Orioles post a stop sign

Catcher: Visitors had the run of Camden Yards in previous years, but that will change with new traffic cop Charles Johnson in town.

February 21, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. -- The number is 1.7.

When the lightning ballet works to perfection -- the feet shift nimbly, the fingers find the grip and the throw is true -- Charles Johnson can transport a baseball from home plate to second base in 1.7 seconds. Most major-league catchers can handle the practice, known as glove to glove, in 1.9 or 2.0 seconds.

The difference between Johnson, a four-time Gold Glove Award winner in the National League, and most catchers is the difference between safe and out. In the Orioles' case, it is the difference between issuing a license to steal and announcing a lockdown.

By acquiring Johnson on Dec. 1 from the New York Mets in a three-way deal that also included the Los Angeles Dodgers, general manager Frank Wren transformed a long-standing deficiency into a strength. In return for disgraced closer Armando Benitez, who majority owner Peter Angelos had privately vowed would never save another game in Baltimore, Wren made his first trade as Orioles GM a massive step toward transforming a team burned too long and too often by larceny.

"It's a huge boost," says manager Ray Miller, perhaps the deal's biggest advocate. "We have a guy now who can shut down the running game just by his presence. No knock on anyone else, but it becomes pretty depressing when guys steal uncontested or are safe on pitchouts. And that happened a number of times last season. To be honest, I was surprised more teams didn't try it against us."

Chris Hoiles, a clubhouse pillar known as Tractor for his toughness, labored through 83 games behind the plate, his lower back screaming for relief and his right knee only a year removed from surgery. At catcher, Hoiles is listed only as a last resort on Miller's spring depth chart.

Lenny Webster, signed to a split contract before the 1997 season, appeared in a career-high 108 games and generated impressive offensive numbers. However, he showed noticeable wear by August. Hoiles threw out 21 percent of base stealers against him; Webster, considered a defensive upgrade, caught only 23 percent.

Further exposed by a pitching staff not adept at policing runners, the tandem finished with two of the four lowest success rates among catchers with more than 70 appearances. The Orioles surrendered 182 stolen bases last season while stealing only 86 themselves.

Johnson represents the spectrum's other end, a defensive light so brilliant that he may be rightly considered the club's most impressive off-season acquisition, even against the $65 million signing of free agent Albert Belle.

"Charles gives us a quantity not many teams have," says Wren, who saw Johnson's first four seasons while Florida Marlins assistant GM. "He works well with pitchers and can really control a game."

From his suburban Fort Lauderdale home, Johnson speaks quietly but forcefully of catching as a calling more than a job.

"You cannot be a good catcher unless you really want to," he insists.

Johnson was raised to do this work. His father, Charles Sr., a former pitcher at Florida A&M, tutored him as a youth before coaching him in high school. Access to a pitching machine enabled Johnson's father to teach him the hard task of blocking pitches and developing soft hands -- often at high speed from 45 feet -- while imparting the proper footwork vital to a lightning release. An uncle, Roy McGriff, caught at Southern University and helped foster Johnson's love for the position.

"When you catch, you can't take a pitch off. You can't relax," says Johnson, extolling rather than lamenting the fact. "You're working with a pitcher who has prepared himself four days for a start. If you shortchange him, you're basically wasting his week."

Johnson returns again and again to his drills, even during a season in which he may catch 130 games. Such devotion accounts for his holding the major-league record for consecutive error-free games. Throwing enhances the package. During his career, Johnson has thrown out 43.5 percent of those attempting to steal against him. The major-league average last season was 31.4 percent.

"If you keep guys from running, the game changes. That gives guys like Moose [Mike Mussina] and [Scott] Erickson a chance to throw a ground ball and get a double play. Otherwise, you're looking at a run-scoring situation," says Johnson, who benefited from an association with quick workers Kevin Brown, Al Leiter and Alex Fernandez in Florida but will have to adjust to a different pace with deliberate types such as Scott Kamieniecki and Juan Guzman.

If a pitcher cooperates, science sides with the Orioles. Given a delivery of 1.3 seconds to the plate -- considered a competent standard -- a "normal" relay of 1.8 seconds by Johnson leaves a base runner 3.1 seconds to cover an average of 26 yards. "If I'm at 1.8 and the guy beats the throw, then he deserves the base," Johnson says.

Miller looks forward to using a catcher confident of calling any pitch at any point in the count.

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