MLB Re­portBy Salute to Hani­gan, all hard­scrab­ble catch­ers

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - Pa­trick Saun­ders, The Den­ver Post

Re­mem­ber Tom Berenger as vet­eran catcher Jake Tay­lor in the movie “Ma­jor League?” That’s Rock­ies catcher Ryan Hani­gan. Al­though Hani­gan is a bit crustier and more black and blue then Berenger ever was.

At age 36, Hani­gan is quite a sight. With his knees iced and wrapped, and with eye-black streaked across his face like warpaint, Hani­gan shuf­fles through the club­house like he’s 70. But strap on the gear, put him be­hind the plate and have him call pitches for the Rock­ies’ young staff and Hani­gan is born again. He be­comes a base­ball war­rior.

No of­fense to still-de­vel­op­ing catcher Tom Mur­phy, but the Rock­ies’ de­ci­sion to pro­mote Hani­gan from Triple-A was a move they needed to make. Han­gian’s abil­ity to han­dle pitch­ers, captain the in­field and con­trol the game is in­valu­able.

Plus, there is the added bonus of Hani­gan tu­tor­ing Tony Wolters, Colorado’s promis­ing, young start­ing catcher.

“Ryan brings a lot to the ta­ble in terms of ex­pe­ri­ence and wis­dom,” man­ager Bud Black said Fri­day. “He’s also a darn good catcher.”

I have a cer­tain fix­a­tion re­gard­ing catch­ers. I think they are some of the tough­est, smartest, most valu­able play­ers in sports. But then, I have a per­sonal bias.

Dur­ing my Lit­tle League days, and up through age 15, I was a catcher. At least most of the time. We played games at a field near Olde Town Ar­vada. I think it’s a park­ing lot or movie the­ater now. Any­way, the back­stop was a big-league dis­tance from home plate, or at least it felt that way to me.

I was ter­ri­ble be­hind the plate, and I think I set the all-time record for passed balls. It was a bru­tal ex­pe­ri­ence. Of­ten­times, baserun­ners would take two bases at a time as the ball skid­ded around the back­stop be­hind me.

I di­gress, but let me just say that that ex­pe­ri­ence left me with a pro­found ad­mi­ra­tion and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for catch­ers.

The late Joe Gara­gi­ola once said, “The catcher is a ground­hog. He’s a guy squat­ting down, dig­ging for the ball in the dirt, and sweat­ing un­der a pile of un­com­fort­able pro­tec­tive gear while his knees creak.”

Or, as Hall of Famer Bill Dickey once put it, “A catcher must want to catch. He must make up his mind that it isn’t the ter­ri­ble job it is painted, and that he isn’t go­ing to say ev­ery day, ‘Why, oh why with so many other po­si­tions in base­ball did I take up this one?’ “

Black has a rep­u­ta­tion for work­ing his catch­ers hard, trust­ing them and valu­ing them.

“This goes back as far as I can re­mem­ber, as far was what makes a good team,” Black said. “In high school, Shawn Kaber was a good catcher. His dad, was the driver’s-ed teacher at Mark Mor­ris High in Longview, Wash­ing­ton.

“But what I am say­ing is that you have to have a good catcher if you are go­ing to have a win­ning team.”

Hani­gan, who has played 611 games in the ma­jors and caught two no-hit­ters for Cincin­nati’s Homer Bai­ley, rel­ishes his dirty job.

“I like work­ing back there, work­ing a staff, es­pe­cially young pitch­ers,” he said be­fore go­ing out to catch Jon Gray in the Rock­ies’ 6-3 vic­tory over the Di­a­mond­backs on Fri­day night. “At the end of the day, work­ing the bullpen, work­ing the game, is the most im­por­tant job of a catcher. I take a lot of pride in that.” Pa­trick Saun­ders is the pres­i­dent of the Base­ball Writ­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica: psaun­ders@den­ver­post.com or @psaun­der­sdp

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