Consider the catcher. Bulky, thought-burdened, unclean, he retrieves his cap and mask from the ground (where he has flung them, moments ago, in mid-crisis) and moves slowly again to his workplace. He whacks the cap against his leg, producing a puff of dust, and settles it in place . . . Armored, he sinks into his squat, punches his mitt, and becomes wary, balanced, and ominous; his bare right hand rests casually on his thigh while he regards . . . the field and deployed fielders, the batter, the base runner, his pitcher, and the state of the world, which he now, for a waiting instant, holds in sway. – Roger Angell, “In the Fire,” The New Yorker, March 12, 1984.
There is no position in baseball more difficult, more demanding, that requires such mental toughness, intelligence, and agility, or that is as physically punishing as that of catcher. Catchers must squat and kneel for nine tortuous innings, take foul balls off their facemask and pitches in the dirt off their groin, and endure pain and bruises to all parts of their body. They must survive long, hot summers of sweltering heat, when the sweat and dirt permanently embeds into their skin, while catching hand-numbing fastballs at 95 miles-per-hour and pitches that change directions at the last moment, and that slide and curve, sink and sail.
The catcher is also the defensive leader, the glue that holds together nine disparate, individualized parts. He is the captain, the quarterback, a second pitching coach, part-time psychologist and full-time motivator. He must know by memory the strengths and weaknesses of every batter that steps to the plate; his past tendencies, the holes in his swing, how he fares against the pitcher on the mound. Stationed behind home plate, he is the only player who faces the diamond and views the entire field of play. In calling the pitches, he must consider on each pitch and for each count the positioning of the fielders, for a slider down-and-away when the infielders anticipate the hitter to pull may result in a cheap ground ball single to the opposite field. What should have been an out, perhaps even a double play, instead turns into a hit, a run, and maybe a loss.
I was a catcher for two games once, in Little League, when I was in the fifth grade. Even then, when the game is played in its most innocent and simple forms, everything is different from behind the plate. For a brief interlude I viewed the world through the narrow openings of a metal mask strapped to my head. I was surrounded by life-threatening hazards – careless batters swinging a large wooden club inches from my skull and wildly undisciplined pitchers throwing a hard, round ball at my forehead. Between innings I unhooked my gear, anticipating my turn at bat, only to be stranded in the on-deck circle when the third out arrived. I then quickly re-strapped my shin guards and chest protector, grabbed my facemask, and again squatted behind home plate to receive the pitcher’s warm-up tosses in preparation for another inning of mental and physical combat. I repeated this drill for six innings, after which I went home and collapsed into the comfortable embrace of my living room couch, exhausted and spent.
It is partly for this reason that I appreciate the skill and toughness required of catchers. “Everything about catching . . . is harder than it looks,” wrote Roger Angell in an essay first published in The New Yorker in 1984 and re-printed in The Summer Game (Ballantine Books, 1988). “The catcher has more equipment and more attributes than players at the other positions. He must be large, brave, intelligent, alert, stolid, foresighted, resilient, fatherly, quick, efficient, intuitive, and impregnable.” Catching is the most difficult position in a demanding sport, and no one does it better at the major league level than Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals.
|Molina in pre-game walk from bullpen, Philadelphia, June 19, 2015|
Molina is the best defensive catcher in all of baseball, and maybe the best catcher to have ever played the game. I say this not as a Cardinals fan – okay, maybe a little as a Cardinals fan – but really, I think if you asked most modern-day ballplayers who know the game of baseball, they would tell you the same thing. Adam Wainwright, one of the game’s best pitchers who is out this season with an Achilles injury, suggested on a Cardinals television broadcast earlier this year that, when he is old and retired, he will tell stories to his grandchildren about how he once pitched to the “greatest catcher in the history of the game.”
|Jose, Bengie, and Yadi Molina|
“Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel, not just to be as good as someone else but to be better than someone else,” said baseball great Ted Williams. “This is the nature of man and the name of the game.” Molina grew up in a tiny, two bedroom house in Vega Alta, Puerto Rico, a town of less than 40,000 people. His father, Benjamin Molina, was a tools technician who worked ten hours a day at the local Westinghouse factory. The Molina family was close knit, devoutly Catholic, and loved the game of baseball.
In his younger days, Benjamin played second base for a highly skilled amateur team in Puerto Rico, becoming the all-time hits leader in the Doble-A Beísbol league. A devoted father, he shared with his three sons a love of the game. Every evening after work, Mr. Molina took the boys across the street to Jesús (Mambe) Rivera Park, a rundown, knotty ball field where horses left hoof marks in the outfield, the dirt was like beach sand, and a pointy chain link backstop sat eight feet from home plate. It was here the Molina boys learned to play the game the right way. How to hit, block balls in the dirt, field and throw, and most importantly, to understand the game and what every situation called for. Mr. Molina taught his sons the fundamentals of baseball, the importance of hard work and preparation, and the need to believe in themselves.
By the time Yadi was eleven years old, older brothers Bengie and Jose were drafted into the major leagues, both as catchers. With news clippings of their big league accomplishments plastered on his bedroom wall, Molina strove to become even better, smarter, and more accomplished than his brothers. He continued to practice with his dad and, by the time he was sixteen, Yadi was catching in the Puerto Rican amateur leagues for pitchers twice his age. As good as his brothers were – and Bengie and Jose were both star quality catchers – they told anyone who would listen that their younger brother was even better.
Drafted by the Cardinals at the age of 17, Molina was called up to the majors in 2004 as a 21 year-old backup to Mike Matheny, a four-time recipient of the Gold Glove Award and a player Molina would emulate and learn from. One day, after watching Molina in fielding drills, handling balls in the dirt and throwing strike after strike to second base, Matheny went home to his wife and said, “I just saw the kid that’s going to steal my job.” Matheny was traded to the Giants at the end of the 2004 season.
Molina quickly won a reputation for possessing one of the strongest and most accurate throwing arms of any major league catcher. Now in his twelfth major league season, Molina has thrown out 45% of all would be base stealers and picked off 52 base runners from first base. Even more impressively, for most of the past decade, opposing teams have simply shut down their running game against the Cardinals out of respect for Molina’s arm and quick release. In 2012, a Sports Illustrated poll of 306 players found that Molina was the "toughest catcher to run on."
Molina is also known for his meticulous pre-game preparation, for working closely with his pitchers to develop a game plan hours before each game. And Molina’s agility behind the plate, his quick glove and soft hands, allow pitchers to throw with confidence. "You don't ever have to worry about bouncing a ball to Yadier," Wainwright has told many young pitchers. Go ahead and make your pitch, he says, because "Yadi's going to catch whatever you throw."
To the average fan, the catcher’s work behind the plate is mostly invisible. The “best” catchers are those who can hit – Buster Posey of the Giants or Joe Mauer of the Twins. But few fans accurately discern from the stands how well a catcher handles a pitching staff or calls a game. In All-Star balloting and Hall of Fame inductions, it is what a catcher does as a hitter, his batting average, home runs and runs batted in, which matters most.
Tony LaRussa, who managed the Cardinals for the first several years of Molina’s major league career, said that he simply did not care whether Molina batted .100 or .300, because his glove, throwing arm, and ability to handle the pitchers made him the most valuable player on the team. In 2005, Molina’s first full season as catcher for the Cardinals, he batted a mediocre .256. But he threw out 64% of attempted base stealers and the Cardinals won 100 games. The next season, Molina batted .216 with a .274 on-base-percentage, numbers that usually send players packing. The Cardinals won the World Series.
That his hitting and offensive skills have steadily improved – he has hit over .300 in four of the last seven seasons and improved his career batting average to .284 -- and is now a feared hitter as much as a respected defensive catcher, has only made him that much more valuable. But Yadi’s seven consecutive Gold Gloves, awarded annually to the best defenders at each position, are what best defines him.
|Molina at bat vs. Phillies, Citizens Bank Park, June 19, 2015|
Perhaps what most sets Molina apart from the competition is the manner in which he handles and manages a pitching staff. Cardinal pitchers revere Molina. And many credit Molina for helping the young and talented Carlos Martinez transition from an immature, easily flustered rookie to a disciplined pitcher with a purpose. Molina has taken Martinez under his wing and developed him into one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. When Martinez loses focus and his pitches begin to sail, Molina knows when to approach the mound and what to say. He removes his head gear and looks Martinez directly in the eye, admonishing him to bear down, concentrate, and maintain his composure. When Molina finally settles behind the plate, their “talk” has inevitably restored Martinez’s focus. The world settles quietly into place.
|Molina and Carlos Martinez in dialogue|
Molina is a joy to watch, a great catcher and a true professional. But what I most love about Molina is his passion for the game, the loyalty and respect he commands from his teammates, the love and pride he has for his brothers, and the occasional smiles and boy-like enthusiasms he displays in the dugout and on the field.
Yadi was devastated in 2008 by the sudden loss of his father, who died of a heart attack while tending to a baseball field in Rivera Park. Yadi flew home and missed a week of play when it happened. But he and his brothers, all of whom were close with their father, knew their dad wanted them to play on, to always give their best, to be the best catchers, ballplayers, teammates, and human beings they could be. Soon, Yadi was back on the field, doing what he and his father loved best. Ever since, Yadi has worn a gold necklace with a baseball glove on it, a gift from his dad that reminds him every day of his father’s continued support and presence.
I have watched a lot of baseball in my lifetime. It is a game that lies within my soul, that allows me to remain young and passionate and, at times, insanely irrational. To feel a part of something bigger than me, to identify with a team, experience its ups and downs, exhilarations and disappointments, and the peaks and valleys of each long, drawn-out season. Some may think that I waste a lot of time on what is, after all, only a game. I cannot really argue with the logic. But what keeps me coming back night after night, what compels me to encounter the vicissitudes of the season, are the players themselves, the men who live out the dreams of my childhood, pay tribute to the memories of little league and high school ball, of school yard sandlot games and back yard whiffle ball. These are remembrances that drift with the passing of time ever so distantly. Yadi exudes an enthusiasm for baseball that reminds me of how I felt when I was twelve years old.
Yadier Molina is not a flashy player, or a glamorous one, but he is that once-in-a-lifetime player whose combination of skills and instincts are matched by a rare few. If I am lucky, Molina will remain a Cardinal for the remainder of his playing days, and I will continue to watch him on a nightly basis, guiding his pitchers through the heat of battle, throwing out base runners, blocking balls in the dirt, and leading his team to victory for years to come. And one day I will boast to a young baseball fan about when I once saw play the greatest catcher of all time. That will be something.
|Molina behind the plate at Citizens Bank Park, June 19, 2015|