Sunday, July 27, 2003

Welcome to the world of hurt

Spotlight: Want to be a catcher? You had better be tough

By Kevin Kelly
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Adobe Acrobat file (500k) shows modern gear, common injury sites, and comments from Reds catchers past and present.
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Johnny Bench is standing beside the teeming batting cage. Gripped in his weathered hands as he eyes batting practice before a recent game at Great American Ball Park is a pristine Louisville Slugger.

"Go out and get hit by a car every four or five days," Bench suggests. "Or, if you want to stand there, let me hit you with this bat."

So what's it like to be a catcher in the major leagues?

There's your answer: a car wreck, a beating of the worst degree.

Above all, though, catching seems to be an acquired taste.

"Once you get behind the plate and know how much control you can have, you're willing to endure the foul tips," said Bench, who through his 10 Gold Gloves and two MVP Awards during a Hall of Fame career with the Reds is widely considered the best catcher ever. "You don't even notice the pain after a while."

Pain is part of being a catcher.

It's how one deals with the foul tips, the 95 mph wild pitches in the dirt and collisions that separate the weak from the strong and ultimately define the successful.

"I think you have to be tough because of all the risks you're taking injury-wise," Reds catcher Jason LaRue said. "Collisions at home plate. Foul balls. You're constantly getting hit.

"You can't be timid at all. If you are, you don't belong there."

Reds manager Bob Boone caught more than 2,200 games during a 19-season career that included four All-Star appearances and seven Gold Gloves.

Jason LaRue says, "You can't be timid at all. If you are, you don't belong there."
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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He credits a rigorous training program for the good health he continues to enjoy today.

"My workouts were a lot harder than catching games," Boone said. "But you were constantly beat up.

"Every time you see a guy block that ball in the dirt, you don't think anything of it. But if it hit any meat, you've got a bruise and feel it for a week. I didn't feel right unless I was hurting."

The trick is to limit the opportunities for injury, to develop a knack for not getting hurt and a routine for prevention.

"I would describe it as Walter Payton running through the line," Boone said. "The linebacker could have a bead on him, but he never got a direct shot. (Payton) just moved. He had the ability to move just enough where nothing breaks."

Inevitably something does break. Or bruise. Or bleed.

Boone played three seasons with torn cartilage in one knee.

LaRue has missed time with a bruised calf suffered in a home plate collision, while Reds back-up catcher Kelly Stinnett has endured elbow and knee surgeries and a bruised quadriceps from a collision with Ryan Klesko.

"We're probably just used to it more," Stinnett said. "We know what we're in for. That's why we get paid."

Though he was placed on the disabled list just once, Bench was a battle-worn player by the end of his career.

Broken fingers. Broken bones in his feet. Surgery on his collarbone and shoulder.

"The warranty ran out on the parts," Bench said. "You're going to have your arthritis. You're going to have the pain in the ankles, the knees, the hips, the shoulders, and hands.

"You're bound to have encountered a foul ball, a broken finger, a broken thumb, something. And by the time you finally got over it, the next thing you know you get another foul tip."



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