“Ball!” shouted the umpire. Blue was good tonight. He had been consistent for both sides. And even as he called a ball for what seemed like the 20th time in a row, he maintained that slight, upward cadence that exposed neither frustration nor opinion on the pitch at hand.
The same, however, could not be said of our pitcher. Walter, we’ll call him, was having the same sort of issues that we’ve seen since he was nine-years-old. Back then, he was among the hardest throwers and biggest hitters in our youth league–without doubt a talent. His father was the coach of our “A” travel team, and Walter during tryouts made sure to let all the new kids know who both he and his Dad were. And his cabal ruled the roost, creating a social pecking order that at least in part led some players to join a competing travel system.
But now at 15-years-old, the small, warm pond of parent-coaches and prepubescent physical equanimity had both widened and cooled. His father sat in the stands watching just as I did. And while Walter’s arm still screamed talent, his mercurial control had become a real roadblock.
After having already walked in a run, Walter’s body language was there for the world (not to mention the umpire) to see. Stomping, snatching the ball out of the air, eyes rolling like a slot machine. Now, there were two errors sandwiched into his BB hoagie, but that was the classic pattern. Pitchers set the tone for the team—for better or for worse. And with Walter, a leadoff walk almost invariably led to a painful dance of fielders back on their heels. Invariably, errors combined with walks would set the table for the occasional hit that would clear it off.
My boy had seen more than his share of this from behind the plate over the past few seasons as Walter’s teammate. As I’ve noted, he wasn’t part of the club, only breaking through for a cup of coffee as an A/B player at 12. He worked his way to the A squad at 14 when we moved to the senior league. Now he and Walter were JV together, and my guy was stuck behind the plate.
Stuck, I say, because catching in the spring was tough, and the coaches made no bones about the fact my guy left something to be desired. He’s an earnest kid; taking criticism to heart. After the season was over he concluded that he really didn’t have what it took to get to that next level as a catcher, saying, “I worked as hard as I could, and I went from being a lousy catcher to being a thoroughly mediocre one!”
Having made the decision that it was time to leave the tools of ignorance behind, he delighted in the prospect of a fall season where he would be able to work on developing elsewhere. With reps, he’s shown himself to be a solid first baseman, and has shown some potential on the mound as well.
But, alas, it was not to be. The #1 catcher for the team plays hockey in the fall, and the main backup, a pal of his, developed a growth plate injury that ended his season early. The only other backstop on the team struggled far more than Gus defensively with the pace of High School pitching, and also needed to develop elsewhere. That left my guy…and only my guy…to catch for pretty much the entire fall.
This game was particularly frustrating, as rather than the usual teams, this was the annual series where the JV and varsity teams were “drafted” into two mixed squads and played each other in a best-of-three series. I had thought this might give my guy an opportunity to get a break by being on a team with a varsity catcher. But instead, he ended up being the only catcher on his team, while the other side ended up with three.
And so my son did the Dante Hicks, taking another beating both mentally and physically behind the plate, thinking all the while, “I wasn’t even supposed to be here today!” But he also knew he had a responsibility to the team, and I taught him from early on that the most important part of being a catcher was to help his pitcher. If the pitcher threw a 55-foot curve ball that bounced over the catcher’s head, it’s the catcher’s job to run get it and thump his chest, saying, “my bad.” Why should a catcher suffer such abuse? Because it’s his job to get the most out of the pitcher possible. As I told him, “In the scorecard, the pitcher is Number 1 and the Catcher number 2 for a reason.”
It’s not fair, but it’s baseball. It wasn’t designed to be fair.
But when my guy threw Walter’s latest wide one back to him, we were all privy to a pure primadonna moment. Walter caught the ball and held it in place, starting Gus down. In baseball parlance, the message was clear—I’m not getting the pitches called because you aren’t catching them correctly.
Now, framing pitches has never been one of Gus’s strong suits. He’s gotten better but he’s still a little too quick to move the ball and tends to “drift” with the pitch instead of getting around it and sticking it in the strike zone.
But as the inning ground on, Walter decided to make his silent protest on every ball thrown, with the exception of the not-infrequent balls to the backstop and the not-frequent strike. It was on about the eighth held ball that my guy finally got a little relief.
Interestingly enough, it came from the umpire, who removed his mask, as well as his impartiality.
“Son, that ball was six inches outside. There’s not a catcher on the planet that can make that look like a strike,” Blue barked at Walter. Soon thereafter the coach came out to give Walter the hook, as everyone had reached their saturation point. The next pitcher managed to get the final out of the inning, and my guy hobbled off the field as if he were an arthritic veteran at the close of his career. 30 minutes in a squat will do that to you.
As he gimped, a senior on the varsity team came over from first base and started talking, and continued the conversation in the dugout. After the game, I asked my son what he said. “He said I was a good catcher, but I should never take that kind of shit from my pitcher, ever. He said next time he does that, I should tell him to cut that crap out or it’s going to get physical.”
My immediate instinct was to climb him down off that wall. Indeed, that advice went against everything I had said about the importance of bucking-it-up and keeping the pitcher in his pocket. That catching is about the pitcher (not to mention the whole non-violent conflict resolution thing). The pitcher has control of the game, and no matter whether he is your best friend or your worst enemy, the fate of your team begins with him.
Indeed, despite Walter’s history, I found myself as a parent being consistently loud-and-vocal in rooting for him. He has talent. He can help the team. And he’s not going anywhere. And with any teen, there’s always the hope that his maturity could grow with this talent, and in the end he could be a real asset to our team on and off the field. What was the point in doing anything other than cheer him on?
But I was forced to reconsider. Yes, our team’s success will depend on Walter when he’s on the mound. Yes, he’s the one with the ball. But there is a line that must be drawn between supporting his ability to help the team and simply enabling him to continue to abuse his teammates.
There comes a point when the catcher needs to make a stand.
My guy got a break at the next game, as the coach realized the mistake he made in the draft (I might have said a little something) and put another catcher on our team. Gus got a chance to play first and even pitch an inning. In the stands, I was chatting with Walter’s Dad and felt I needed to make a stand of my own. He was well aware of the fact that Gus wanted “out” from behind the plate, and I noted that Walter’s actions in the last game helped cement those feelings.
His Dad, who even in the days when he didn’t make the team was always encouraging of Gus and praised his work-ethic, immediately responded. “I have no idea what that was,” he said, shaking his head. “His pitches weren’t even close. I told him to apologize to your boy in school. He texted me and he said he did.” (I must note that independent confirmation of said apology has been hard to come by).
That next Sunday, my fella went from catcher to coach, helping me out with the 12-year-old team his brother was playing on. It was a tough sun directly in the catcher’s eyes, and our guy was really struggling back there, much to the consternation of our pitcher. And while I worked to temper our tempestuous hurler between innings, Coach Gus took our young catcher aside.
“You do everything you can to help the pitcher,” he said, “but you don’t take shit from him. He needs to understand that just because he’s on the mound, that doesn’t give him the right to give you crap. If you think he’s out of line, you let him know.”
And that, my friends, is how movements begin. Bravery can be contagious.
Hmm. Maybe there’s a metaphor in that. I’ll give it some thought.