"If the catcher's got a weak arm," says Johnson's backup, Greg Myers, "they're going to take advantage. With Charles, they can't." Opponents stole only 93 bases against Baltimore last year, the lowest the team has allowed since 1980. In Johnson's last 16 games, only one runner even attempted to steal.
When they do take off, the catcher has to have what those in baseball call "footwork."
The term refers to how the catcher positions himself, setting his feet to make a play. If a catcher has "good, quick feet," as Mussina puts it, he aligns himself to make the throw, does it in less than a second, and sends the ball on its way. And there are other means of saving time. "I think the key to throwing runners out at second is really accuracy," says Johnson. "You can have an average arm, but if you put the ball in the right place, you're still going to get a lot of guys out. On the flip side, if you have a great arm and aren't accurate -- if it's off the mark -- the fielder's got to bring it back in. On a steal, there's just not enough time for that."
Baseball men are in agreement: There are few great catchers today, maybe fewer than ever. The reasons are unclear, but don't bet against values gone awry.
Catching involves multiple tasks; by odds alone, it's rare to find a player who can do them all. "A lot of times a guy can catch, but he's not a good hitter," says Johnson. "A lot of times a guy can hit but can't catch." Four or five backstops stand out, says Hargrove, including Johnson, Sandy Alomar of the Cleveland Indians and Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers, the reigning league MVP. "They didn't make Pudge MVP just because he hits home runs," he says.
To Johnson, the scarcity reflects current priorities in baseball. "More and more, it's an offense-oriented game," he says. "You've got Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa -- guys hitting 40, 50, 60 homers. Everybody is looking for the home run. A guy hits one out, he's on TV. If I block a ball behind the plate, very few people notice that."
He makes a compelling argument that this is flawed thinking. Smaller plays behind the plate, he says, can be as important as a round-tripper. "If there's a runner at third, and a pitch dives in the dirt, and I block it, I've saved a run. It's just like hitting a home run. I'll never get a cheer for that." In his view, while offense is important, defense is crucial. "What good is scoring 10 runs a game if your defense gives up 11? Look at the Yankees last year. Their catcher, Joe Girardi, (only) hit .239. Tino Martinez had the most homers -- only 28. But they swept in the World Series. You don't really need a whole lot of offense. Defense and pitching win games."
Johnson ought to know. He's one of the few Orioles to have won a Series: He backstopped the champion Florida Marlins in 1997. Not coincidentally, he had a Hall of Fame-type season, setting all-time big-league records for consecutive games (172) and fielding chances (1,295) without an error. "He's had so much success at such a young age," says O's shortstop Mike Bordick. "When you have players like that, guys who've won and know what it takes to win, you want to keep them around."
Johnson isn't complaining; he almost takes pride in the lack of acclaim. "I've come to the conclusion it's part of the game," he shrugs. "My teammates understand what I do." If more people did, we might have a wealth of good catchers.
Like umps or hockey goalies, catchers do the most when they're noticed least. It's what they don't do that counts. An ump doesn't blow a call. A goalie doesn't miss a shot. A catcher doesn't let a ball get by him. When they're invisible -- voila! -- they're anchoring the world around them.
Take blocking pitches: It's one of a catcher's perverse pleasures. Hearing Johnson discuss it is like getting a lesson in Zen. "A lot of guys want to fight the baseball," he says. "A ball's coming in at 90 miles an hour. It bounces in the dirt. You want to keep it in front of you. If you tighten up your body, clench your shoulders, it'll bounce further away when it hits you.
"I don't know how else to say it: You've got to be soft. Let your body be soft."
Paradoxically, a catcher like Johnson hurries up to wait. "I'm a big guy," he says. "I've got a lot of body to move around. I have to judge the pitch, anticipate and get there quicker than the next guy. I've got to think ahead. I've got to be in position to be still."