I realize that I just dated myself with that title...hind catcher. Not many people still call it that, but in my day it was the term used to describe what I did. Call it backstop, receiver, coach on the field, or just plain painful if you like. Any of these terms will do.
Having spent the better part of my sporting life in the game of baseball, and playing at a fairly high level with some fantastic players over the years, I can tell you about the life of a catcher.
It started as a fluke in little league. My coach tricked me into putting on the gear in a game against the Bears, and I never looked back. After arguing with my Dad for about thirty minutes, I was finally allowed to gear up and get behind the plate.
I never looked back.
The first thing I recall was that the game looked very different from behind the dish. The beauty of the game is right there in front of you, with none of the areas of the game hidden from your view.
Being a catcher is like a love affair in that you must love the details of the game to ever get anywhere with it. If you try to just fill the position, you are just an idiot having a ball thrown at you for nine innings.
Being a catcher inspired many imitations over the years that are still fresh in my mind as well. As a young catcher, you had to emulate the stars of the day at the position. My early years were spent learning to squat like Tony Pena, and my aching knees keep the memory fresh in my mind to this day.
Every time I stand up I feel each deformed squat, and wonder just what the hell I was thinking. I learned to throw from my knees and snap throw down to first and third base. Over time, my arm became the stuff of little league legend.
Nobody ran on Rodney Southern.
That was the attitude and the way I saw it, even if nobody else did. I was a talented catcher, but what made me special was a love of the details.
Knowing how to call a game at a very young age, I was ahead of the pitchers I was working with. I knew to come high and tight to a batter that was crowding the plate, even though my pitcher usually had no idea where the ball was going. I still called the game correctly anyway.
This would serve me well over the years, as would the other little details of the game. Backing up the first baseman on throws from the infield, knowing how to properly block the plate, and talking a batter out of a quality at bat were just some of the skills that I mastered at a young age.
By the time I reached Colt league and began playing with a traveling team, I was headed for bigger and better things. I could catch with anyone, and was more than able to hold my own at the plate.
I broke so many bones over the years behind the plate that I lost count. Somehow, though, I only missed game time with a broken foot. That was how I learned to toss my mask away on a pop up behind the plate instead of just flipping it off my head. After flipping it off that day, the corner of the mask hit my ankle just so and chipped the bone.
I never flipped it off again. Catching is like that. Short, painful, specific learning situations that you simply have to adapt to, or pay the price.
That is what I loved about it. The instant payoff of a perfect read on a steal...The nuance of calling a slider in, when the batter is looking curve ball away... The pain of forgetting to put on that protective cup and knowing that you have to block that pitch in the dirt anyway...All are lessons of the hind catcher.
Painful, passionate, love of the game lessons that I would not trade for the world.
Thanks Tony Pena, for teaching me how to be a hind catcher, and the premature arthritis that it brought on. My bones ache, but my passion remains even as I struggle to overcome the 12 years I spent behind the plate.
I never made the big leagues, except in the backyard of my mind. That fertile playground housed many Game Seven World Series matchups that ended with me calling the perfect pitch and receiving exactly what I asked for.
In spite of my coming up short of The Show, one thing still holds true. Even in my aching 40 year old body.
Nobody runs on Rodney Southern...Nobody.
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