They spend most of the battle on their knees, ensconced in the grit and dirt of home plate, coiled in haunched defense of the dish. Often times, and ideally, they are the heart and soul of their squad, epitomizing the pitch by pitch struggle of diamond competition by persevering through a daily litany of welts, bruises, and worse seemingly dealt out by the pound, the game indifferent to their personal anguish. They rise from that perpetual cloud of dust and pain that surrounds their on-field sanctuary, poised to serve as the main conductor of baseball’s daily dance of fancy.
Catchers are indeed a rare breed of human beings much less ballplayers, serving as an inspirational leader, personal confidant, lead counsel and at times even staff shrink, all on a nightly basis. They call every pitch, they direct situational defense, they serve as team buffer between the field and the dugout, and the list of duties goes on.
Having a hand in virtually every aspect of a team’s game, these field generals are arguably the most important piece of the baseball puzzle. Catching is a highly cerebral, specialized position that all teams are well advised to field a stalwart performer at, and those organizations that are blessed with a truly elite level catcher often discover themselves on the long-term route towards championship contention and success.
Historically speaking, the true upper crust of the position illustrates this well when looking at arguably the top receivers to ever don the gear, and they are quite a versatile trio:Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, andJosh Gibson. The diminutive Berra stood only 5’7” tall but served tall as catcher for the juggernaut New York Yankees teams of the mid 20th century, racking up 18 all-star appearances, 2 Gold Glove awards, 3 AL MVP awards and 10 World Championships during his watch (1946-63)—still the most rings won by any one player in MLB history.
Bench personified the Cincinnati Reds ‘Big Red machine’ of the 1970’s from behind the plate, leading his squad to six division titles and back to back World Series wins in the mid 1970’s while racking up 14 all-star appearances, 10 Gold Gloves, 2 NL MVP awards and generally being regarded as the greatest overall catcher in MLB history when the dust settled on his career (1967-1983).
Gibson was a prolific hitter of both average and power who may have been the best of them all. While playing in the Negro Leagues from 1930-1946, Gibson was a part of 6 Championships and swatted upwards of 800 home runs while hitting over .350, astronomical figures to be sure. The profit-driven propensity of scheduling fewer league games in order to campaign against semi-pro and other non-Negro League teams makes tracking definitive records difficult, however, Gibson is universally considered among the best catchers to play in any league.
The thread between these three men is one of sustained excellence, both individually and team-oriented. All of these men are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. These names have a mythical standing in baseball lore, leaving most baseball fans to wistfully wonder what it might be like having a player of such regard in their dugout, sporting their favorite team’s jersey across his chest while carrying its’ championship hopes on their shoulders.
Forward to today’s era of geared up warriors and you see the trend continue: San Francisco’s Buster Posey (6 time All-Star, Gold Glove winner, 2012 NL Batting Champion, 2012 NL MVP, 3 time World Champion) and St. Louis’Yadier Molina (9 time All-Star, 8 time Gold Glove winner, 2 time World Series Champion) are widely considered the best today’s game has to offer, and both their individual and team success is immeasurable.
The White Sox are no exception, of course. While playing in a city renowned for its’ deep dish pizza, Chicago’s south side catching options have pretty much been of the thin crust variety over the past century of play. Southsiders are far more familiar with seeing such characters on the catching menu as late 70’s cult heroBill Nahorodny, shotgun armed officerRon Karkovice during the 90’s, and the mercurially tempered Miguel Oliva of relative recent Sox vintage than the likes of Bench, Berra, Gibson.
There have been misses, likeBrian Downing’s initial splash in the mid-1970’s that was derailed first by a knee injury and then by a trade. Perennial All-StarsCharles Johnson andSandy AlomarJr. were brought aboard in the 2000’s but proved to be not much more than a cruel tease due to age as well as injury.
To be sure, there are periods of excellence at the position in Sox history, with four clear standard bearers from over 100 years of team annals. Yesteryear entry Ray Schalk revolutionized the position during his White Sox career, utilizing his athleticism, speed, and overall agility to become the greatest defensive catcher of his era (1912-1928). A league average hitter who once stole 30 bases in a season, the undersized Schalk stood only 5’9” but had the presence of a giant behind the plate and was part of a White Sox World Championship in 1917. Forward to the 1950’s and we findSherm Lollar manning the role for most of the decade for the Go-Go White Sox (1952-1963), culminating in a World Series appearance in 1959.
Lollar logged 7 all-star appearances and won 3 Gold Gloves, including the 1st ever given at the position in 1957. The 1980’s arrived with a flourish when the Sox made a seismic signing and brought in free agent Carlton ‘Pudge’ Fisk to signify a new era on the south side.
The Fisk signing served multiple notices, providing Sox fans with real hope and giving the league a heads up that the Sox were serious about contending again. Always with a flair for the dramatic (see ‘1975 Fenway Park, World Series game-winning home run’), Fisk opened his first season as a White Sox by hitting the game-winning home run at Fenway on opening day against his old Red Sox team.
He followed that up with a stadium rocking grand slam in his first home game at Comiskey Park against the Milwaukee Brewers, a moment this writer was privileged enough to witness as an 11-year-old and a blast that endeared himself to White Sox faithful in short order.
Also known as ‘The Commander’, Fisk logged 12 years as a member of the Pale Hose (1981-1993), the high point as leader of the 1983 West Division Champion ‘Winning Ugly’ White Sox. In his overall career, Carlton was an 11-time all-star, 3 time Silver Slugger winner as the best offensive player at his position, and unanimous rookie of the year in 1972 with the Red Sox.
The mid-2000’s brought the provoking AJ Pierzynski to 35th street.
While not an elite statistical player per se, Pierzynski embodied the grit, hustle, run through the wall attitude and other baseball intangibles that established him as a solid big league catcher and White Sox fan favorite for life. AJ was the type of player who you could love—or hate. Former White Sox managerOzzie Guillen famously said about his catcher “If you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less.” There will never be any hate in hearts of White Sox fans for AJ, who was an integral part of the 2005 wire to wire World Championship season that shook the city.
Current catcher offerings at the major league level are once again thin for the White Sox, with able backup types inOmar Narvaez andKevan Smith sharing the starting duties. The promising free agent signing of Wellington Castillo provided encouraging early returns, but a positive test for PED’s has shelved Castillo for the time being.
There is hope developing quickly on the minor league level horizon, with a pair of Sox prospects heating up quickly in Zach Collins andSeby Zavala.
Collins was drafted in the 1st round of the 2016 draft, 10th overall, and looks to potentially be a Pierzynski-lite type player, ie sporting a high baseball IQ with a propensity to get on base and has shown improved power numbers in his sophomore campaign. Zavala is an intriguing player who has shot up the ranks in 2018, bringing a power bat and excellent defensive skills to the table.
The duo represents the best catching prospects the team has trotted out in recent memory, and White Sox fans are hoping the team can catch lightning in a bottle once again with at least one of these diamonds in the rough.
For all the hype surrounding theYoan Moncada,Michael Kopech, and Eloy Jiminez of this current rebuild, the White Sox would be well served to nail down a concrete, unshakable presence to man the plate in coming years if they want to remain successful on the long-term stage.
Establishing solid bedrock from the ground up is the most assured way to accomplish that goal, and while there might not be any Buster Poseys or Yadier Molinas on the immediate horizon, the White Sox seem headed in the right direction.