Catching on fast

The Baltimore Sun

Fort Lauderdale, Fla. -- For an athlete who has grown accustomed to getting noticed once he picks up a bat and takes his swings from either side of the plate, or unleashes another strong and accurate throw from behind it, Orioles catcher Matt Wieters is gaining more attention at spring training for simply being himself. No gear is required.

Watch the way he moves through the clubhouse, interacts with teammates, completes another day's workout. He exudes an air of confidence without being cocky, a fine line that has tripped up many young players over the years. He looks like he belongs, a phrase often repeated by his manager and coaches, without having a sense of entitlement.

And 600 miles away, a proud mother reads all the compliments aimed at the Orioles' first-round draft pick, how his personality is every bit as impressive as the physical tools scouts have chronicled since his high school days, and is thankful that sudden fame and wealth haven't changed him.

"It makes me feel good to hear people say such nice things about him and how he's signing autographs," said Pam Wieters, a high school English teacher in Goose Creek, S.C., who tracks her son's progress over the Internet. "I know that's the kid he really is, and I'm glad that's what he's projecting to others."

Wieters, who will turn 22 in May, eventually will relocate to the minor league complex in Sarasota, Fla. His only at-bats since leaving Georgia Tech and accepting a franchise-record $6 million bonus have come in the Hawaiian Winter League. But the impression he has made will remain long after he's gone.

"It's been a great experience so far," he said. "I'm just trying to be like a gnat on the wall, where you just fly around and listen to what everybody else is saying. And everybody's been great about talking to me, whether it's about hitting or the clubhouse. It's been a fun couple of days."

He's not prepared to fill a spot in the middle of the Orioles' lineup, but the people around him, and those who know him best, are certain he won't be overwhelmed by the responsibility.

"Matt's always been a very deliberate person," Pam Wieters said. "He doesn't do anything until he knows exactly what to do, and that's where his confidence comes from. He steps back and listens first."

And then he dives in headfirst.

Manager Dave Trembley notices each time Wieters moves behind the plate to catch a pitcher's bullpen session. He doesn't wait for a nonroster invitee to pick up a ball. He will set a target for a veteran just as easily as he does for anyone else, without any signs of intimidation.

"To be successful in this game, you've got to be confident," he said. "There's a difference between cocky and confident, and if you're not confident in this game, it's just going to eat you up and spit you out. You've got to have a little swagger. If you can't catch the front-line guys now, how are you going to get better when you have to catch them in the future?"

Players were required yesterday to dress and be on the field by 9:15 a.m. Wieters arrived at the stadium almost two hours earlier. By 8 a.m., he was mashing soft tosses in the indoor batting cage, the thunderous crack of his bat echoing through the parking lot.

"He's doing what he's supposed to do," Trembley said. "He looks like he fits. His body language, the way he carries himself, his demeanor, all those things look like he's been here before, and I think that's a credit to how he was brought up and what kind of person he is."

The sport is in his blood, and most certainly in his genes. Wieters' father, Richard, played baseball at The Citadel and in the Atlanta Braves and Chicago White Sox organizations until 1982.

"He grew up with baseball. He's been around it his entire life," Pam Wieters said. "Matt and his dad have been talking about what's going on in the world of baseball since about the time he started walking."

Wieters grew up idolizing Ken Griffey Jr. and Chipper Jones - an outfielder and a third baseman. So how did such a bright kid wind up wearing the tools of ignorance?

"The foot speed sort of moved me a little bit toward catching, and I've always loved it," he said.

Each morning before heading to the back fields for the first set of drills, Wieters sits at his locker next to Ramon Hernandez, who has become a mentor of sorts to a young player brought into the organization to eventually take his job. They talk about the nuances of catching and the art of hitting, but Hernandez also passes along life lessons that have accrued over his nine seasons in the majors.

"I'm just trying to give him little tips and help him to get it going," Hernandez said. "You have to be a real person. Just go out, do your thing, come off the field and be you. Just because you're doing good, you don't have to tell people you're good. People will tell you that you're good."

They are practically lining up to do it for Wieters.

"I've only seen him in the cage very briefly, but I know our reports - I think the entire baseball industry's reports on him - were that he's got a chance to be exceptional," team president Andy MacPhail said.

"A lot of times," hitting coach Terry Crowley said, "you see a guy who's played three or four years in the minor leagues, and he gets an opportunity to come to the major league camp, and even after having that much experience, they still stand out a little bit. They don't quite belong. It's really remarkable that he's played no baseball other than winter ball in Hawaii and he fits right in.

"He's got some pop, but he's not overly concerned with hitting the ball over the fence, which is good. ... He's mature beyond his years."

It's a personality trait that came in handy over the summer as the deadline approached for him to either sign with the Orioles or re-enter the draft. He agreed to a deal with nine minutes to spare.

"Matt was really calm about it, but we weren't. It was the longest summer of our lives," Pam Wieters said. "He was in Atlanta, and we were in constant contact with him. But that's Matt. He's sensitive, but you never see him lose his composure."

Pam will visit her son next month during her spring break, and she assumes her itinerary will include a flight to Sarasota rather than Fort Lauderdale. She expects to find Matt just the way she left him. And just the way the Orioles want him to remain.

"Matt calls us nightly and it sounds like he loves it down there," she said. "Everybody is so good to him, which makes us very happy. You never know when you're the new kid on the block."

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