SARASOTA, FLA. — Orioles catcher Johnny Monell Jr. needed to put on catcher's gear just once — back when he was 12 years old and wandered onto the field before one of his father's games — for him to know that he wanted to make his career behind the plate.
His father, Johnny Monell Sr., played professional baseball for 17 years, a career that took him around the world from the New York Mets farm system, to Italy, to Taiwan and to Mexico. Johnny Jr. was often by his side.
It was at his stop playing independent ball for the Atlantic City Surf when one of the elder Monell's teammates, former Chicago Cubs catcher Hector Villanueva, let little Johnny borrow his catcher's mitt. Before long, he was waddling on the field in full gear and catching a bullpen session.
"He handled it pretty good," Monell Sr. said. "He walks back into the clubhouse, barely able to walk with the shin guards and chest protector and he tells me, 'Dad, I want to catch.' I sat him down and told him, 'If you want to catch, you have to love this position. This is one of the toughest positions on the field.'"
Monell Sr. knew that well, as a catcher who eventually moved to the outfield. His son didn't pick up the position on a regular basis until midway through high school, but now the younger Monell — acquired from the San Francisco Giants in November — is battling for the Orioles' backup catcher job this spring, fighting Steve Clevenger for the right to play behind starter Matt Wieters.
Despite a long career, Monell Sr. never made it to the majors, but he made friends along the way — Orioles first base coach Wayne Kirby was a winter ball teammate and Orioles manager Buck Showalter said he has a scouting report of the elder Monell from his first year in pro ball playing for the New York Mets' low Class-A team in Little Falls, N.Y.
Monell Jr., meanwhile, was a September call-up for the Giants last season, going 1-for-8 in eight games, an experience that was a dream come true for both father and son.
"A great moment," Monell Sr. said. "It was our moment for the work we put into the game, especially the work he put in the game."
The 27-year-old Monell served his time in the minors, playing in the Giants' organization for seven years. There's no argument over whether he can hit — Monell hit .275/.364/.494 with a career-high 20 homers and 64 RBIs last season in Triple-A.
But Showalter has made clear that defense will be what makes the difference in winning the Orioles backup catcher job. Showalter would like to see Wieters — who started 134 games at catcher — get more days off, and he doesn't want to see a dramatic drop-off defensively from his Gold Glove-winning catcher.
"People think, backup catcher, what's the big deal?" Showalter said. "It is a big deal because it makes the No. 1 guy better and it has to be seamless. They've got to bring something the day they catch, some part of their game that's really good, whether it's shutting the run game down or being an unbelievable caller of the game and last and least if they can really hit."
Monell has already shown what he can do with the bat — he was 3-for-4 with four RBIs and a three-run homer in the Orioles' 11-5 win over Minnesota on Wednesday — but he's also trying to shake a stigma that he's lacking defensively.
"Early on, the position was kind of difficult for me, just trying to adjust to it," Monell said. "I don't know where [the reputation] came from, but defense is something I take pride in. I hear it, but the way I look at it, you can't tell me I can't do something. It motivates me. It doesn't bother me like it used to. When I was a young player hearing that, you're kind of like, 'What's going on?'"
Last season in Triple-A, Monell played nearly as many games at first base (47) as he did at catcher. But when he tried to take ground balls at first during an early spring batting practice session, Showalter put a stop to it.
"He's always been an offensive threat, especially as a left-handed bat," Showalter said. "He's an athletic guy. We've just challenged him to not be picking up gloves and going out to the infield because for him to make this club, we've got to feel like he can be a good defensive catcher."
"There no riff-raff about that," Monell said. "[Taking grounders] is something I like to do, but I know the focus in priority is behind the plate for me, and I enjoy that more than anything."
Monell continues to learn the position. Two years ago, he was mentored by former All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez when the two were teammates during winter ball in Puerto Rico. Already, he's studied the way Wieters works, how he is able to move so well behind the plate for someone his size as well as his demeanor and attention to detail.
Monell Jr.'s father is still one of his greatest resources — he understands firsthand the battle of trying to break through into the majors. When Monell Jr. spent last season playing on the West Coast at Triple-A Fresno, his father would listen to every game on the radio and father and son would engage in postgame conversations dissecting game scenarios and at-bats.
The move to the East Coast is a welcome change. Monell grew up in the Bronx, just a five-minute stroll from Yankee Stadium — and yes, he grew up a Yankees fan.
Monell Sr. got to see his son play when the Giants made September trips to New York to play the Mets and Yankees. Both father and son hope this season includes many more trips to Yankee Stadium to watch Monell Jr. play in an Orioles uniform.
"For a father who busted his butt to try to get to the highest level of baseball and watch his son do it, I guess that was one of the best moments of his life I would say, and it was for me too," Monell Jr. said. "I told my family and my parents that this was something I wanted to do from a very young age and I'm doing it."
It's just as special for the elder Monell.
"No regrets at all," he said about his long baseball career. "I made good friends. Baseball took me around the world. I had a blast. And now it feels like I'm doing it all over again."
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