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They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To
Peter Gammons
April 05, 1989
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April 05, 1989

They Don't Make 'em Like They Used To


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That's American kids Rodgers is talking about. He adds, "In five or 10 years, 70 percent of the good young catchers will be coming out of Latin America." He cites San Diego's discovery of Santiago in Puerto Rico; despite his aforementioned troubles against the Mets, Santiago is considered the best young catcher in the game. And behind him, the Padres have Sandy Alomar Jr., who's coveted by most every team in the majors. Alomar, too, is from Puerto Rico.

"The success, glory and money that will be heaped upon Santiago and Alomar will probably inspire a lot of Latin kids, who will see that catching is the fastest way to make it," says Cub Latin American scouting coordinator Luis Rosa, who signed both Santiago and Alomar when he worked for the Padres. "There are already some very good-looking young Latin kids around. Boston has an 18-year-old Venezuelan kid named Alex Delgado. Toronto has a 16-year-old named Carlos Delgado from Puerto Rico, as well as Francisco Cabrera [a 22-year-old Dominican who hit 20 homers last season for the Blue Jays' Double A Knoxville farm club]."

In contrast to the blooming of Latin catchers is the virtual absence of black American catchers. In the 1950s and '60s, the majors were graced with Roy Campanella, Elston Howard, Earl Battey and John Roseboro. among other black receivers. But the last black to catch 100 games in a season was Earl Williams with the '72 Orioles. Last year only four blacks caught in the majors: Terry McGriff and Lloyd McClendon of the Reds. Carl Nichols at Baltimore and Darrell Miller with the Angels. Only Miller caught as many as 40 games. None hit better than .221. And there are no black catching prospects on the horizon.

Is this the black quarterback syndrome? Do baseball coaches and managers think blacks incapable of handling pitching staffs? "I don't think so." says Montreal scouting director Gary Hughes. "The problem is more that the best athletes—black or white—get moved to other positions. Gary Sheffield (page 92) was a catcher. But he's such an exceptional athlete, can hit so well and has such a great arm, he got moved to shortstop for fear catching would wear him down. Dave Stewart was a catcher with a great arm. As soon as he struggled hitting, they made him a pitcher. The problem goes further. Baseball isn't getting enough blacks, period. Football is. Especially the big fullback-linebacker types that we'd make into catchers."

The influence of role models has been a strong determining factor. "The black athletes in baseball that kids emulate are Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis or Ozzie Smith," says Hughes. "The Latin kids can look up to catchers like Pena or Santiago, but who can the black kids look to?" Indeed, not many kids are likely to tell their parents, "I want to be the next Lloyd McClendon."

Meanwhile, the search goes on. In the last 15 June drafts, 43 catchers were chosen in the first round; less than half have made the majors, and only four have caught 100 games in a season. It's a desperation game. "Teams have been badly burned by the best-catcher-available syndrome." says former Rangers and Indians general manager Joe Klein. "Usually, the best catcher available is a future backup or Triple A guy." In 1983 the Blue Jays decided they had to draft a catcher with the ninth pick of the first round and chose the best catcher available instead of the player they rated the highest, thereby taking Matt Stark instead of Roger Clemens. The White Sox have used three high first-round picks in the last decade to find a young catcher and have ended up with backup Ron Karkovice and two nonprospects.

The best available catcher and the best available athlete are simply not the same thing. Says Toronto scout Tim Wilken, "Often the good football players who do choose to go to baseball do so because of the relative life expectancy of the sports. Those kids aren't going to go behind the plate. The majority of high school and college catchers are the worst athletes. Hence, many of the best catchers in the big leagues are converts."

That's true. Because catchers are not being developed at younger ages, major league systems have had to create them. "You convert players with quick feet, strong arms and good bodies who can't run," says Padres manager Jack McKeon. The list of converts is impressive. Fisk was a high school shortstop-pitcher. Boone was a Double A third baseman with the Phillies. Lance Parrish of the Angels was another third baseman who converted in Double A. Gary Carter, now of the Mets, was a high school shortstop-pitcher whom the Expos drafted as a catcher because of his arm and the way he took control in practice. Milwaukee's B.J. Surhoff was a high school shortstop who switched to catching at the University of North Carolina. Boston's Rich Gedman was a pitcher-first baseman. Oakland's Terry Steinbach, a third baseman-DH.

"Converting a player is fine, but the problem is that there's so little catching around that if a converted catcher shows anything at all in the minors, he gets rushed to the majors before he learns the position." says McCarver. "From the beginning the emphasis isn't put in the right places. Young catchers are taught the wrong priorities. How do teams usually win? With pitching. The catcher's first concern is the pitcher. Or should be. But management only talks about catchers who can hit. Go in to negotiate or arbitrate your contract, and they talk about offensive statistics. It's all wrong." Says another catcher-turned-broadcaster (for the Red Sox). Bob Montgomery. "In spring training count how many balls catchers practice blocking in defensive drills, then count how many extra swings they take in the cage. They've got the whole thing backwards."

"The game's so offensive-minded, teams don't look for Jim Hegans anymore." says Pirate manager Jim Leyland. Hegan, who backstopped the extraordinary Cleveland pitching staffs in the late 1940s and '50s, is regarded by many as the best defensive catcher of the last 40 years. His lifetime average was .228, but his '48 Indians won the World Series and his '54 Indians were 111-43.

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