HE HUNKERS AT THE plate, as thickly padded as an armored vehicle. He has the clearest perspective on the field: Nearly everything happens in front of him. He's in on every single play -- calling pitches, setting up hitters, blocking, throwing. No other fielder affects outcomes as deeply. And while baseball's boundaries, the foul lines, theoretically extend to infinity, he squats at their intersection, right at the heart of the game.

As the Orioles' 47th season opens, take a look at the National Pastime -- as we did during spring training -- through the iron mask of one of its most accomplished catchers, Baltimore's own Charles Johnson. Five years in the big leagues and 19 behind the plate have loaded the soft-spoken catcher with lore. Over the course of the nine innings that follow you might just glimpse, as we did, not only something of the home team's hopes in the year 2000, but also some of the deeper dynamics that govern the grand old game. As the umpire cries: Play Ball.


School Days

It's a warm, sun-drenched morning in South Florida. On the back field at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, bench coach Brian Graham has taken the Orioles through a brisk infield practice -- "GFF: That's for 'good fielding, fellas!' " he cries -- and calls for a water break. In an instant, the diamond empties. It's vacant as an open plain.

Empty, that is, except for two towering figures by the third-base bag, standing and gazing in the dirt. Cal Ripken Jr., the 6'4" legend with the iron-gray hair, is toeing the earth like a matador, etching a diagram with his cleats. Charles Johnson, the 6'3" catcher, has loped over to join him. They talk, gesture, erase the sketch, make another, talk some more: For 20 minutes, they're engrossed in conversation -- the top two students staying long after school.

Ripken, now entering his 20th year as an Oriole, is endlessly fascinated with the minutiae of the sport and knows that mastering each detail might mean winning a game. Today, they're working on a pickoff play. "I thought that was a good opportunity to discuss where Charles likes to throw," he says. "At third, you don't have too many chances to do that. Sometimes that becomes a critical situation, and you need to know you're on the same page." The field is more useful than a chalkboard.

Johnson, too, is engaged by the subject. "I'll do it by feel in a game, but we decided I'll throw to the inside of the bag, not at the bag," he says. "That way I'll miss the base runner and Cal will get a good look at the ball."

The play might occur twice a month during the season, but they've walked it through, committed it to memory.

Johnson took up catching as a boy at age 9 exactly because it presented such situations so often. "I was an outfielder," he says. "I noticed I didn't get that many balls out there. It got a little boring." He caught batting practice, liked being involved on every pitch, and got hooked. There's never enough you can learn. "That's why, during the season, I meet so much with the coaches, with the pitchers. There's always some small thing, something new you can do to help the cause." The man who has won four Gold Glove awards in five big-league years -- symbolizing leaguewide supremacy at his position -- grows thoughtful. "I keep my ears open," he says. "Catching is demanding, both physically and mentally. It's a tiring position, but that's why I love it."

Come 11:15, they cut the conversation short, trot to the main field and pull their bats out of the rack. It's batting practice time. The star pupils have skipped recess.


Blow by Blow

Would you trade your health for the chance to do your job better? Nine innings a game, 130 or more games a year, one nasty foul tip at a time, catchers do. "They call catching gear 'the tools of ignorance,' " says new Orioles manager Mike Hargrove with a laugh. "They don't say that because catchers are stupid. They say it because you've got to be an idiot to want to play there in the first place."

He's kidding, but just barely. Sure, Hargrove calls his catcher "our coach on the field" -- "he directs the way we attack the hitter" -- but like many baseball men, he speaks of catchers with an odd blend of humor and awe. "They do get mighty beat up. Go up to an old catcher. Check out his hands. You'd better have a strong stomach. Those fingers will be pointing in every which direction."

Johnson takes his bumps and bruises in stride; through practice and repetition, he eliminated his fear of the baseball long ago. He gets clobbered with foul tips at least three or four times a week; the trick is not to resist. "Some guys want to tighten up their bodies, turn their heads to the side, fight the baseball," says the 28-year-old with the face as calm and round as Buddha's. "But when you do that, you can leave your neck or your body exposed. You have to trust your gear. Let the ball hit it. Let it bounce off your gear, not your body."

The physical trials are not limited to defense. It's a baseball truism that some catchers aren't strong hitters, and to Johnson, it's self-evident why. "Think about it," he says. "I'm out there, I've got all this heavy gear on -- my mask, my shinguards, my chest protector, my black helmet. It's hot. By the sixth or seventh inning, you've sweated a lot; you're tired. You might not be able to get around on a good fastball like you could in the first." His worst stretch at the plate last year came in August: His average in the hottest month of the year dipped from a respectable .251 to .205.

But even at the plate, Johnson -- who finished the year back up at .251 -- seems to treasure up energy. In the Orioles' indoor batting cage, the right-handed hitter strokes almost every outside pitch to right field, every inside one to left -- in baseball parlance, "hitting it where it's pitched" -- rather than trying to overpower it. He has set no numerical goals. "I'm just focusing on hitting the ball hard," he says.

Says Hargrove: "There are some positions at which you favor defense over the bat. Catcher is one of them."


Calling All Pitches

If a team in the field is a body, the catcher is its mind: He sends out pulses that keep the members stirring, animated and working in sync. At one level, the catcher literally transmits signals. Before every pitch, he flashes the hurler a certain number of fingers indicating what pitch type he wants: slider, fastball, changeup, curve. Where he places his mitt -- up or down, in or away -- signifies location. "The pitcher has final say," says Johnson. "After all, the ball is in his hand. But I make a strong suggestion. Hopefully, I know what I'm talking about, and he believes I do."

Says Mike Mussina, the O's 18-game winner and staff ace: "Charles calls a good game, but I can shake off his call. I might see something he doesn't. You come to an understanding."

The exchange is wordless, the variables unlimited. Each hurler has a few pitches he can throw, others he can't. Every hitter likes certain spots or speeds better than others. A good catcher has studied both and chooses, ideally, a mix that works to the hitter's disadvantage. "Try to make him swing at something he can't hit," Johnson says.

If a batter's weakness is low curveballs, and the pitcher -- say, Mussina -- has a good low curveball, the choice is easy. But what if a hitter's strength is also the pitcher's strength? "Always go with the pitcher's strength," says Johnson. "Don't ask a guy to throw a pitch he can't. If the hitter beats you, he beats you. Make him hit the pitch that got you to the big leagues."

A few rare hitters complicate matters: In Johnson's view, they have no weaknesses. He names Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, Nomar Garciaparra of the Boston Red Sox and Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres. "There's no particular way to get those guys out," he says. "Look at Gwynn. He almost never strikes out. But the laws of baseball say even the best hitter makes an out seven out of 10 times. Seventy percent of the time, he'll hit it at somebody. He'll get himself out."

This mind of the team is always working -- "By the end of the game," says Johnson, "you're tired" -- blending knowledge, intuition, faith. In the end, it knows acceptance. "Show him your best pitch," he says. "If he gets a hit, give him credit and move on."


What It Takes

At times, in brief explosive bursts, a catcher is a study in motion. Watch Johnson receive a pitch, step out of the box and fire a ball to second base, and you'll get a clinic in the art of nailing base stealers with ruthless efficiency. It's a seamless string of moves: Up from his haunches, onto his feet, cocking, releasing and following through, he projects the ball on a line across the mound and toward the bag. When he's in a groove -- he has one of the strongest arms in the majors -- the ball comes to rest neatly in the second baseman's glove, a foot off the ground, just to the right of the base. The runner completes the play, sliding straight into the tag. "It's always pretty much a bang-bang play," says Johnson.

This is the easiest of the catcher's skills to quantify; throw out four runners in 10, your figure is 40 percent. Given the dimensions of a ball field, the speed of good runners, and the time it takes pitchers to deliver, any percentage higher than 33 is strong. Last year, Johnson threw out 37 of 93 base runners, a 39.8 percentage; for his career, he's 199 for 464 (42.9 percent). He is habitually among the big leagues' best.

Catching demands so many important skills that Johnson thinks of throwing as only the second or third most critical. His manager agrees. But like many facets of catching, throwing ability ripples through the whole game. If opponents know the catcher has a gun for an arm, they'll approach base running more tentatively. They'll take fewer chances. Over the long season, they'll score fewer runs.

"If the catcher's got a weak arm," says Johnson's backup, Greg Myers, "they're going to take advantage. With Charles, they can't." Opponents stole only 93 bases against Baltimore last year, the lowest the team has allowed since 1980. In Johnson's last 16 games, only one runner even attempted to steal.

When they do take off, the catcher has to have what those in baseball call "footwork."

The term refers to how the catcher positions himself, setting his feet to make a play. If a catcher has "good, quick feet," as Mussina puts it, he aligns himself to make the throw, does it in less than a second, and sends the ball on its way. And there are other means of saving time. "I think the key to throwing runners out at second is really accuracy," says Johnson. "You can have an average arm, but if you put the ball in the right place, you're still going to get a lot of guys out. On the flip side, if you have a great arm and aren't accurate -- if it's off the mark -- the fielder's got to bring it back in. On a steal, there's just not enough time for that."


Endangered Species

Baseball men are in agreement: There are few great catchers today, maybe fewer than ever. The reasons are unclear, but don't bet against values gone awry.

Catching involves multiple tasks; by odds alone, it's rare to find a player who can do them all. "A lot of times a guy can catch, but he's not a good hitter," says Johnson. "A lot of times a guy can hit but can't catch." Four or five backstops stand out, says Hargrove, including Johnson, Sandy Alomar of the Cleveland Indians and Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers, the reigning league MVP. "They didn't make Pudge MVP just because he hits home runs," he says.

To Johnson, the scarcity reflects current priorities in baseball. "More and more, it's an offense-oriented game," he says. "You've got Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa -- guys hitting 40, 50, 60 homers. Everybody is looking for the home run. A guy hits one out, he's on TV. If I block a ball behind the plate, very few people notice that."

He makes a compelling argument that this is flawed thinking. Smaller plays behind the plate, he says, can be as important as a round-tripper. "If there's a runner at third, and a pitch dives in the dirt, and I block it, I've saved a run. It's just like hitting a home run. I'll never get a cheer for that." In his view, while offense is important, defense is crucial. "What good is scoring 10 runs a game if your defense gives up 11? Look at the Yankees last year. Their catcher, Joe Girardi, (only) hit .239. Tino Martinez had the most homers -- only 28. But they swept in the World Series. You don't really need a whole lot of offense. Defense and pitching win games."

Johnson ought to know. He's one of the few Orioles to have won a Series: He backstopped the champion Florida Marlins in 1997. Not coincidentally, he had a Hall of Fame-type season, setting all-time big-league records for consecutive games (172) and fielding chances (1,295) without an error. "He's had so much success at such a young age," says O's shortstop Mike Bordick. "When you have players like that, guys who've won and know what it takes to win, you want to keep them around."

Johnson isn't complaining; he almost takes pride in the lack of acclaim. "I've come to the conclusion it's part of the game," he shrugs. "My teammates understand what I do." If more people did, we might have a wealth of good catchers.


Being There

Like umps or hockey goalies, catchers do the most when they're noticed least. It's what they don't do that counts. An ump doesn't blow a call. A goalie doesn't miss a shot. A catcher doesn't let a ball get by him. When they're invisible -- voila! -- they're anchoring the world around them.

Take blocking pitches: It's one of a catcher's perverse pleasures. Hearing Johnson discuss it is like getting a lesson in Zen. "A lot of guys want to fight the baseball," he says. "A ball's coming in at 90 miles an hour. It bounces in the dirt. You want to keep it in front of you. If you tighten up your body, clench your shoulders, it'll bounce further away when it hits you.

"I don't know how else to say it: You've got to be soft. Let your body be soft."

Paradoxically, a catcher like Johnson hurries up to wait. "I'm a big guy," he says. "I've got a lot of body to move around. I have to judge the pitch, anticipate and get there quicker than the next guy. I've got to think ahead. I've got to be in position to be still."

That stillness -- as much a character trait as an on-field skill -- has a major effect on the game around him. Ripken gives an example. The other team has a man on third with less than two out. The pitcher wants a strikeout; it's the only sure way of keeping that runner from scoring. And the very pitch he wants to throw is the hardest to block. "He might want to bury a breaking ball in the dirt or throw a diving split-finger fastball," says Ripken. "The fan in the stands might take it for granted that the catcher blocks that ball, but it's tough." And if the pitcher knows the pitch will be blocked, he's more confident throwing it. "Charles impacts on the confidence of that pitcher just by his ability to block the ball," says the third baseman.

In fact, says Ripken, that capacity for stillness radiates through the whole team. "Charles brings a quiet confidence to the game," he says. "You see him perform in a big series in Yankee Stadium, and he's the exact same person he is in any other situation. When C.J.'s behind the plate, a calm effect comes over the whole game. Everyone plays more relaxed."

As the Zen master says, don't try harder: Try softer.


Heart of the Matter

Consider the plate. It's the most valued piece of real estate on the field. Hitters dig in next to it. Pitchers aim at it. Umps eyeball it. Runners must touch it to score. The catcher, in many ways, must establish a relationship with the plate.

In one sense, the catcher actually defines its size. "When you think of the qualities you look for in a good catcher," says Mussina, "you look at how he receives the ball." Many catchers get in the habit of carrying a caught ball out of the strike zone. "The umpire, rightly or wrongly, sees that, and all of a sudden it changes his perspective," Hargrove says, "changes what he's seeing, and that truly affects how well he is calling pitches." As Mussina puts it: "If the catcher is constantly jabbing at the baseball, there are going be calls you might not get when you really need them. Catching is the art of presenting the ball to the umpire so he can make the proper call."

The catcher doesn't just hover at the plate and frame it. He must also, at times, guard it with his life. When a runner and the ball come barreling in at the same instant, a catcher makes one of his most fateful choices. "Blocking the plate," says Johnson, "isn't something that requires a lot of finesse. It's you against the runner. You have to split your vision. You see the guy coming, but you keep your eye on the ball." The main thing is to detect, as early as possible, whether the runner will arrive before the ball does. "It's timing. If he's going to get there first, you can't tag him out. Step out of there. Otherwise he barrels into you and -- no baseball."

If the ball arrives first, though, get ready. "Catch the ball first. Then set yourself up so he slides into your gear, not you."

Framing it, blocking it, dusting it off: The catcher knows the plate.


Generation Next

In many ways, baseball holds opposites in tension: action and stillness, aggression and release, clatter and calm. Another duality lives at the heart of the game: learning and teaching. No ballplayer can gain skill without coaching and repetition; few good ones fail to pass something along.

Growing up in Fort Pierce, Fla., some 90 miles up the coast from Miami, Johnson was lucky. Not only did he have baseball weather year-round, but his father, Charles Sr., was (and remains) a high-school baseball coach. "I had access to a lot of gear. I had access to a lot of baseballs. I had access to a lot of ballplayers and coaches. When I wanted to learn something, there were people on hand to work with me." Because many baseball skills are counter-intuitive, the only way to learn them is by practice. "Repetition, repetition," says Ripken. "You do the same thing over and over until it comes naturally."

Johnson had good teachers early. His dad, a former pitcher, worked overtime with Charles Jr. At Fort Pierce Westwood High, Johnson came even more under his papa's wing. He became a three-time selection for Florida's All-State team and, in 1989, the state's player of the year. At the University of Miami, coach Turtle Thomas "fine-tuned my game every day," Johnson says, creating a 1992 All-American. Coach Joe Breeden, in the Marlins organization, drilled him in blocking, footwork, pitch-calling.

No single coach oversees the catcher -- Johnson picks up occasional pointers from Orioles coaches such as Graham and Elrod Hendricks -- but as often as not, he learns from his own pitchers. "You get a lot from the good ones," he says. He caught current Dodger Kevin Brown, the intimidating right-hander, when both were with Florida, and saw the hard sinker and smoking fastball. He always learns something from Mussina, who often goes for against-the-grain pitch selections. "Mike won't overpower guys," says Johnson. "He'll trick his way through the lineup. He's got command of four pitches, and he can throw any one at any time. You learn from that."

His experience with such players gives him new options to present to younger ones. "You take the knowledge you've learned off of veteran guys," he says, "and give it back to the younger guys" such as Sidney Ponson, the O's flame-throwing righty, and youngsters Calvin Maduro and Gabe Molina. In other words, the cycle continues: He's passing the art along.



It's another resplendent, sun-soaked day at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. The St. Louis Cardinals and their modern-day Paul Bunyan, Mark McGwire, are coming to play at 1, and by 10 the stands begin to fill. A dozen school-age kids, straining at the railing behind the dugout, spot some of their Orioles favorites limbering up on the brilliant green field. "Mr. Belle! Mr. Clark!" they cry, extending pens, scorecards and baseballs toward their heroes. "Mr. DeShields! Please sign!"

They may score an autograph or two -- many O's are obliging -- but their excitement is really for McGwire, the historic home-run king. By 11, the lumbering redhead is in the batting cage, taking some mighty cuts. His first swing cracks a line drive that barely seems to clear the shortstop's head. It keeps rising. It disappears over the left-field wall.

By 3, it's the fifth inning. McGwire already has a long double, the score is 3-3, and the Cards are at bat with two runners on. Ponson, the portly pitcher, must face him again.

Johnson, crouching, sets his target inside and down. Ponson delivers a hard slider. It misses. Ball one.

You remember Johnson's mantra: Even a top hitter will get himself out seven times out of 10. Just move the ball around, give him the best you've got.

He sets up on the outside part of the plate.

Ponson pauses, rears and brings it home. The ball comes in a little high. And with astonishing bat speed, McGwire launches it with a crack.

It clears the right fielder, clears the wall in right, clears 30 rows of bleachers and leaves the stadium for points beyond. The Orioles crowd is buzzing. The game has been transformed. No one is looking at Charles Johnson.

He pounds a fist into his mitt, getting the feel of the leather again. He settles in a crouch. He lowers his center of gravity and sets up another target. Charles Johnson is not at the center of attention. He's at the center of the game.

Pub Date: 04/02/00

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