Catching for Jays leaves Borders black and blue

October 17, 1993|By Mark Whicker | Mark Whicker,Orange County Register

TORONTO -- Pat Borders plays with pain.

Three of them, actually.

Pain Guzman, Pain Ward and Pain Stewart.

They throw grenades into the dirt. Borders has to smother them, lest they explode.

It can be a pain in the . . .

"Everywhere," Borders said.

Catching Toronto's pitchers often is more difficult than hitting them. They threw 83 wild pitches. But Borders had just six passed balls.

Last night, with Juan Guzman pitching, he took a deep breath and tried it again, in Game 1 of the World Series.

His job would only be tougher if they put a red light and a net behind him. And maybe not even then. Most goalies don't live in fear of their teammates.

Borders is the only catcher in baseball who puts on his mask, chest protector and shinguards, and is stopped by fearful teammates who yell, "Don't go out there like that!"

"He's the best at blocking balls that I've ever pitched to," Dave Stewart said. "And I've pitched to Mike Scioscia, Steve Yeager, Jim Sundberg and Mickey Tettleton.

"I think he loves punishment. He must jump in front of cars during the off-season. Actually, it's double punishment because guys are always fouling balls off, against our pitchers. But he's tough."

A year ago, Borders was the Most Valuable Player in the World Series. He hit .450 with three doubles, a homer and three RBI.

Thrill of a lifetime, right? When asked about it Friday, he stared into space and said, "It's like I wasn't even there." Catching a league-high 134 games -- especially when it feels like you're on the wrong end of a bowling alley -- will have that effect.

"Guzman just throws so hard, and the ball explodes when it gets into the dirt," he said. "Stew's forkball sort of knuckles, and it's hard to pick up. Duane Ward -- it's coming hard and every which way.

"It's my job. The one that hurts the most is the ball that bounces up and into your right shoulder, because you don't have protection there. You have to take some pride in it, because it's harder than people think."

Borders wouldn't dare complain, because he volunteered for this. Sitting back home in Lake Wales, Fla., during the winter of 1985-86, Borders could almost hear the factory whistle tweeting his name.

"I was in A ball, a first baseman," he said. "I had just 10 home runs and I was 22 years old. That's old to be on that level. And I was behind Fred McGriff and Cecil Fielder in the organization.

"I had never expected to play big-league baseball anyway. But now I was pretty close to getting released. I thought I might as well try catching. I didn't have anything to lose."

Borders was already second-guessing himself for turning down that quarterbacking scholarship at Mississippi State. The Blue Jays had drafted him sixth, for his bat. He had slow hands at third base and, as it turned out, not much power.

So Borders sought out ex-major-league catcher Doug Camilli, in Winter Haven and got some pointers. In his first spring training game, he threw out a base stealer at third.

"I'm thinking this might not be too bad," he said.

In his first regular-season game in the South Atlantic League, a foul ball broke his throat protector and bruised his Adam's apple. A later pitch cost him his thumbnail.

"I'm thinking, what have I got myself into?" Borders said.

And after one season of catching, Borders found himself looking for the elevator where he once used the stairs.

"It cut down on whatever speed I had," he said. "But the most noticeable thing was in basketball.

"I used to fool around and throw down two-handed dunks, whirl around and do a 360, throw the ball against the board and slam it. After I started catching, I could just dunk and that was it.

"I'd been an infielder, where you just catch the ball with your

hands. That's the worst preparation for being a catcher. After that first season, I went to the Instructional League and they just threw balls at me in the dirt, every day. Lot of fun. But it's the only way you can learn."

Sure enough, Borders found himself on the moving sidewalk to the big leagues. He played 56 games with the Blue Jays in 1988, 94 in 1989, and at least 105 every year since.

Rickey Henderson walked by.

"Hey, Pat, I rated you even [with Phils catcher Darren Daulton] today," Henderson said. "They asked me, so I gave you a break and called it even."

"I feel good now," Borders replied.

Borders, 30, did reach career highs in doubles (30) and RBI (55) this year. He did not plan to.

"I sure don't set offensive goals," he said. "I just try to be consistent. My teammates knew I wasn't going to hit 30 home runs just because I had a big World Series. My main responsibility is behind the plate."

"Do you feel like you're getting into the groove with the bat, like last year?" someone asked him.

"Don't even start," Borders said, rolling his eyes at the thought of the pressure. And the question surely was unfair. If Borders can't be allowed to relax with a bat in his hand, when can he?

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