpire, how to block pitches in the dirt, how to throw to second base to catch a potential thief, how to make a pickoff throw to first base and, most demanding and nuanced of all, how to call pitches.
“It was just tons and tons of repetition,” Martin said.
In 2005, Martin became the everyday catcher for the Dodgers’ Class AA affiliate in Jacksonville, Fla., catching 117 games. He did well, impressing Debus and Collins so much that Collins issued favorable reports to his boss, Paul DePodesta, then the Dodgers’ general manager. DePodesta was scheduled to make a trip to Jacksonville that summer when Collins noticed that Martin was not in the lineup. It was a day game after a night game, and catchers usually get those off unless the team is in a pennant race.
“I told him, ‘Do you realize who is here?’ ” Collins said he asked Martin. “ “He came here to see you play.’ After I told him that, he played like he had just come off three days’ rest. He did everything, at the plate, behind the plate. I think from that moment, Paul had it in his mind to get Russell to the big leagues.”
A year later, on May 5, 2006, at Dodger Stadium, Martin made his debut after only 23 games at Class AAA. He caught Derek Lowe and helped the Dodgers to a 4-3 victory while collecting two hits of his own.
Martin — after a detour to Paris, after a flirtation with third base, after a crash course in how to crouch and how best to process pain — was standing right in the middle of the freeway.
And now, a third of the way into Martin’s seventh season, halfway through June, with more than 50 games under his belt and his team in contention, the heavy traffic is still to come.