At The Heart Of The Game

Cover Story

April 02, 2000|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,Sun Staff

HE HUNKERS AT THE plate, as thickly padded as an armored vehicle. He has the clearest perspective on the field: Nearly everything happens in front of him. He's in on every single play -- calling pitches, setting up hitters, blocking, throwing. No other fielder affects outcomes as deeply. And while baseball's boundaries, the foul lines, theoretically extend to infinity, he squats at their intersection, right at the heart of the game.

As the Orioles' 47th season opens, take a look at the National Pastime -- as we did during spring training -- through the iron mask of one of its most accomplished catchers, Baltimore's own Charles Johnson. Five years in the big leagues and 19 behind the plate have loaded the soft-spoken catcher with lore. Over the course of the nine innings that follow you might just glimpse, as we did, not only something of the home team's hopes in the year 2000, but also some of the deeper dynamics that govern the grand old game. As the umpire cries: Play Ball.

INNING ONE:

School Days

It's a warm, sun-drenched morning in South Florida. On the back field at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, bench coach Brian Graham has taken the Orioles through a brisk infield practice -- "GFF: That's for 'good fielding, fellas!' " he cries -- and calls for a water break. In an instant, the diamond empties. It's vacant as an open plain.

Empty, that is, except for two towering figures by the third-base bag, standing and gazing in the dirt. Cal Ripken Jr., the 6'4" legend with the iron-gray hair, is toeing the earth like a matador, etching a diagram with his cleats. Charles Johnson, the 6'3" catcher, has loped over to join him. They talk, gesture, erase the sketch, make another, talk some more: For 20 minutes, they're engrossed in conversation -- the top two students staying long after school.

Ripken, now entering his 20th year as an Oriole, is endlessly fascinated with the minutiae of the sport and knows that mastering each detail might mean winning a game. Today, they're working on a pickoff play. "I thought that was a good opportunity to discuss where Charles likes to throw," he says. "At third, you don't have too many chances to do that. Sometimes that becomes a critical situation, and you need to know you're on the same page." The field is more useful than a chalkboard.

Johnson, too, is engaged by the subject. "I'll do it by feel in a game, but we decided I'll throw to the inside of the bag, not at the bag," he says. "That way I'll miss the base runner and Cal will get a good look at the ball."

The play might occur twice a month during the season, but they've walked it through, committed it to memory.

Johnson took up catching as a boy at age 9 exactly because it presented such situations so often. "I was an outfielder," he says. "I noticed I didn't get that many balls out there. It got a little boring." He caught batting practice, liked being involved on every pitch, and got hooked. There's never enough you can learn. "That's why, during the season, I meet so much with the coaches, with the pitchers. There's always some small thing, something new you can do to help the cause." The man who has won four Gold Glove awards in five big-league years -- symbolizing leaguewide supremacy at his position -- grows thoughtful. "I keep my ears open," he says. "Catching is demanding, both physically and mentally. It's a tiring position, but that's why I love it."

Come 11:15, they cut the conversation short, trot to the main field and pull their bats out of the rack. It's batting practice time. The star pupils have skipped recess.

INNING TWO:

Blow by Blow

Would you trade your health for the chance to do your job better? Nine innings a game, 130 or more games a year, one nasty foul tip at a time, catchers do. "They call catching gear 'the tools of ignorance,' " says new Orioles manager Mike Hargrove with a laugh. "They don't say that because catchers are stupid. They say it because you've got to be an idiot to want to play there in the first place."

He's kidding, but just barely. Sure, Hargrove calls his catcher "our coach on the field" -- "he directs the way we attack the hitter" -- but like many baseball men, he speaks of catchers with an odd blend of humor and awe. "They do get mighty beat up. Go up to an old catcher. Check out his hands. You'd better have a strong stomach. Those fingers will be pointing in every which direction."

Johnson takes his bumps and bruises in stride; through practice and repetition, he eliminated his fear of the baseball long ago. He gets clobbered with foul tips at least three or four times a week; the trick is not to resist. "Some guys want to tighten up their bodies, turn their heads to the side, fight the baseball," says the 28-year-old with the face as calm and round as Buddha's. "But when you do that, you can leave your neck or your body exposed. You have to trust your gear. Let the ball hit it. Let it bounce off your gear, not your body."

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