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Catch as catch can on catchers U.S. players shun catching as less glamorous, more dangerous

Here's the job description:

Play a game three hours a day, 130 days a year, earn a seven-figure salary, become famous.

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You could handle that, right? OK, put on the gear and get behind the plate.

What? You don't want to catch? Taking foul tips in the groin is not your idea of fun? No wonder scouts looking for major-league catchers can't find them.

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What was once a role of honor and responsibility now is shunned by today's American youth, who gravitate to more glamorous positions such as pitcher and shortstop, not to mention more glamorous sports such as basketball.

Scouts now find their catchers where they can. Some of the best are from the Caribbean and Latin America, especially Puerto Rico, where Ivan Rodriguez, Benito Santiago and Sandy Alomar Jr. were discovered. Many Americans now playing the position were blessed with strong arms but couldn't quite cut it at other positions.

Carlton Fisk was a rare natural at the position, but nowadays there is more talk about his impending release.

Sure, much has been made about the apparent shortage of major league caliber pitchers and how expansion will further dilute the quality. But that concern applies to catchers, too. If there's another batch of Fisks on the horizon, it's news to the men who are looking for them.

"It's not like there are a lot of Cooperstown candidates at the major league level," said Gary Hughes, scouting director of the Florida Marlins. "There's a lot of what you call journeymen. And there aren't a lot of prime prospects coming up, either."

Past expansions have already spread the position thin in the majors.

"If you want to see how good catching really is now, go back to before expansion when there were 16 teams, two catchers per team and compare the top 32 catchers now to then and see what happens," said former catcher Ted Simmons, now general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

As Simmons knows, it takes a certain mentality to be a catcher, and if you don't believe that, just try it sometime. Suit up in armor like a warrior prepared for battle, squat for three hours and have Roger Clemens throw 95-mph fastballs at you while a distracting bat is waved in your face. Worse yet, have Tom Candiotti bounce fluttering knuckleballs past you, and when you reach the backstop to retrieve them, be the target of jeers from fans who wonder why you can't catch the darn things. Talk about a thankless job.

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Count on broken fingers, arthritic knees and bruises the color of ripe eggplant. In the run-oriented National League, expect to be challenged by speedsters on the bases. With today's impatient management, expect to be platooned, which only prolongs the learning process.

Any volunteers?

If that wasn't reason enough to find another profession, the image of Michael Jordan soaring through the air to slam dunk a billion-dollar annual salary has given young athletes, especially in the inner city, career alternatives a lot more appealing than blocking bouncing curveballs.

Scouts also contend the shortage of pitching has convinced strong-armed potential catchers to take to the mound instead. Traditionally, the best baseball athletes become shortstops, pitchers or outfielders. Not catchers. As if that's not compelling enough explanation for the catching shortage, California Angels Manager Buck Rodgers, a former catcher, presents an intriguing theory of interference.

"It's the Little League mothers," said Rodgers, who suffered worse injuries in a bus crash this year than he ever did in seven major league seasons behind the plate.

"They don't want little Johnny to get hurt. It's dangerous back there, and parents aren't letting their kids do it. That's the reason for the scarcity. Because of what's happening in the States, more and more Latins are becoming catchers. That's the way it's going."

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Catching runs in cycles, and there's no doubt the catching business is in a prolonged recession. Between 1931 and '37, there were six future Hall of Famers catching for their teams at the same time. But since 1965, there has been only one catcher elected to the Hall of Fame (Johnny Bench) and since 1957 only two (Bench and Yogi Berra), although Fisk and Gary Carter are likely to join Bench.

The shortage of young catchers can be documented through the free-agent draft, which provides a glimpse at baseball's future stars. Only two catchers were chosen in the first round this year, only one last year. Over the past five seasons, only 10 catchers went in the first round, the fewest for any five-year period since the draft began in 1965. That compares with 16 in the previous five-year span and 15 in the five years before that.

Why so few take the route is explained by the story of one who did. Charles Johnson Jr., taken in June by Hughes as the Marlins' first-round pick, began his career 13 years ago when he came home from baseball practice one afternoon with the news most Little League parents dread.

"Dad," Charles Jr. said, "I want to be a catcher."

Charles Sr., being a Florida high school baseball coach, took it better than most parents.

"My wife was concerned about the physical risk. I was too, some, but I also wanted to make sure he really wanted this, to find out how much heart he had," Charles Sr. said. "So I set him up in front of a pitching machine and kept moving him closer and closer, until he was only 15 feet away. The ball knocked his mask off a couple times, but he hung in there. That takes guts for a 9-year-old."

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A player with talent offensively and defensively, Johnson truly is an exception to the trend that young Americans don't want to be catchers. The catching glory years of the 1930s starred Gabby Hartnett, Ernie Lombardi, Al Lopez, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey and Rick Ferrell.

Bench's class -- which included Thurman Munson, Simmons, Fisk, Carter and Bob Boone -- is the next closest real thing, with each possessing in varying degrees a combination of exceptional defensive skills and offensive potency. Now, that combination is rarely found in the same player.

"Some clubs have more or less given up on the position," said Bob Gebhard, senior vice president and general manager of the expansion Colorado Rockies. "They'll either choose an offensive player who's average defensively, or a strong defensive player who's weak offensively. Basically, they concede one aspect because it's so hard to find the quality catcher who has all of the skills."

And this is nothing new.

"There's a great opportunity for boys who want to catch in pro ball today," an American League manager said when asked about a catching shortage.

The manager was Ralph Houk. The comment was made 30 years ago.

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So, who's taking his counsel today?

Luis Rosa, now a Puerto Rico-based scout who previously signed Rodriguez, Santiago and Alomar, said such advice is heeded in his country. With those three as role models, said Rosa, Puerto Rican ballplayers know catching can be their ticket off the island.

"Latin kids see that a good catcher gets to the major leagues quicker than other positions, and Latin kids tend to mature physically earlier than American kids, which gives the Latin kids an advantage," Rosa said.

Rosa said the American influence in Puerto Rican education has given that area an advantage over other Spanish-speaking areas for developing catchers.

Of the current generation of Americans, naturals such as Darren Daulton and Chris Hoiles share the spotlight with many converted infielders or outfielders who possess a strong arm but are short on offensive skills.

Tom Pagnozzi, the Gold Glove catcher of the St. Louis Cardinals, was a third baseman who tried catching his senior season of college only after a scout told him it would be his only chance to reach the majors.

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"I don't know how he could say that without seeing me catch, but I guess he was right," Pagnozzi said.


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