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Catch as Catch Can
Jeff Pearlman
April 26, 1999
The Angels' Charlie O'Brien uses all his tricks to keep his career alive
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April 26, 1999

Catch As Catch Can

The Angels' Charlie O'Brien uses all his tricks to keep his career alive

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"You're wrong," says Charlie O'Brien, gently correcting a reporter. "Just by a little."

At issue is the number of Cy Young Award winners O'Brien, Anaheim's backup backstop, has caught during his major league career. The reporter has said 10, naming them alphabetically: Steve Bedrosian, Roger Clemens, David Cone, Tommy Glavine, Doc Gooden, Pal Hentgen, Greg Maddux, Bret Saberhagen, John Smoltz and Frank (Sweet Music) Viola. Ten.

"You read that somewhere, didn't you?" asks O'Brien. "Well, everyone always misses one. I caught Jack McDowell here. That's 11."

O'Brien, 37, takes pride in this sort of thing. He is with his seventh team in 14 big league seasons, a startlingly long run for a gimpy-kneed player with a career .224 batting average and all of 54 home runs. Guys like O'Brien aren't supposed to last that long. Good field, no hit, little marquee value, they come and they go, the Alan Knicelys and Joel Skinners and Ned Yosts of the game. O'Brien, however, has defied the odds. "I've earned a reputation," he says softly of his defensive stability. "Of course, I've always wanted to be the regular starting catcher. That'd be nice. But that didn't happen."

Instead O'Brien, who has appeared in more than 75 games in a season only once in his career, has gained another distinction: "Nobody's quieter than Charlie," says Angels righthander Tim Belcher—who's not talking about talking. He's talking about a catcher's ability to set up for and receive a pitch so smoothly that an umpire might call a pitch just off the plate a strike. "Charlie never moves," Belcher explains. "Most catchers lunge at a ball, or at least stab at it a little. Charlie? Nothing. No movement, no jerk, no reach. He's the best catcher I've ever seen at making pitches look like strikes." A pause. "That kind of thing isn't always appreciated, but it makes or breaks a pitcher."

O'Brien is not one to boast. He is a simple sort, born and raised in Tulsa, where he picked up the catching gear at age five and never put it down. The topic of quietness, though, gets him blabbing. The key, says O'Brien, is familiarity with the pitchers. If you know how the ball moves for each pitcher, you know where to set up. "There's a way to go out and catch the ball, there's a way not to," he says. "There are tricks and optical illusions. Through the years I've learned them all."

Although his sleight of glove isn't likely to earn O'Brien many Cooperstown votes, he has another claim to fame. Three years ago, while he was with the Blue Jays, O'Brien worked with Van Velden Mask Inc., an Ontario company, to design a catcher's helmet that resembled a hockey goalie's mask. He intended only to use it himself, but after other catchers saw him wear it and asked about it, the company wound up manufacturing the helmet-mask. "Now I watch a girls' Softball game and the catcher's wearing my mask," says O'Brien. "Other guys in the majors have started using them. Kids use it because they can paint things on it and look cool. Really, though, I only thought of it so I could have a mask that would absorb more of the ball. Who'd have thought it'd end up like this?"

He was speaking of the mask. He could have been speaking of his career.