Tuesday August 14th 2018

Catching heat: “who’s the sweaty guy in the mask?”

Playing catcher on a hot day is perhaps the greatest weight loss programme yet to be discovered, writes Rob Jones.

Well, it’s yet to be featured by the Sunday supplements as a craze to go alongside eating pureed kale while sniffing bath salts. It’s yet to be promoted as a miracle by the Daily Mail, then debunked a week later.

Rare archive of Rob Jones catching, in 2014

But of course, everyone in the baseball community knows that the hottest place to be when the sun is glaring down is in the mask and armour of the catcher. Perhaps some of my larger-framed colleagues — as catchers are often on the solid side — opted for the position precisely because of its healthy side-effects.

As for me? Since I am made from a handful of sticks tied together, I don’t really get that benefit. But I found my five innings of work at Guildford Millers on Sunday quite hot enough, thanks. My jersey has the tide marks to prove it.

I perversely like the position, even if my 45 year old legs don’t. It keeps you involved on every single pitch of the game. You can’t get much better than that when you show up for one of the handful of baseball games you get to play each summer.

And as a former cricketer and football goalkeeper, I understand both the need for good blocking, and the technique for it.  After seeing one too many volunteers who liked the macho aspects of catching but then hopped up and blocked everything with their shin pads, I started volunteering.

I’d never been an obvious catcher (see previous comparison involving sticks). And I have never had a cannon for an arm. But to be honest, most lower level catchers don’t either. So I figured my good elements outweighed my bad!

If you want to try out as a catcher, Guildford is a good place. Their temporary backstop is pretty close to the plate, and is springy enough that wild pitches and pass balls bounce back to you. That really helps take off the pressure which you get elsewhere – such as Grovehill — where a runner can score from third quite handily on every errant play as the ball goes to the fence.

Naturally, Paul and I were a pretty flawless combination on Sunday, so that issue never came up! (ahem) One runner did have a go at it when a ball in the dirt caromed away, but I had time to fetch it back and tag him out.

Conner Brown of Herts and GB, an actual expert catcher

Catching is one of the jobs on the diamond which is quite different between Single-A and the top levels, whereas many others are actually quite comparable.

The pitcher for example — if he’s sharp, he’s dominant. Same for MLB and A-league. The shortstop. A close play on a grounder is close at both levels, it’s just that everyone at A-league will have moved a bit slower!

Whereas the Single-A catcher, lacking that cannon arm, can do little to control the running game. That’s a vital job for the Major League guys, but down in our basement level everyone knows that the runner is going to steal and you probably can’t stop him.

Similarly, top guys are calling the pitch sequences artfully. Yes, we do that in Single-A, but unless the pitcher has a full repertoire of reliable pitches that’s far less important. You just want it in the strike zone!

Similarly, the level of scouting reports and expertise on each batter is far less. You can spot well enough who are the really big hitters, but any batter can surprise you at this level.

Honestly, I do think we did a decent job as a battery at Guildford. The Raptors pitchers this year and in recent memory are more accurate than we have sometimes had in the past. So we are able to take our thinking to the next level.

Harvey Blenkarne in action

I should of course add that I caught only five innings, with one of our new recruits Harvey taking over for the final three innings. Younger, stronger, better legs!

It was his first appearance as a catcher, though he has clearly been studying. Harvey did a really solid job, including calling pitches, and has good fundamentals to develop his blocking.

He had to learn the hard way on both conceding an interference call, and on giving up a run with an un unnecessary throw when there were runners on first and third. But the hard way is the best way to learn, and when you’re being told a thousand things, those ones will sink in the quickest.

Physically, I feel that I survived this one fairly well. The legs do ache, but not in the way they sometimes have on a Monday when I can barely move.

On Monday, my left thumb felt bruised. On Tuesday, it is tingly and numb. Although I fared much better than usual by borrowing Paul’s broken-in catching mitt, I still banged my thumb three times when taking a pitch.

Actually, the catching fraternity out there might be able to help me with this.

I have a terrible habit of receiving the ball and banging my thumb in a direction it doesn’t want to go. It really bloody hurts, and takes days to clear.

Are there any great tips on how to avoid this? Tricks? Things to “visualise”? If any of you say, “visualise yourself being a less bad catcher”, I might sulk.

I might not. I might be so overwhelmed with relief that we finally got to play baseball after weeks of interruptions, that I won’t care.

It’s been disappointing to have two games forfeited to us, as wins mean little to us if we don’t get the chance to play to earn them! The game at Guildford was the closest of the three we have managed in 2018. Here’s hoping for another close one next time, with us coming out on top. And my thumb feeling much healthier.

Our recruitment campaign ahead of the new season continues and in fact new youth (4 to 16) and adult players (14 and over) can join at any point during the year. The club welcomes boys and girls, men and women, from complete beginners to elite players. Click here for more details or contact us.