Baseball’s thankless position|[04/22/07]

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 21, 2007

Broken bones, bruises some of the perils of playing the game’s most dangerous spot

Cody Ferguson gently hikes up the leg on his shorts an inch or two and proudly shows off a yellowish-purple bruise measuring 10 inches across. Sean Weaver nonchalantly describes having several fingers broken. Tanner Woodson talks about his wrist being swollen and bruised after catching 100 fastballs a day for three months straight.

They all wear their wounds with honor, like tattoos showing their membership in a fraternity whose initiation involves strapping on 20 pounds of equipment and sitting in dirt for two hours in 90 degree heat, their jerseys so soaked in sweat that the dirt becomes mud.

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It’s the fraternity of the catcher, and the membership dues are paid for in blood and sweat, in gnarled fingers, swollen wrists and deep bruises.

&#8220My wrist is swollen up from balls hit off it. You stay beat up,” said Woodson, Vicksburg High’s senior backstop. &#8220If you’re a catcher, that’s something you’re proud of.”

The ability to take punishment is one of the first things coaches look for when selecting a catcher. Foul tips that can bruise hands or legs, or even break fingers are commonplace. Pitches in the dirt often bounce around pads and find unprotected areas, leading to deep bruises that last for days.

Even the simple act of catching a baseball can cause injury. Woodson’s swollen wrist was caused as much by fastball after fastball slamming into his mitt, as it was foul tips.

Add to that wayward baserunners who might not slide when they get to home plate, wearing heavy catcher’s gear for several hours on hot afternoons, and having to throw as many balls as they catch, and it’s clear that playing catcher is one of the most physically demanding jobs in all of sports.

Weaver, a sophomore in his third season of varsity ball at St. Aloysius, can rattle off a laundry list of hazards that come with the job.

&#8220I’ve taken some off the hands. That hurt. I broke my thumb a couple times. I got run over in tee-ball once. There’s nothing worse than that,” Weaver says flatly, as if he were describing the color of the infield grass. &#8220It wears you down. You’ll probably be the tiredest person on the field at the end. It gets a lot worse in summer. I’m glad I only have to catch one (game) during the season.”

Of course, some people like that sort of thing. Porters Chapel backup Josh Hil said bouncing around in the dirt to block a ball was one of his favorite parts of the game.

&#8220I like when people throw balls in the dirt, because that’s when people notice you,” Hill said, adding a few moments later that even though that may be fun, it wasn’t all fun and games. &#8220Just yesterday I didn’t get all the way down on a curveball and it bounced up and hit me in the chest.”

As big a toll as catching takes on the body, it can tax the mind nearly as much. A catcher also must read situations and coaches’ signs, calm down overhyped pitchers, make sure his fielders know which base to throw to, and be the baseball equivalent of a quarterback when his team is in the field.

On a ball hit to the outfield, for example, the catcher’s primary duty is to watch the play unfold in front of him and tell the other fielders whether to cut the ball off and hold it, or which runner to try and throw out.

In a typical sequence with runners on base, a catcher: