Behind The Mask: Catchers, Goalies Do Dirty Work

On Diamonds, Backstops Truly In The Rough

April 21, 1991|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,Staff writer

When Arundel hurler Jeff Beard tossed a one-hit, 4-0 victory againstPoly earlier this year, catcher Dusty Oldfather called every pitch -- except one.

"The one hit they got, Jeff shook me off and threw afastball instead of a curve, and the guy got a hit down the line," said Oldfather. "He hasn't shaken me off since."

One publication selected Beard as its Player of the Week, but as Oldfather pointed out, "a catcher doesn't get recognition for callingthe pitches."

"You just have to say 'that's the way it goes' a lot of times," said Oldfather, who is batting over .400 with 20 hits, 15 RBI and a homer. "It's a thankless position because a lot of peoplejust don't know what goes on back there."

Stacey Grokas, a seniorat Chesapeake, has caught for softball hurler Amy Jakubowski (3-1, 0.50 ERA) for four years. Called "flawless behind the plate" by her coach, Dennis Thiele, Grokas bats .500 and also has played errorless ball at first and third base.

"(Northeast's) Kristy Zulka, (North County's) Karen Hay, (Archbishop Spalding's) Kim Sheridan. . . . I've caught for all the best pitchers at one time or another (in summer leagues)," said Grokas. "A pitcher has to have a catcher they're confident in. And if it wasn't for us catchers, some of the pitchers wouldn't be what they are."

Welcome to the world of the county's baseballand softball catchers. On the diamonds, these folks are truly in therough.

They exist -- behind their masks and armored nearly from head to toe -- in a world of arm bruises, busted fingers and aching limbs from being on the receiving end of high-velocity pitches.

"It takes a rugged player to be a catcher," said Arundel baseball coach Bernie Walter. "You're going to get hit by balls, get bumps and bruises and your legs are going to get tired."

The county's backstops take pride in their accomplishments.

"I call all of the pitches, and(Mandy Albrecht) basically trusts me and throws what I call," said Glen Burnie junior Lee Mallonee, who has battled through a broken finger, a knee operation and recently a bad back that forced her to miss the Gophers' recent upset of defending Class 2A champion Northeast.

Although she's missed three of eight games, Mallonee, an honor student, hits .364, has thrown out four of six runners and has just one error.

"Lee's got a gun for an arm and a fiery attitude," said GlenBurnie coach Bob Broccolino. "She just goes all out -- diving into the bases and from the catcher's box after balls. She's got an 'I'm damned if I'm going to lose attitude.' "

Mallonee said, "My injurieshave held me up some, but I don't like to wimp out. It's no fun sitting on the bench. I can deal with the pain. I'd rather play with the pain."

Pain is something Anne Arundel Community College's Rick Stang can write a book on.

Four years after he began playing catcher as an 8-year-old in the Havenwood Little League, Stang suffered cracked ribs when he took the full force of a batter's wild swing. Since then, Stang, 20, has had a knee operation that he attributes to the constant knee-bending stress of his position.

Yet the gritty Northeast graduate dismisses the injuries as occupational hazards.

"I usually come home from practice with thumb jams and maybe a bruise or two from blocking pitches," said Stang, an All-County player in 1989.

He recently took a hard shot from Rick Forney, the Pioneers' hardest hurler. "He caught me with a fastball when I thought it was going to be a curve. It knocked the wind out of me and I thought I was dead," Stang said.

In last year's Region XX championship game with Allegany, Stang watched a base hit sail into left field and then watched the left fielder throw it to third base. From there, Stang's world suddenly went black. He came to with a crowd of people standing over him and had to be carried off the field.

"Supposedly, the ball was thrown to me, and I got the guy out. But I don't remember it because the guy ran me over, and I was knocked out cold," said Stang, a sturdy5-foot-11, 195-pounder. "I tore every ligament in my left ankle and ended up with an ice-pack on it in the dugout. I watched that same guy hit a solo homer and they won, 2-1, in extra innings."

Through it all, a catcher must maintain the presence of mind to keep the pitcher alert and on his or her game.

"He's gotta be smart back there,"said Old Mill baseball coach Mel Montgomery. "In the Little Leagues,you could always put the most inexperienced kid back there and get away with it. But good teams start with good defense up the middle, and that starts with an intelligent catcher. It's probably the most skilled position you have on the field."

Walter added, "There are three things a catcher should have. Arm strength is a paramount tool, and he must have good hands to receive the ball well. The third thing is he's got to learn how to call game situations. He's got to set up the batters for the pitchers -- and that's an art."

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