Choosy pitchers like Berryhill at catcher AMERICAN LEAGUE

June 04, 1994|By Boston Globe

BOSTON -- As in horse racing, the victory does not always go to the swift. When he signed, Damon Berryhill trailed the field in the catching derby. Now he's the leader of the Boston Red Sox clubhouse.

There's a simple reason -- manager Butch Hobson has determined that Berryhill, who a year ago was catching for the Atlanta Braves, is the best man for the job. Dave Valle, a high-priced free agent, is the odd man out.

Berryhill has made the most of his opportunity while answering the two major questions the Red Sox faced all winter: (1) Could they find a bat to replace the anemic .181 average of Tony Pena? (2) Could the man they chose quickly earn the same respect and admiration Pena had earned while becoming one of the most popular catchers in Red Sox history?

After getting his chance to play because of an injury to Valle, Berryhill has come on and given Fenway Park fans a positive answer to both questions.

"Right now," said Hobson, "Berryhill is swinging the bat very, very well. And he's been a pleasant person to have around here. He plays hard, he works hard and he takes charge. I like him a lot."

The knock on Berryhill has been his throwing (last year he threw out only 29 percent of base stealers), but "he should get better the more he plays," said Hobson.

It was expected that Valle would be the man hearing those accolades when he was signed amid much fanfare last December.

Although he owned a .235 lifetime average, he'd handled some of the best young arms in baseball as Seattle's No. 1 catcher the past four seasons.

Instead, pitchers and coaches have been singing Berryhill's praises since he's gotten a chance to play. Notably, Roger Clemens and Danny Darwin have expressed a preference for having him behind the plate.

That's not an uncommon sentiment. On Atlanta's megatalented staff, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, Greg Maddux and a few others wanted Berryhill over Greg Olson.

The support Berryhill gets from the Red Sox staff is reminiscent of that accorded Pena, now a Cleveland Indian. Clemens was among the first to praise Berryhill, adding that he has confidence in a man who has worked with top pitchers in Atlanta.

"We've been lucky," said Clemens. "We had two veteran guys, and when Valle got hurt, Berryhill was able to slide in there. That's when we started clicking. Damon has called some real good pitches."

The Red Sox signed Berryhill to a minor-league contract Feb. 1, and he was listed third on most depth charts behind Valle and John Flaherty, who eventually was traded to Detroit

for Rich Rowland, the No. 3 catcher.

After making the club in spring training, Berryhill has patiently waited his turn. Now that it has come, he says he will do all that he can to make the most of it. He is hitting .293 with nine doubles, three home runs and 16 RBIs.

"It makes you feel good," said Berryhill. "We have two other catchers who can play, without a doubt.

"I've always understood that to have a successful team, you've got to use the guys on the bench and give them an opportunity to play. I'm just going to take the opportunities I'm getting and try to do my best."

Berryhill is handling what could be a very volatile situation in a quiet and professional way. Valle has publicly complained about his playing time. Berryhill refuses to be drawn into the controversy.

In Atlanta, said Berryhill, "I had a situation of a couple of guys who'd rather throw to me. If someone came up and said I'd rather have someone else catch me, I wouldn't get mad. It's a comfort thing. John Smoltz always wanted Greg Olson to catch him."

Mostly, Berryhill lets his bat do his talking. In May, he hit .327 with three homers and 13 RBIs. He has 12 RBIs in his last seven games.

"I'm feeling pretty comfortable at the plate right now," said Berryhill.

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