Checkbook violence in NFL must carry costly punishment
Pro football hasn’t changed much over the years. And if you doubt that, consider the following sound bite: “We try to hurt everybody. We hit each other as hard as we can. This is a man’s game.”
Those words appeared in a Time magazine story in 1959. The speaker? None other than Sam Huff, then mauling ball carriers for the New York Giants. Around the same time, a player complained to a referee that Baltimore Colts ruffian Bert Rechichar had scratched him. “Kid, this is the pros,” Rechichar told the whiner. “We don’t scratch up here. We just tear your eyeballs out.”
Every NFL stadium is a house of pain. But we prefer to think of that pain as a byproduct of a ruthless, violent game — a necessary evil. It’s harder to stomach when we learn of the New Orleans Saints’ nefariousness under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, formerly of the Washington Redskins. According to the league, Saints players received thousands of dollars in bonuses for “inflicting injuries” on opponents “that would result in them being removed from the game.” The money came from a pool created by the players and occasionally supplemented by Williams.
Another contributor, a report by Mike Freeman of Cbssports.com claims, was Mike Ornstein, a buddy of New Orleans coach Sean Payton and a one-time Oakland Raiders executive. Ornstein is a prince of a fellow who has done prison time for scalping Super Bowl tickets and selling fraudulent game-used jerseys. In other words, it’s a P.R. disaster for a league that has been going to great lengths to make the game safer — and is facing a growing number of lawsuits regarding concussions.
After all, it’s one thing for defensive players to throw a few bucks in a pot before a game (with the prize going to the guy who knocks out the quarterback or causes the running back to limp off). That’s been going on in pro football forever. But it’s another matter entirely when an assistant coach is the ringleader, when the head coach and general manager know about it and when enough dough is involved to encourage “kill shots” and other needlessly dangerous hits, the kind the NFL wants to eliminate. Then you’ve got an institutional breakdown, one that almost certainly isn’t limited to the Saints.
In fact, erstwhile Redskins safety
sions such as Burnett’s or those scorecard-wrecking late innings of Grapefruit League games.
That’s where Leon, Solano and Maldonado come in. But far from serving simply as human backstops, the three catchers use every pitch they see as a building block for the coming season and years to come.
“We’ve got a good pitching staff and we enjoy that, when we take bullpens and you learn from all your pitchers,” said Solano, 26, who spent last season at Triple-a Syracuse. “When the time is ready and I’m called up . . . I know I need to have an idea what kind of stuff they have. I [listen] because I want to learn a lot on all the staff.”
Solano, like Leon, still is awaiting his first shot at the majors. Maldonado, meanwhile, provides a veteran’s perspective. At 33, he has seen big-league time with the Pirates (2006-07) and the Nationals (2010), sprinkling in 25 games and 62 plate appearances over those three seasons.
But Maldonado’s overall body of work in professional baseball is vast. He has played for 12 different minor league teams across six organizations since he broke in as a 17-year-old Seattle Mariners farmhand in 1996. Three years later, Maldonado was catching the likes of Randy Johnson and Jamie Moyer in Seattle’s big-league camp.
So it’s fair to say he’s been on the receiving end of some bullpen sessions in his time. “Quite a few,” he said with a smile. It could be a monotonous existence, catching all those pitches with nary a batter in the box, then following it with fielding work — blocking balls in the dirt, throwing to bases — and finishing the workout with catchers-only batting practice after the rest of the players have hit the showers.
But it isn’t just busywork. No one takes as much punishment over the course of a season as a catcher, and those bouncing sliders and foul tips take some getting used to. This is when it happens.
“You get tired,” said Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr, a former catcher who spent parts of 11 seasons in the majors. “But it’s good to do it for the season. It’s such a long season, and you’re basically just getting yourself in shape for the season. I mean, you go home and pass out sooner, probably, than the other players. But I enjoyed it. It never bothered me.”
That attitude pervades the Nationals’ catching corps. As Maldonado notes, all the extra work is simply “part of the job,” and if nothing else they all seem to relish the challenge.
This group in particular shares a special bond, with culture and language fostering a deeper camaraderie among the five catchers in camp. All but Solano are natives of Venezuela, and Solano was signed out of a tryout camp in that country after crossing the border from his native Colombia. All five also are bilingual, able to communicate easily with just about everyone on the team, but in their frequent conversations among themselves, they stick with Spanish.
“Five Latin catchers — it’s fun,” said Solano. “It’s fun because we’re talking during practice or in the clubhouse about our history, playing winter ball and all that stuff. It’s a good group.”
Their discussions are seemingly never-ending, from Ramos and Flores filling in the gaps in their already broad base of knowledge to Leon starting almost from scratch. And it is, “almost,” for Leon caught one of Stephen Strasburg’s rehab starts for Potomac last season. (“Amazing,” he said, his eyes brightening at the months-old memory.)
In Leon’s ideal world — and Solano’s, and Maldonado’s — he would be the regular catcher for Strasburg and the rest of the Nationals’ staff when the games really matter. That won’t happen anytime soon for any of that trio, but they’ll all keep putting in the work in supporting roles every morning, preparing for the day that it might. He struck out three batters, but his command, particularly with off-speed pitches, was erratic. In the first inning, Strasburg started Brian Bogusevic off with three balls, hard sinkers he pulled inside. But Strasburg rallied to strike out Bogusevic swinging.
“Strasburg was too hyped up, too amped up,” Johnson said. “He was loaded for bear.
“He’s fun to watch, even when he’s amped up and overthrowing.”
Strasburg admitted he was too excited. He expected the extra adrenaline. That contributed to throwing only 26 strikes, uncorking a wild pitch and allowing a home run down the left-field line by Chris Snyder.
“I was a little erratic at times, but I know that’s going to come with the repetitions and fine-tuning the mechanics,” Strasburg said. “I felt like I could’ve gone a few more [innings].”
NOTES: Johnson took the blame for lefthander Tom Gorzelanny’s difficult inning, where he allowed seven runs, three hits and four walks. A communication problem with the bullpen left Gorzelanny in the game longer than Johnson wanted. “That’s not the kind of work I want to give him,” Johnson said. . . . Drew Storen needed only 11 pitches to work his first spring inning. Johnson dubbed his closer “Tinkerbell” postgame because of Storen’s mechanical tinkering. . . .John Lannan starts for the Nationals on Monday in the 6:10 p.m. game against the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie.
Catcher Sandy Leon, who will turn 23 next week, spent all of last season at Single-a Potomac. His time in spring training is spent laying the foundation for what he hopes will be a major league career.