Essay: He is the only one of nine who sees all the game facing forward. If the object is to get home, that is where he plays.
He goes by many names: the backstop, the battery mate, the receiver. Nicknames proliferate: no one other than their mothers called Yogi “Lawrence” or Pudge “Ivan.”
It’s the only game where the defense controls the ball, and he controls the defense. The centerfielder is shading too far to left. He’ll see it and fix it. That runner at first is leaning. That runner better be careful. The pitcher is missing the zone. He’ll make the walk and have the talk.
He has the closest relationship with an umpire. Not close, as in let’s have a beer after the game close, but the ump will often place a hand gently on his back as if to say, “remember, I’m back here and you know what’s coming and I don’t.” And when the umpire takes a foul tip straight on his mask, he’ll stall and give blue a moment to recover. There is mutual respect in the dust behind the dish.
In a game that prizes speed and agility, he’s probably the slowest guy on the field. In a game played vertically on green grass, he spends most of the contest squatting in the dirt. Your knees would hurt, too, what with all that up and down. He needs more gear than the other eight – “the tools of ignorance” they say, ironic because he’s usually the smartest guy on the field.
If you’re keeping score at home, he’s #2. Pitchers always get top billing, but he tells them what to throw and when to go slow and when to pitch out, when to bring the heat and when to dust ‘em off. In a game with a manager, he’s the shop foreman.
He’s susceptible to injury. Foul balls. Split fingers. Some jerk barreling down from third. He falls into dugouts or leaps into seats to make an out. If it works, it’s all in the game. If it fails, and it often fails, there will be a moan from the crowd and some guy will slug his beer and pronounce, “he shoulda had that.” Yah, right, you try it. It ain’t as easy as it looks. It’s the hardest position. Period.
He’s gotta have a cannon, of course, or they’ll steal him blind. Actually, that’s a bum rap. Bases get stolen on pitchers.
There have been and are a lot of great outfielders. Lots of pitchers make the Hall. But only five percent of the greatest players of the greatest game have worn the tools. The really great ones you can count on a few crooked fingers. In the old days, Dickey and Cochrane and Lawrence Peter Berra. Don’t forget Campy. Certainly, Bench of the Big Red Machine, and Pudge and Fisk and Carter. Piazza, too. And perhaps the greatest of all, Josh Gibson, a black man from Georgia who never got a chance to prove that he could hit it farther than Ruth.
The next time you watch a game don’t stare at the pitcher. That’s boring and predictable. What you want to do is watch the guy running the show. He’s the one in the dirty pants, behind the plate, in the squat looking at everything unfolding before him.
Marc Johnson is a resident of Neahkahnie, having adopted the North Coast as home after decades in the high desert of southwestern Idaho. He is a writer, columnist, historian of American politics and reader of all manner of things.