By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — Carlton Fisk, who could snarl with the best of them, always snarled when somebody referred to a catcher’s protective gear as, “The Tools of Ignorance.”
It is a reference that implies that a baseball player has to be stupid to strap on the chest protector, the shin guards, the hockey mask and the plastic protective cup to go behind home plate and take a physical beating much like going 10 rounds against Mike Tyson without protective covering over your ears.
It is true that catchers are mauled nightly by foul tips, balls that bounce in the dirt and base runners with mayhem in mind, Fisk is right.
THERE IS MORE to catching, much more, than being a human backstop. Actually, the equipment they wear should be called ‘Tools of Intelligence.’
Nobody on a baseball field has more responsibilities than a catcher. He has to call the pitches, he has to handle the pitchers, he has to know all there is to know about each and every hitter on every team, he has to control the base runners, he has to block balls in the dirt, he has to watch over his team’s defensive alignments and, oh yeah, he has to catch every pitch thrown.
AND ALL THAT is exactly why Cincinnati Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart loves the position, every facet about it, including the badges of honor that are welts, abrasion, bent fingers and baseballs to the groin.
Johnny Bench, like Fisk a Hall of Fame catcher, once said, “In my 17 years of catching, I might have played one game where I didn’t have pain somewhere in my body.”
Barnhart laughed when he head that and said, “That must have been before the first game of spring training.”
BARNHART WENT TO spring training with the Reds this year expecting to be the back-up catcher to Devin Mesoraco. But Mesoraco had shoulder issues and couldn’t play. On Tuesday he underwent season-ending labrum surgery and Barnhart was thrust into the starting role.
A team couldn’t be in better hands with a back-up catcher because the 25-year-old native of Brownsburg, Ind. is more than capable. After his 2011 season at Class A Dayton he was named the top defensive catcher in the entire minor leagues.
And he has done nothing but get better as the years flew by.
“For me, I love the position because I am involved in every play,” he said. “It sounds cliché, but you are part of everything.”
AND ABOUT THE ‘Tools of Ignorance,’ he says, “Well, catching involves a lot of thinking behind it and I find that fun. You have to do a lot of researching about the hitters and I find that interesting as well as fun.”
Barnhart caught Toronto relief pitcher Drew Storen at Brownsburg High School and the Reds found him while scouting Storen. They made Barnhart their No. 10 draft choice in 2011.
“I find the intellectual side of catching challenging, rewarding and a ton of fun,” he said. “I hope I don’t ever have to change, that’s for sure.”
AND ABOUT THE bumps and bruises, the aches and pain, he said, “I’m not really ever out there when something doesn’t hurt. If I go one game without getting hit with something, I’m still usually sore from the day before because of something that happened. I can’t say there has ever been a time when I’ve been out there pain-free, as far as bumps and bruises are concerned.”
MANAGER BRYAN PRICE certainly appreciates Barnhart’s part in the grand scheme, especially with Mesoraco gone.
“Love him hitting those home runs right handed,” he said with a laugh. Barnhart, a switch-hitter, had never hit a home run right handed — in the big leagues or in the minors. But on Monday night his home run from the right side, his first home run from either side in 270 at bats, was the winning run in a 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“I don’t mean to put him in a corner, but he is a defense first catcher,” Price said. “Usually your back-up catcher is an offense-first guy and when Tucker goes back there we don’t skip a beat.
“He picks up where Devin left off because they both are so good in their preparation,” Price added. “He is very invested in the defensive side of the game. He is as good at blocking pitches as anybody I’ve seen (hence the bumps and bruises). He throws well and his offense just ends up being the cherry on top of the dessert.”
“When he is at bat I always feel he is going to do something good for us,” said Price. “Usually a guy at the bottom of the order is a player the other team is trying to get to to get an out. But he gives you a good at-bat, he can hit velocity and right now he is hitting for us from both sides of the plate.”
Whether Barnhart is putting down fingers to call signals for his pitchers or he is using those fingers to move a computer mouse to make notes on opposing hitters, Price knows the catching position remains in good hands.