Spring means many things to Franklin Community High School freshman baseball player Alec MacLennan, namely the recurrent putting on and taking off of his face mask, shin guards and chest protector.
As the Grizzly Cubs’ catcher, MacLennan knows the routine.
A catcher’s responsibilities include positioning teammates defensively; calling signals to the pitcher, based on what a hitter’s weak areas might be; backing up the first baseman on throws; keeping track of opposing baserunners; and shaking off cobwebs following the occasional foul tip.
And, yes, catching a barrage of frozen-ropes — traveling at ridiculous speeds — aimed at the very center of your mitt.
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“Being a catcher, you get to see the whole field and call plays,” MacLennan said about what first drew him to the position. “And I like to be the captain of a team. A leader. I don’t really like to be a follower.”
He lowered into his first behind-the-plate crouch at age 6.
Catchers are sometimes forced to hurriedly put on or remove between 10 to 15 pounds of equipment in the dugout, depending on when one is scheduled to bat.
“As a coach, the catcher is a vital position, even though I don’t know if kids look at it this way,” Whiteland coach Scott Sherry said. “You touch the ball every play, and I think that’s what draws some players in.
“Catchers set the tempo of the game, but it is a tough, tough position.”
Who wants to be a catcher?
Second-year Franklin coach Ryan Feyerabend considers catcher to be one of baseball’s most mentally and physically demanding positions, along with pitcher.
Yet in some areas, the position itself has evolved. The cumbersome catcher’s equipment of yesteryear has been streamlined in recent years. So, too, has society’s perception of those playing the position.
MacLennan, for instance, is all of 5-foot-6, 145 pounds. A drastic departure from eras of catchers having to be built like a football team’s nose tackle.
Whereas the largest body stationed to prevent baseballs from rolling all the way to the backstop once served as suitable strategy, mobility and fast reflexes are now appreciated every bit as much.
“We’ve had some big catchers, and we’ve had some smaller ones,” Feyerabend said. “Back in the day you thought the physical specimen was the catcher. Well, now it’s in-between, where they can move faster.
“Traditionally it’s your tougher kids who catch. Your football players, your wrestlers. Guys who don’t mind getting dirty and guys who are high-action who don’t mind the elements.”
Greenwood baseball coach Andy Bass laughs remembering his introduction to catching.
“I was 8 years old, and my dad was my Little League coach. Nobody else wanted to catch, so being the coach’s son guess who got to do it? But I wanted to be Johnny Bench, so I worked at it,” Bass said.
Bass went on to play the position at Triton Central High School and later at Franklin College from 1992-95. One of the Grizzlies pitchers Bass caught his final two years was Sherry, against whom he coaches two or three times a season.
Fairly or unfairly, catchers have been compared to offensive linemen in that they only draw attention to themselves when making a mistake.
Their ability to process game situations while tending to the position’s physical demands often is taken for granted.
“When you’re reading about pitchers who do an incredible job, part of that is the catcher calling pitches at the right time,” Bass said. “You’re similar to the quarterback in football because there’s so much involved.
“The expectations of being the field general are just so demanding.”
For those who play the position, there is no turning back.
Case in point: Whiteland senior Austin Browning, who has been strapping on catcher’s gear and attempting to keep base runners honest most of his life.
“I can throw someone out to get us out of an inning or maybe block a ball at an important time,” Browning said. “Those things get my team pumped up. People don’t realize how hard being a catcher is.”
There are the apparent downsides, however, such as frequent equipment changes and the possibility of working both games of a doubleheader in 90-degree temperatures.
All in a day’s work for the man behind the mask.
“I like being a catcher because you can see everything that’s happening during the game,” Greenwood senior catcher Brayton Buchanan said. “You have the best view of what could happen at any moment.”