“All right, so who are my catchers? Joe, I know I’ve got you.”
Silence. No one raises their hand, despite two others having been assigned to the team with the thought that they are catchers.
“I’d like to catch a little.”
So, at the end of the first day, I’ve caught nearly as many innings in one game as I caught last year. I think I caught nine innings last year – never more than three in a day. Today, I caught 8 innings. The last four in both games. It was awesome.
So, I’m down at Ponce de Leon Spring Training, playing at historic Terry Park Sports Complex down here in Fort Myers. At the end of January every year, the Ponce de Leon league from the Washington DC area hosts a balanced tournament and training week. Six professional coaches to coach the 6 teams (including Darrin Garner, who is taking a week away from pre-training with the Arizona Diamondbacks to coach my team). Steve Liddle (former bench coach with the Twins and Tigers) runs the camp for us. They divide all the players into relatively equal teams (with provisions for who wants to play together) and we play 8 games over 5 days (2 Monday, Tuesday and Thursday). There are trainers in the clubhouse to handle preventative care and injuries. Everyone gets a locker and can have the clubbie do their laundry. It’s a far different experience from Roy Hobbs or other tournaments, and also far different from fantasy camps. It’s all about playing baseball – learning a little and playing even games – rather than focusing on retired ballplayers or only on winning.
I thought I was coming in here to be a utility player – catch a few, pitch a few and play everywhere in the field. When it was revealed that two of the guys that the league thinks are catchers only did so because their teams needed it, I was both scared and excited. I’d been doing a hundred or more weighted while walking my dog every morning and trying to find a moment to do additional reps (without weight) all day to get over 200 squats. That preparation has paid off.
I picked up a Catcher’s Notebook from Always Grind to use and evaluate whether I can have my youth catchers use them when I coach. So, once I settled with Joe Bauer that we’d split the innings, I went to each of our 4 pitchers and took notes on their pitching repertoire and preferences. I had thought I’d try something like this when I was going to catch in a tournament for a team last fall (canceled by the hurricane down here) but having the structure of the notebook is much better. I’m still a newby here and wouldn’t have guessed what to be thinking. After a day, I’m pretty sure that it will also be a good thing for 12-year-olds to do. They may not have a grasp of all the nuances, but it gets them thinking critically about how the game went, how they performed well and what they need to work on.
The first game of the day was a little brutal. We ended up giving up 3 runs in four different innings (3 run limit in all but the final inning) but I got to work with three of our four pitchers. Glenn Strachan is a tournament pitcher that was allocated to our roster to give us an ace. He locates his pitches extremely well and gets the hitters to hit it where we want it. Being that we’re all old men, that sometimes still doesn’t result in an out. Bill Murray (no, not that one!) came in and pitched a couple of innings and some of his pitches are honestly unhittable. That should work out well this week as long as he’s around the strike zone. Fellow Michigan State alum and Washington Nationals grounds crew member, Fred Jaffke, finished the game out. With a final score in the morning game of 12-4, we were hanging our heads a little.
In the second game, Jerry Spitz started the game with Joe behind the plate. After 3 innings, Glenn and I cam in as a battery. We all managed to keep the game close and when we held them scoreless in the top of the 7th (we’re playing 7 inning games), we eked out a 1-run victory to set us even at 1-1. There was far more timely hitting in this game and, in particular, Sonny Hill banged a hard line drive up the middle that brought in 3 runs while the centerfielder chased it down
I had a reasonably good day at the plate, going 1 for 2 in the first game with one of the 4 RBIs and 1 for 3 in the second game with one RBI. Behind the dish, my blocking was very good and my receiving was good enough. I did have two runners steal – one when I bobbled the pitch and another when my throw was a little off-line. The hard throws in the warmup when “coming down” should help deter much thievery. I did field a few balls near home that resulted in outs and ran down a runner who tried to steal home on a walk. I’m very happy with how I played behind the dish.
We feel like we escaped by getting a split on Monday, and will come back hard on Tuesday to make our drive for the championship.