Thursday, March 6, 2014

A Catcher in the Raw

Wiki Images
by Robert Giles

It’s no wonder I became the catcher on my Little League team. One thing I could do well was catch a ball.

The list of baseball skills is not long – catching, hitting, throwing, running, and spitting.

That last item on the list has to do with mental alertness – spitting concentrates the mind and keeps a player “in the game”.  Do you suppose chewing gum does the same thing? Spitting and chewing are as integral to baseball as the shape of the field.

My manager, Bill, was an all-star spitter. He didn’t chew gum, just tobacco. He could work up a plug in nothing flat and hit a fly (not a fly ball, the insect) from six feet away. I’ve seen him do it.

I wasn’t allowed to chew tobacco. I bought Bazooka Joes from the concession stand. My spit was the color of Pepto-Bismol. I tried to be a bad-ass spitter like Bill, but my wads were never of major league caliber.

(I did chuckle at the little comics that were wrapped around the Bazooka gum – maybe I was just too green to be a good spitter.)

My hitting was as poor as my spit and I had an average arm and speed. There you have it – the complete reality check.

I am finally man enough to confess that I was no Roberto Clemente, although you would never catch “The Great One” spitting, or for that matter, chewing gum. His mind was always concentrated.

Back when I was nine or ten, baseball was my world. In January 1959, the Pirates had acquired Harvey Haddix, Don Hoak, and Smoky Burgess**. Finally the Pirates were a contender. In 1959,they finished in fourth place (remember there were eight teams in each league back then - fourth place was good). The following year they were World Champions.

My brother and I practiced all the time playing German Ball and Bird Dog. I got to be very good with a glove, even though my ambition was to be a pitcher like Vernon Law.

That year (1960) my manager handed me a package. What was this, a present? The season hadn’t even started yet.

“You’re my catcher, Bobby. Wear that – it’ll protect the family jewels."

I could see what Bill was talking about when I unwrapped my “present” – a hard plastic triangle with foam-rubber cushioning and tiny vents.

Oh boy, I get to wear a nut cup plus all the other “tools of ignorance”* - a mask, a chest protector, shin guards, and a big old catcher’s mitt. (And I get to wear my hat backwards.)

I came to be thankful for all that protection. I don’t know how many times a foul tip bounced off my mask or chest protector or an errant ball got between my legs. About the only thing that wasn’t safe was my throwing hand. You had to let the ball hit your glove first and then quickly secure it with your bare hand – in other words, keep your throwing hand the heck out of the way until the last instant.

In my second game, I felt a sharp pain and noticed right away that my little finger was dangling funny. Bill came out of the dugout to examine it. Bill’s diagnosis was as dead- on-target as his spit – he grabbed my pinky and gave it a pull. The joint popped right into place.

I crouched behind the hitter in my accustomed place and the game was once again, as they say, afoot.

Joey was our pitcher and he is the reason why our team was Little League champions for two years in a row. But Joey could be as vain and temperamental as an opera star.

Somehow Joey had it in his noggin that he was a major leaguer. He wanted me to signal the pitches – one finger was for a fast ball, two was for a curve, three was for a fork ball, four was for a change up. I forget what five fingers meant.

Joey was a big strong kid and all he needed was the one pitch that, in actuality, was the only one in his arsenal – a mean, hard fast ball from the mound, only forty feet from the plate. Everyone knew that we little kids couldn’t get the bat around on a fast ball. The easiest way to win was not to walk or hit anyone.

Very few kids could hit with power – the only power hitter that I knew had gotten too old for Little League the previous year (and there were rumors that he was too old even then – something about his birth certificate being altered).

I came from a large family and I knew how to get along with crazy people – I decided to “humor” Joey - join him in his fantasy.  I signaled for a fork ball.

What the hell – he’s shaking me off – he’s going to throw what he wants to anyway!

Why am I the only one who sees that ninety percent of life is plain ridiculous? I’m not talking just about now – I’m talking about when I was ten, eleven, twelve.  Maybe the sense of proportion gene is on the same chromosome as the catching a baseball gene.

I went on signaling for various pitches and Joey kept on striking out batters with his fast ball that whole season and the next.

Joey threw away his pitching arm by age fourteen but he did become a pretty good basketball player.

For me, the next level was Pony League. Baden didn’t have a Pony League back then. My Dad took me down to Anthony Wayne School to sign up for Ambridge’s league.

The man said, “Sorry, son, you’re too late. The signups were last week.”

The boys in my neighborhood pooled our money and bought catcher’s equipment so that we could play real hardball against the top of the hill and other teams. Once again I donned the “tools of ignorance”. 

I haven’t played baseball for about thirty years. In a year or two, my grandsons will be old enough. I can’t wait.

*The tools of ignorance is a nickname for a catcher's protective equipment ... the usage was meant to be ironic, contrasting the intelligence needed by a catcher to handle the duties of the position with the foolishness needed to play a position hazardous enough to require so much protective equipment.  Source: Baseball -

** For Whammy Douglas, Jim Pendleton, John Powers and Frank Thomas

No comments:

Post a Comment