Catching: The Riskiest Business in Baseball

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It was announced Monday that Yadier Molina, star catcher of the St. Louis Cardinals had suffered another injury. It was a torn thumb ligament, similar to the one he suffered last year, and it will cause a major problem for the team with the best record in baseball.

It brought to mind the fact that  other than pitchers, who annually drop like flies with arm issues, catchers suffer the most injuries of any players in the game. Some of their injuries are catastrophic. Pete Rose, even before being kicked out of baseball for gambling was nobody’s candidate for sainthood. Just ask any Bud Harrelson fan. In 1970, when RiverFront Stadium was brand new the All-Star game was held there. In the last of the 12th inning, Rose ran down catcher Ray Fosse. Sports medicine was more primitive then, and it took a year to diagnose the fracture and dislocation of Fosse’s shoulder. By then it had healed wrong, leading to chronic pain the catcher would never be without. He played with it, and tore a ligament in his hand by being kicked there during a collision at the plate. That cost him a chance to play in the 1971  All-Star game in Detroit, one of the last classic All-Star games. Five years later Fosse again lost time after an unfortunate encounter at the plate with Jim Rice, again not a contender for Mr. Congeniality.

Another disastrous injury to a catcher was done to Gerald Dempsey Posey III, known as Buster Posey around the game. The 2010 Rookie of the Year lost most of his 2011 season, and could have lost his career to a baseball footnote. Scott Cousins of the Marlins said he crashed into Posey on purpose as the Marlins won 7-6  in 12 innings. He claimed not to be out to injure Buster, but in baseball unlike in a jury trial  results mean more than motivation.  Posey came out of the crash  with a broken fibula and 3 torn ligaments in his ankle. The crash was so violent it brought about a rule change limiting the destructiveness  of home plate collisions.

While not always catastrophic, injuries to catchers are the norm, not the exception. It’s not unknown for catchers who can hit to be moved to other positions to save their multi-million-dollar bodies. Craig Biggio is the most famous of these, moved by Houston from catcher to second base, and subsequently moved to the Hall of Fame with 3 thousand hits.  In the 1930’s two catchers claimed credit for the nickname “the tools of ignorance,” for catching equipment. They were Muddy Ruel and Bill Dickey. Roy Campanella suffered broken fingers, even a broken nose-and that was before he reached junior high school. His dad didn’t want to spend the money for a catcher’s mask until the broken nose happened. He refused to have a broken finger x-rayed during the 1953 World Series for fear of being told not to play against the Yankees.  Before that, Campanella missed the 1951 Dodgers-Giants playoff series, leaving Rube Walker to call the pitch Bobby Thomson so famously hit into  the lower deck of the left field stands.

This brings up the other side of injured catchers. Catchers develop relationships with pitchers that are unique in the game. Take a catcher out, no matter how briefly, and anywhere from 10 to 13 pitchers are left to work with a man with whom they are less familiar. The above-mentioned Ray Fosse caught Dennis Eckersley’s no-hitter in 1977. Eckersley said he shook off Fosse 3 times in the entire game. Watching on TV, you can usually tell if a pitcher and catcher are on the same page-unless the pitcher shakes his catcher off just to try and hoodwink the hitter. An experienced catcher will know if this is the pitcher’s purposeful ploy,  or if the pitcher is really shaking him off because he doesn’t want to throw a certain pitch. Molina, the youngest of 3 catching brothers is known for his ability to handle the pitchers as well as hitting and throwing out runners. His injured thumb last year cost him 7 weeks on the shelf  and he only hit .250 when he came back. The Cardinals don’t have 7 weeks, no matter how long the hyperextended playoff system of today takes. That leaves it to Tony Cruz, a light-hitting backup catcher. And this Cruz, like Tom Cruise 30 years ago knows he’s in a risky business. In 2013 Tony played for a month with what turned out to be a broken arm. He wasn’t put on the shelf until Molina returned from a knee injury that had landed him on the disabled list. With the best record in the game, the Cardinals’ pitchers and fans are counting on Cruz and praying for a miracle for Molina.

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