Terry Steinbach was a 22-year-old third base prospect in the Oakland organization in 1984, when the Athletics selected Mark McGwire with the 10th overall pick in the amateur draft. Steinbach, no better than a marginal fielder, heard the club intended to play McGwire at third base. "It didn't take a rocket scientist to understand I had to find another position," Steinbach says.
Oakland sent him to an instructional league to learn how to be a catcher. The first rule Steinbach heard was that he had to run one lap around the field for every pitch he dropped. How did the transition go? "Put it this way," he says, "I could have been a track star."
Three years later Steinbach was Oakland's regular catcher. Still, in Steinbach's second full season in the majors, manager Tony La Russa would yank him in favor of veteran Ron Hassey whenever closer Dennis Eckersley would enter a game.
Since then, however, Steinbach has mastered his lessons so well that he has edged Tom Pagnozzi of the St. Louis Cardinals as the best catcher at handling pitchers and being fundamentally sound behind the plate. With just one error last year, Steinbach nipped Pagnozzi for the majors' best fielding percentage (.9984 to .9975) while handling 217 more chances. Steinbach also threw out 40% of the runners who tried to steal—the most in the American League.
"He's very solid and smart," says Colorado Rocky general manager Bob Gebhard, referring to Steinbach's ability to frame pitches, influence umpires and steal strikes. "When I was with the Twins, I wondered why the Oakland pitchers would always get strike calls that we never got. It was because of Steinbach."
Steinbach's mentors include Hassey, now a coach with the Rockies; Jamie Quirk, now a coach with the Kansas City Royals; and Oakland pitching coach Dave Duncan, a former catcher. "Actually, coming to catching late has helped me." Steinbach says. "I think it was an advantage. I was so eager to learn, and I had the advantage of learning from some of the best."
At 6'4", Ripken is the tallest shortstop ever to play regularly in the major leagues. He rarely dives for a ball. He has below-average speed. Yet trying to slip a ground ball past him is like trying to sneak a cheeseburger past George Foreman. "No doubt in my mind, Ripken is the man," Steinbach says. "No matter where you hit the ball, he's always there. Always. I'll see him standing someplace I don't expect him and say, 'Why?' And it seems like the batter always hits the ball right to him. I've given up asking why."
No one processes more information on every pitch than Ripken. He knows how batters hit depending on the count, the pitcher, the type of pitch and how they've been swinging in recent games. For instance, he would shade Reggie Jackson more toward third base whenever Jackson was in a hot streak ("He would wait on a pitch longer when he was going good," Ripken says) and more to pull if Jackson was struggling.
"You mentioned Steinbach," Ripken says. "He used to pull [former Oriole closer] Gregg Olson. It didn't make sense. Olson threw hard. But Steinbach was always right on him, and I'd play him to pull against Olson."