Catcher postion comes with unique hazards - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Catcher postion comes with unique hazards

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Posted: Sunday, April 27, 2003 12:39 am | Updated: 1:47 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

For Bob Brenly, they were unexpected, unwanted souvenirs from his first major league game.

Days after debuting at catcher for the San Francisco Giants against the Cincinnati Reds in August 1981, Brenly still sported a large, nasty bruise on his right arm and stiffness in his neck.

Both were courtesy of a home-plate collision with Ken Griffey Sr.

“He hit me so hard,” said Brenly, now manager of the Diamondbacks. “I already took my mask off, but my chest protector was turned to one side, one of my shin guards was spun the other way. As he came over on top of me, my elbow came down on home plate with all his weight on top of it.

“It was my first game in the majors, and I’m thinking that maybe I’m not fit to do this.”

The bruise and neck stiffness went away, but Brenly suffered many more ailments during a nine-year big-league career. All were constant reminders of just how hazardous an occupation he had, especially when it came time for a confrontation at home plate.

A catcher focused on guarding the plate while taking a throw from the outfield. A runner coming down the third-base line at full speed, intent on scoring by any means necessary. There may be no other situation in team sports where an athlete is more physically vulnerable.

“It’s the worst part of being a catcher,” Arizona catcher Chad Moeller said. “It’s a scary play. You’re going to be sore, and you won’t like getting out of bed the next day, because it’s kind of like taking a whiplash.”

Usually, the catcher takes the lion’s share of the abuse. And the effects of a violent collision at the plate last for varying lengths of time.

At best, catchers suffer injuries that they regard as merit badges. At worst, their careers can change course, as Ray Fosse’s did after Pete Rose bowled over him in the 1970 All-Star game — the undisputed play to end all plays at the plate.

“I haven’t really taken a shot in the majors, although in the minors and spring training, I was involved in a couple,” D-Backs catcher Rod Barajas said. “But I’ve been lucky. I’ve heard horror stories.”

Among Brenly’s other battle scars were two broken ribs in a collision with Glenn Hubbard, who separated his shoulder on the play. Andy Van Slyke got Brenly twice, in the form of a hyperextended elbow and shot to the nose.

Moeller still has a bump on his lip from a blow in American Legion ball. And while playing at Southern California, Moeller's collision with a UCLA runner left him with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in one of his knees — three weeks before draft day.

“You’re a stationary target, and the runner is coming at you as fast as he can,” Brenly said. “So, right away, you’re at a huge disadvantage. And you can talk all you want about protective gear, but when someone runs into you going full speed, the chest protector and shin guards are of no use.

“It just jars you from the inside out.”

There is nothing catchers can do to practice for the kinds of shots they take in games. Teams won’t risk injury by having players barrel into each other in workouts, so home-plate collisions are impossible to simulate.

“That’s why you see a lot of weird collisions, because you are never able to practice it,” Arizona left fielder Luis Gonzalez said. “We’re not football players, who practice contact every day.

“When you come around third, the catcher is trying to deke you into thinking the ball is not coming. When it comes, you have a split second to make a decision — slide, stand up or run him over.”

Catchers are instructed to stay as low as possible and point their left foot toward third base to lessen the chance of a leg injury.

“They give you tips on it,” rookie D-Backs utilityman Robby Hammock said, “but you never know about the throw. If it’s a good throw, you might have time to catch it, tag the runner and dodge the contact. But if it’s late, you just have to stand in there and let it happen.

“My experience is that it’s best not to stand there stiff, just try to absorb the blow.”

Barajas and Moeller have one more rule — the mask stays on. If they can see a 98-mph pitch coming in, they can see a throw from the outfield.

“I’ve seen too many guys lose teeth because they wanted to take the mask off,” Barajas said.

Simultaneously tracking the throw and runner can be challenging. In a 1999 spring training game, Barajas focused too much on the throw, and he was walloped by Jeff Liefer, then of the Chicago White Sox.

“My shoe flew off, and my shin guard was hanging off my leg,” Barajas said. “I woke up the next morning, and the whole left side of my body was aching, just one big bruise.”

The best way for catchers to avoid collisions is to bait runners into sliding by exposing part of the plate, then cutting it off. It’s believed no catcher in history was better at such deception than Mike Scioscia, now manager of the Anaheim Angels.

“Just as you would start your slide, he’d drop to his knees and turn, so as your leg got between his, he would turn you away from the plate,” Brenly said. “You never got to the dish. With him, it was more than brute force or willingness to take the hit, although (Scioscia) had a lot of that, too.”

Arizona’s veteran players were unanimous in assessing the strong, stocky Scioscia as the toughest catcher to go through.

“He sat on the dish,” first baseman Mark Grace said.

Added third baseman Matt Williams: “You never went in feet first. If you did, he was right on top of you. You had to try and go around him. And even that would hurt.”

Still, Scioscia was susceptible to getting his bell rung, which is what Jack Clark did in a 1985 contest. Playing with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Scioscia was knocked unconscious by Clark, then of the St. Louis Cardinals. But Scioscia held on to the ball.

Upon awaking in the trainer’s room, Scioscia was asked where he was. He said, “The Astrodome.” The game was in Dodger Stadium.

When Brenly and Scioscia get together, the Clark collision almost always comes up in the conversation — another tale of catching's occupational hazards.

Moeller, Barajas and Hammock no doubt have more collision stories that are waiting to be played out. But none of them plan to pursue another line of work.

“If you don’t expect or want to be involved in getting hit, don’t sign up,” Hammock said. “Don’t even get back behind the plate.”

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