"The most important asset a catcher can have is the desire to catch," says Coach Leppert, himself a former catcher. "Let's face it, catching is not for the timid. A lot of players have the tools, but they don't like being hit with foul tips or wild pitches and they don't like those collisions at the plate."
Sanguillen endures these hardships with a smile on his face and a bounce in his step. His ebullience is sometimes mistaken for that cardinal baseball sin, hot-dogging, but not by those who know him well.
"A pitcher's first inclination when he sees somebody acting the way Manny does," says the Pirate pitching ace Steve Blass, "is to knock him down the next time he comes up. But Manny is no hot dog. He just enjoys playing, and he shows it."
Sanguillen has much more than mere esprit. "He's deceptive," says Blass, "in that he puts more into catching than people realize. You tend to think of him as a hitter who can throw well. But he can spot my own weaknesses before I can. I pitch from a three-quarter delivery. If I drop below that, I'm in trouble. Manny notices any little change. In the seventh game of the World Series my slider wasn't working at first. But Manny didn't give up on it. You can't do that with a pitch. It started coming around in the fourth inning and he called for it 80% of the time the rest of the way. The Orioles had seen how bad it was earlier and were surprised."
That Sanguillen is playing with both enthusiasm and sagacity is not as surprising as that he is playing at all, for baseball was the one game that did not interest him in high school. When he did finally get around to it, he became a third baseman. He did not become a catcher until he was 21, and it took him a while to adjust.
"It was too much work," he says. "It was hard for me to call the different pitches, hard for me to even glove the ball. I had a lot of trouble with my fingers. And I was flat-footed. But I worked hard. Now I like it. I just do my best. I don't compare myself with anybody else. I don't tell myself I am the best. There are a lot of good catchers in this league."
But comparisons with Bench are inevitable, just as they were 40 years ago with Cochrane and Dickey, who played, as Bench and Sanguillen do now, on pennant contenders. Sadly, Cochrane's career was cut short at 13 seasons when he was beaned by the Yankees' Bump Hadley in 1937. That misadventure fractured his skull.
And there are those who contend that Hartnett, the old Cub, was better than either Cochrane or Dickey. "To me Hartnett was the best," says Charlie Fox, the San Francisco Giant manager and former catcher. "He had that great arm, the best. He was a clutch hitter and he had power. He called a great game, and he'd come out there with that big Irish face and make everybody happy. He was wonderful for the game."
"For what they're making now," says the 71-year-old Hartnett today, "I'd catch 24 hours and clean up the park afterward."
If Gabby has his garrulous backers, so do the others. Casey Stengel holds out for Bresnahan, and some catching purists, disdaining the big hitters, opt for defensive marvels like Jimmie Wilson, Jimmy Archer, Del Crandall, Jim Hegan or Wes Westrum. And what of Josh Gibson, the black catcher who never played a major league game but is in the Hall of Fame and is regarded by some experts as the best of them all? How about Campy? Or Yogi?