Hall of Famer Johnny Bench once said, “A catcher and his body are like the outlaw and his horse. He’s got to ride that nag till it drops.”
Often the horse gets beaten and bruised, but a good catcher keeps on going because the abuse is part of the game. Tigers fans witness it on almost a daily basis, as Alex Avila toils behind the plate for their club, getting blacker and bluer as the season wears on.
Sometimes it seems as if the ball is iron and Avila is wearing a magnet suit. The poor guy gets hit by foul tips, bats – even his teammates – on a regular basis. If Mike Ilitch awarded combat pay, Alex would get the fattest check.
On Monday, Avila sat out after he experienced headaches and dizziness less than 24 hours after clunking heads with Prince Fielder.
It’s always been this way, however. Since the first game of baseball was played, the catcher has been getting beaten and battered, knicked and knocked around.
Bloody noses, black-and-blue groins, and smashed fingers are part of the job.
Over the course of baseball history there have been a number of serious injuries to catchers, some typical and others bizarre. In the 1970 All-Star Game, Cleveland catcher Ray Fosse was standing in front of the plate, up the third base line waiting for the throw from the outfield when he was barreled over by Cincinnati’s Pete Rose. The ball bounced away, Rose stepped on home plate with the winning run for the National League, and Fosse rolled over in pain, his shoulder separated. The collision was probably the most famous baserunner/catcher smashup in baseball history and it happened in a meaningless exhibition game.
Last season in late May, Buster Posey, a young star catcher for the San Francisco Giants, suffered a gruesome injury when he was bowled over by Scott Cousins of the Florida Marlins in a play at the plate. The result was a a fractured fibula and torn ligaments in Posey’s ankle. Cousins was criticized by some for his tenacious hit on Posey.
Echoing the sentiments of Rose more than 40 years earlier, Cousins was sympathetic but not apologetic for his aggressive baserunning.
“It’s a baseball play. I feel bad for Buster Posey, I really do,” Cousins said. “I’m going to send a message over there to them.”
Besides getting run over by batters, catchers can get dinged up by foul tips and errant bats. Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who caught for nearly two decades in the major leagues, estimates he broke seven of his ten fingers in his career. Former Tiger receiver Bill Freehan once dislocated the same finger three times during a game and kept on catching.
But for catchers the dangers are just a part of the job and it gives them membership in a unique fraternity.
“We [catchers] all understand what it takes on a daily basis to play the position,” former catcher Terry Kennedy once said. “It’s a lot of pain and sacrifice.”
Catchers can feel each other’s pain, too.
“Whenever I see another catcher [get it], I wince a little,” longtime big league catcher Jeff Torborg said.
Avila may seem to get banged up more than most catchers, and maybe he does. But once a player signs on to wear “The Tools of Ignorance”, that’s part of the deal. But all those bruises can add up to wear and tear. Avila might only be 25 years old, but who knows if the rigors of being a catcher age the body at an accelerated rate.
“There’s a grind,” Bench said during his career. “… how long will I go on? Is this what it’s like to feel thirty?”