The worst news is that something of a vicious cycle has set in. Desperation begets expedience—and impatience. "The shortage of catchers compounds the weakness throughout the industry." says McKeon. "Since the shortest way to the big leagues is as a catcher, it means that in the position where a kid needs the most experience he is getting the least. I managed Dale Murphy in Richmond in 1976, and I guarantee he would have been one of the greatest catchers who ever lived. But he had a mental block throwing in spring training the next year, and since the Braves had built him up as their savior, they moved him to first base, then the outfield. If they'd given him another full year of catching in Triple A. he'd have been fine."
There are a few signs of enlightenment. Darrell Parks, who plays in the Minnesota system, is considered a top catching prospect, but the Twins want him to return for a second year at Double A Orlando. "We could ruin him if he were rushed," says player personnel director Bob Gebhard.
The modernization of the game has itself proved an enemy: "The catching fundamentals are terrible, starting with the new gloves that have made one-handed catchers out of everyone," says Tebbetts. Until the Cubs' Randy Hundley came along in the mid-1960s, all catchers had used stiff, unhinged, pie-plate gloves that necessitated the use of the right, or meat, hand to catch the ball. Hundley changed to a flexible model that was more like a first baseman's glove.
Then along came Johnny Bench and Fisk with hands like Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith. "They changed catching, but not for the best," says Tebbetts. "Too much reaching. Too much blocking of balls with their gloves instead of shifting their bodies. Too much backhanding. And. with the right hand way back [most one-handed catchers keep their meat hands behind their backs to save them from being injured], by the time most of these guys get the ball out of their gloves and are ready to throw, they've given the runner a couple of extra steps. Too often, when a scout talks about a good young defensive catcher, he's talking about seeing the kid throw in infield practice. Catching's a hell of a lot more complicated than that."
"The fundamental purpose of a catcher never gets taught to most kids," says McCarver. "If a catcher can't block a tough pitch in the dirt with a runner on third in a one-run game, the pitcher won't let his best curveball or split-finger go for fear it'll end up at the screen. You'd be surprised how many times during the season a pitcher gets blamed for a hanging curveball or split-finger, and the reason he hung it is because he's afraid his catcher won't catch the tough one." Ashby has been subjected to much criticism in Houston because of his weak throwing arm—he threw out only 16% of opposing runners last year—but several Astro pitchers give him much of the credit for the success their staff has had the last few years. "You never see Dave Smith or Mike Scott afraid to throw their nastiest split-finger with the runner on third," says Pittsburgh pitching coach Ray Miller. "They all know Ashby will put his nose in the dirt and block the ball. The Mets all know that with Carter, as do the Pirates with LaValliere and the Dodgers with [Mike] Scioscia."
There are a few good young all-around catchers emerging: Santiago, 24, Alomar, 22, Surhoff, 24, and perhaps the Cubs' Damon Berryhill, 25, who will start for them this season. Steinbach, 27, has made giant strides in his short time catching; and despite two seasons that were plagued with injuries. Boston's Rich Gedman, 29, still is respected around the league. And the Rangers claim that they don't care what Chad Kreuter, 24, hits (he batted .265 in Double A); manager Bobby Valentine wants him to be the regular catcher because he can catch and throw.
But physical skills, of course, are only part of the equation. A catcher has to think as well as he can throw. "He has to think like a manager." says Ezell. It is certainly no mere coincidence that 10 current major league managers were catchers at some time in their careers.
"There are all kinds of kids who have all kinds of tools, but if they don't have high concentration levels, they probably can't catch," says McCarver. One of the best prospects in the Oakland system is Scott Hemond. He was an All-America catcher at the University of South Florida and has an arm that has been likened to Santiago's and Alomar's, but the Athletics have made him into an infielder, where they expect big things from him. "His problem was that he has a once-a-week, high intensity football mentality," says one Oakland coach. "He couldn't keep his concentration for the catcher's grind."
It's arguable that catching today is far more difficult than it was in the 1950s, primarily because the running game is now so dominant. Says Leyland, "With artificial turf, faster athletes and the way basestealing is taught, I'm convinced that even some of the great catchers of the past couldn't have thrown out guys like Vince Coleman." It used to be that the standard for a catcher in nailing runners was 50%. No regular catcher attained that degree of proficiency last year. The best was Santiago, at 44%. National League catchers threw out an average of 29%, American League catchers, 31%.
"Throwing in the American League is a lot less important than in the National." says Rodgers. "It's a totally different game in the National League [in 1988, there were 1.86 steals per National League game, 1.34 per American], and if you don't think defense first, offense second, you can be run into the ground."