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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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Best-Throwing Catchers




Ron Karkovice, Chi.

Benito Santiago, S.D.


Joel Skinner, N.Y.

Sandy Alomar Jr., S.D.


Charlie O'Brien, Mil.

Mike LaValliere, Pitt.


Mike Heath, Det.

Damon Berryhill, Chi.


Bob Boone, K.C.

Mike Scioscia, L.A.

The San Diego Padres had just beaten the New York Mets 3-2 last August. WWOR-TV in New Jersey replayed a wild pitch from the 10th inning that bounced past Padre catcher Benito Santiago—one of four such pitches between these two teams in three games that month—and broadcaster Steve Zabriskie, a former minor leaguer, said, "Well, there wasn't anything Santiago could do."

"On the contrary," interjected Zabriskie's partner in the booth, Tim McCarver, a former major league catcher. "This run, and most of the runs that score this way, are indeed the fault of the catcher. Santiago's job is to stop those pitches. That's just not good catching. I'm not singling out Benito Santiago. Not many catchers today would have stopped those runs either. They should, but...."

McCarver's voice is just one in a chorus bemoaning the current state of catching in the major leagues. "Catching today is a disaster." says Birdie Tebbetts, a former All-Star catcher for the Detroit Tigers and now a scout for the Baltimore Orioles. Says Joe Nossek, a scout for the Houston Astros, "The toughest thing to find today is a good catcher." One coach, when asked to list the five best catchers in the American League, said, "There aren't five good ones."

Consider this: Before 1985, no catcher past the age of 36 had ever caught 100 games in a season. That year, both 37-year-old Bob Boone and 37-year-old Carlton Fisk passed the 100 mark. Boone, who as a free agent signed with the Kansas City Royals in November for $883,001, and Fisk, who re-signed with the Chicago White Sox for $1.2 million in February, are now 41. In a poll of managers, coaches and scouts (page 30), Fisk and Boone are still ranked as the best defensive catchers in the American League. "I respect Boone and Fisk tremendously," says bullpen coach Glenn Ezell of the Royals, "but it's kind of sad that two 41-year-olds are the best."

Consider this: Toronto Blue Jay Ernie Whitt, 36, was second in the American League in games caught last season. The Houston Astros' Alan Ashby, 37, Los Angeles Dodger Rick Dempsey, 38, and the Texas Rangers' Jim Sundberg, 37, all finished the season as platoon regulars.

Consider this: There were 16 catchers in the majors last year who were released or allowed to leave organizations as minor league free agents. Seven of them were platoon regulars at some point last season: Sundberg, Sal Butera (Toronto), Rick Cerone (Boston Red Sox), Brian Harper (Minnesota Twins), Larry Owen (K.C.), Jamie Quirk (K.C.) and Geno Petralli (Texas). Petralli, you may recall, is renowned for having been found by the Rangers in 1986 working in a Dr Pepper plant after being released by the Cleveland Indians three and a half weeks earlier.

Consider this: The two most one-sided trades of the 1980s came within five days of one another because the Royals and Cardinals were desperate for catchers. On March 27, 1987, Kansas City traded righthanded pitcher David Cone to the Mets for catcher Ed Hearn. Last season Cone was 20-3 for New York, and Hearn, who was hurt, played only seven games for the Royals. Five days after the Cone trade. St. Louis sent Andy Van Slyke, Mike Dunne and Mike LaValliere to the Pittsburgh Pirates for catcher Tony Pena. Van Slyke & Co. have turned the Pirates into a championship contender, while Pena (.263 last season) has had little impact on the Cards. "Most of the time, you can't even talk about trading for a good everyday catcher," says Montreal Expo manager Bob Rodgers. "So those things will happen."

"I sit in back of home plate almost every day." says Toronto scout Gordon Lakey. "When my son Ryan [age 7] told me he wanted to be a catcher, I figured that's like aspiring to be the CEO of IBM. I'll be able to retire early."

Most kids these days aren't like Ryan. "Catching is work. Hard, dirty, tough work," says Angel manager Doug Rader. "Few kids want to work that hard. Most kids have a psychological block about catching."

"It's a societal thing," says Rodgers. "Mothers don't want their kids back there, getting hit by foul tips and bats and being run over trying to block the plate. Fathers don't want the good athlete son catching, because he could get hurt. High school and college coaches put their best athletes on the mound or at shortstop."

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