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Garagiola says what's right about baseball

Broadcaster and former major leaguer Joe Garagiola  offers insights into what's right about baseball.

Joe Garagiola, a former major league catcher, is a venerable television commentator and humorist. Released just in time for the start of the baseball season, his book, "Just Play Ball," is said to be an "insightful look at what's right with America's pastime." Hall of Famer and former N.Y. Yankees manager and player Yogi Berra wrote a forward for the book. Berra also happens to be a childhood friend of Garagiola. Garagiola was invited to talk about his book on TODAY. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 2.


Even Charlie Brown's Catcher Would Rather Play the Piano

Being a catcher is like being a fire hydrant at a dog show. If a catcher were asked to march in a parade they'd make him march behind the elephants. He'd have the same lousy view the whole parade and get dumped on at the same time. Think of it that way and it's easy to understand that even Charlie Brown's catcher would rather play the piano.

When you stop to think about it, the name for the position is an unfinished sentence. Catcher of what? Stares from pitchers? Second guessing from the manager? Catchers can't complain about the name, though, because it is an upgrade. Look in The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary and you’ll learn that the catcher, per 1845 Knickerbocker rules, was called the "behind." Mention that to a pitcher today and he might say something like, "You got that right, he is a behind, a real dumb ass."

Curt Schilling agreed: "Great name. Should have kept it." It's hard to argue with a guy who has a computer record of every hitter he ever faced, but that was not the argument he used that left me speechless.

"How would you like to have the catcher you're working with come out to the mound and tell you he's not sure if you're using the second sign or adding the first two signs? He's supposed to be calling pitches from the game plan we talked about in the meeting, and he's not sure what fingers to flash. Now, is he a behind or not?"

I have to agree with Schilling. But being behind the plate is not exactly like being the Grand Marshal at the Rose Parade, either. The catcher is a grunt, a real ground hog. The uniform of a catcher should be a construction hard hat or a coal miner’s hat with a lamp on it. Some pitchers make you a neighbor to the grub worms in front of home plate. You live in the dirt. After the game you really appreciate a shower. In fact, a long trip on a raft would be great. Think of it as the worst job you can get, maybe like a septic tank cleaner. You take just as much of the septic tank product except that you don’t see or smell it.

All summer you get foul tips off your fingernails, your Adam’s apple, your legs, and your feet. Your body feels like a one-wall handball court. Even when the foul balls miss you, there's always the chance that your pitcher might miss the signal and throw a fastball when you're expecting a curve. There’s an old joke about a catcher walking into a saloon and ordering four beers by holding up his index finger and little finger. The inference is that the other two fingers are somewhere around home plate because the pitcher missed the catcher’s signal.

One of my favorite writers, the late Jim Murray, pegged it right: "The catcher is the Sultan of Squat. Not even Cinderella was on her knees as much as a big league catcher. It is the submarine job of baseball.”

As a catcher, you can study all the hitters and remember how to pitch to all of them. You can set up the hitter perfectly, block the plate, and make the tag for a crucial out. You can keep a couple of fifty-five-foot curveballs from bounding past you and make sure the runner stays at third base. Now your team wins the game, and nine out of ten times all you hear about is how the pitcher had command of all his pitches. In the post-game interview the pitcher might give credit to the catcher with the magnanimous phrase, “I didn’t shake him off one time.” I remember a couple of my not-so-favorite pitchers saying that. All I could think of was that even from the bench I could tell they didn’t shake off the catcher because I didn’t hear a rattle.

Catching is the only position that can warrant a full-blown strategy meeting after a key hit. The catcher is blamed for giving up a run, and he hasn’t even touched the ball.

After a home run or a key hit, here's how it went when I played:

Manager: "What did he hit?"

Catcher: "Fastball."

Manager: "How the hell can you give him a fastball when all we talked about in the meeting was that we were going to show him the fastball and make him hit the breaking ball? How dumb can you get?"

Northland Publishing

Now, depending on the manager, this can go on for two minutes or two days or every time he sees you from then on. Rarely does the catcher get a chance to tell the manager, "We were trying to show him the fastball but he hit it." You also learned very early in your career that the worst way to begin a sentence after a big hit is, “I thought.” That’s as far as you get.

I’m not sure that happens much today because when I see a manager’s reaction after a key hit, I put the binoculars on him as soon as the third out is made. Seldom do I see contact between the catcher and the manager. I guess the manager knows that in some cases, today’s catcher could buy the team and fire him. I also feel a catcher’s agent figures into the mix. Neither situation was around when I was playing.

Crossing up a catcher is not uncommon, but you better not go out and start screaming at the pitcher or you will find that he will have a personal, private catcher for his next start, and it won't be you. Even when a rookie pitcher crosses you up the catcher has to go into his tender loving care mode. The great Hall of Fame catcher Bill Dickey had the best method to handle the situation. In his best Southern drawl he told this story:

I got crossed up when I called for a curve and got a fastball and that is the worst kind of cross up. I got this rookie pitcher out there and I know he can't ask me out of the lineup if I get on him, but I didn't want him to be upset for the rest of the game, so I walked out to the mound real calm. ‘Listen, I told him, don't be nervous out here ‘cuz it's the same as pitching in college except here in the big leagues the catchers are dumber. See, they have to know what's coming.'

When a catcher gets an industrial strength hit from a foul ball a couple of scenarios may unfold. If he's hit hard enough and goes to his knees there's a chance the trainer will come out and check on him. It’s always, “How do you feel? Does it hurt?” Most of the time, if you get any sympathy, you get it from some umpires. Notice I said some umpires because often the umpire will check the ball first. I don’t know why but maybe once he had to put an injured ball into the game.

Umpires try to help catchers and it’s an unwritten reciprocal agreement. The routine goes something like this: catcher gets hit by a foul tip on the arm. Down he goes. Everybody in the park, fans, players in the dugout, players on the field, ushers and vendors are all watching the catcher. The overall feeling is that it hit him on the arm and since his arm’s not lying on home plate it must still be attached to his body. So, he can’t be too badly hurt. But here comes the umpire to the rescue. If you're on good terms he might ask you how you’re doing as he passes you to get to the plate. This is his act of mercy and for this he should get the Humanitarian of the Year Award. He dusts off home plate to give you enough time to see if your arm is really still attached.

The degree of the umpire’s compassion depends on where you're hit. I once got a foul tip in a very vulnerable area. Down I went and was almost kicked out of the game. The umpire leaned over and asked, “You all right? Where did it hit you?”

“Do I look like I’m all right?” I said. "You saw where it hit me. The least you can do is rub it.”

If you're really lucky the opposing catcher will come up to bat and then you might get some real sympathy. Outside of your immediate family only another catcher knows what you're going through.

Unless you can swing a big bat ala Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Carlton Fisk, or Mike Piazza, you're a grunt. What other position gets the benefit, if you want to call it that, of having a special description. Many think the ultimate compliment is to be described as a great handler of pitchers. Show me a catcher who's described that way and I can probably show you a batting average under .230. A former catcher had it right when he said, "The best handler of pitchers is the catcher who drives in the winning run.”

Excerpted from “Just Play Ball" by Joe Garagiola. Copyright © 2007 Joe Garagiola. All rights reserved. Published by Northland Publishing. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.