Checkbook vi­o­lence in NFL must carry costly pun­ish­ment

The Washington Times Daily - - Weather -

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.

AN­DREW HARNIK/THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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.

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