The Art of Catching

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Yogi Berra sat down right next to me on the bench. He had his pinstripes on, of course. It was a sunny day in Bradenton during spring training in ‘98. Not a cloud in the sky. We were between innings. This was always my favorite time of the year.

Yogi used to sit in the same spot and talk to the fans in the front row. He loved that. He was always trying to make people smile. They actually installed a big net right in front of his spot so he wouldn’t get hit with a foul ball while he was chatting with the fans.

So he sat down next to me, and we started watching one of the pitchers warm up. In Yogi’s day, they didn’t have all the advanced analytics that we have now. They didn’t even have computers. So I wanted to know how he scouted opposing pitchers. How did he prepare back then?

I said, “Yogi, how did you know what the guy wanted to throw?”

“Well,” he said, “I looked at what pitches he was throwing.”

I said, “… Yeah?”

But that was it. Yogi just kind of shrugged.

I said, “Yogi, what do you mean?”

“Well, when he’s warming up between innings, what’s he throwing?” Yogi said. “If he’s throwing curveballs and fastballs, those are his pitches. I eliminate everything else from my head. Why would I be thinking about his changeup? He’s telling me what he’s going to throw today.”

I thought about the thick book full of scouting reports we got before a series on a pitcher’s tendencies and sequences. I thought about how much information was going through my head when I stepped to the plate.

“Curveball, fastball,” Yogi said, smiling. “He’s tellin’ ya.”

That stuck with me for the rest of my career.

Yogi was telling me to keep it simple. Now the game is so dissected and there’s so much information available to you that it’s easy to become overwhelmed. This was especially true for me. See, I didn’t start out as a catcher. I was a second baseman for most of my life, and there were a lot of doubts when I was coming up in the minors. I was following in the footsteps of legends like Yogi and Thurman Munson. Was this kid from Puerto Rico really up to it?

In ’95, after three years playing minor league ball, I knew I had to prove that I could be a big league catcher. The Yankees had even put me in a few trade deals that fell through. Then Scott Kamieniecki came down from New York on a rehab assignment, and my coach and mentor, Oscar Acosta, told me something that changed my life.

“You have to show this guy who you are,” he said. “Show him.”

“What I do every day behind the plate is a lot more important because it touches so many more people.”

Those words meant the world to me. I had an itch to prove myself, and Oscar brought it out even more.

So I caught Kamieniecki, and I did my best to show him that I could take command of the game and be a leader behind the plate. When he got reassigned back to the Yankees, he told Buck Showalter that they should think about bringing me up. Soon after that, I played my first game in pinstripes.

Still, I was pretty raw. For a few years I was up and down, just trying to figure out the position. Then, in 1998, I was working out in the tiny gym at Fenway Park that both teams shared when I saw this framed picture on the bulletin board. It was a quote from Thurman Munson, who died in a plane crash during the 1979 season. (I have no idea why there was a quote from a Yankee hanging in the Red Sox’ gym.)

“I like hitting fourth and I like the good batting average. But what I do every day behind the plate is a lot more important because it touches so many more people and so many more aspects of the game.”

I loved the quote so much that I asked the personal trainer in Boston to make a copy for me, and I put it up in my locker at Yankee Stadium.

From that day on I started thinking about the position a little differently. As a catcher you are managing a game within the game, and it’s constantly changing. You have to keep adapting your plan over the course of nine innings. You have to be completely in sync with the guy on the mound. Not just about what pitches he throws best statistically, but also what’s working for him right now, and how he’s feeling.

When we started a new series, our pitching coach would give us a huge book filled with scouting reports on the opposition. The hardest thing was when you were facing a new guy who you had no history with. Let’s say we were playing the Astros and I had never seen Carlos Correa before. I would have no idea how to pitch him. So the homework would be really important. I’d go to the film and look at three or four of his at bats, maybe against Justin Verlander or another top guy, to see how they attacked Correa.

Then I’d look at the scouting report, and see how Correa likes the ball. I’d go to the pitching coach, and ask how he would pitch him. Then I’d talk it over with my pitcher. In fact, we would go down the entire lineup before a series — all nine guys — and ask, “How are we getting this guy out?”

But, you see, this is just the homework. There’s also the human element. When I got to the bullpen during warmups, I’d catch my pitcher for 20 minutes to feel out what was working for him that day. Maybe his cutter was sharp, but his changeup wasn’t working as well. This is where it got really interesting. A perfect example is Andy Pettitte. From the first inning, Andy was always very good at pitching on the inside to righthanded hitters. His fastball, cutter and curveball I could always count on.

The last pitch Andy would get was his changeup. But I needed that changeup. That’s the pitch that we could get a ground ball on if we needed a double play. So we couldn’t just abandon it. We had to work it in slowly, in situations where Andy couldn’t get hurt.

Two outs, nobody on, 1-and-2 count? Sure, maybe we could get the guy to strike out with Andy’s curveball. But instead, I’d call for a changeup so Andy could get a feel for it. We might need it later.

Same thing with David Wells. I could never call a changeup before the fourth inning, because he was just too strong and he would throw it too hard. I needed him to be a little tired so he had a nice 10 mile-per-hour difference between his fastball and changeup.

In order to strike out the best hitters, you need to rely on your scouting to come up with a plan, and you also need to have a feel for the game as it goes along.

I’ll give you another example.

I know Mariano Rivera like he’s my brother. I would set up behind the plate, and I knew exactly where he wanted to throw the ball in every situation. It was that kind of relationship. I was reading his mind. Some of my favorite moments were catching Mariano when he went up against David Ortiz or Manny Ramirez.

Derek Jeter used to say he had Jedi powers.

Ortiz had a hole. It was a very small, little hole, right underneath his hands. If you missed down, he would hurt you. You had to keep it right underneath his hands because he wouldn’t swing higher, and he likes the ball down and in. Same thing with Manny. A strike in the middle of the plate? Manny Ramirez would crush you. Anything — curveballs, sinkers, sliders — it didn’t matter what you threw. If it was on the plate, he was deadly. So we had to come inside at his letters on the first pitch in order to back him off the plate a little bit, and then we would have some room to go down and away on him the next pitch.

Mariano, mentally, was above any pitcher I knew. You would go to the mound, and he would just say, “Let’s go.” He already knew what he was going to do, and he had the pinpoint control to do it. It was ridiculous. Derek Jeter used to say he had Jedi powers.

There’s only one guy in MLB who could consistently throw to Ortiz’s hole. Only Mariano could do it. But with every other pitcher, even Hall of Fame pitchers, you had to do something a little more difficult. You had to use the hitter’s instincts against him.

Mike Mussina was great at this. Mike is probably the smartest pitcher I’ve ever caught. The way he would attack Ortiz and Manny was a little different.

Let’s say the Sox had runners on second and third. Ortiz is at the plate with two outs. He’s gotta hit Mussina’s pitch. We know he wants to be the hero — it’s just his nature. There’s no one on first base. So we take that aggressiveness and use it against him. We almost throw him what he wants, except it’s a little outside, or a little in the dirt. We throw him some balls and see if he has the patience to take them.

With Ortiz and Manny, you could never pitch them the same way twice, because they would sit on pitches. Especially if you struck them out on that pitch and made them look bad. If you got them out on a hanging curveball the last inning, they would hunt for that pitch during the next at bat. They would set you up. So you had to play a cat-and-mouse game with them.

These battles against David and Manny were some of my favorite, because they weren’t just physical battles. They were psychological, too.

It’s the little things that make this game so interesting. And you don’t stop thinking about it when the game is over. I used to go to dinner with Derek Jeter after almost every game, and if we lost we would go over every little moment when the game might have turned.

We would ask, “Where did it go wrong? How could we have done it differently?”

If I didn’t go to dinner, I would be up all night overthinking things.

Did I make a mistake calling that curveball?

Should I have gone to the mound to calm my pitcher down in the seventh?

My brain would be going in circles if we didn’t talk it out and dissect the game over dinner.

In order to play this game a long time, you have to obsess over it, but you also have to be able to let things go.

I didn’t always know this stuff. It takes a lot of reps and a lot of learning to be an everyday catcher in Major League Baseball, especially over the grind of a 162-game season.

The only way I was going to learn was if my body was in the best possible shape.

There were days that I’d puke, that I didn’t want to be there, doing six 200-meter sprints under the blazing sun in Puerto Rico.

As a catcher, you’re not going to feel good every day. Some days you have to get to the park several hours before the game because you don’t feel 100%. Maybe you took a foul-tip off your thumb. Maybe you took one off the mask and you woke up with a sore neck. Well, not some days — pretty much the whole year. You just have to find a way to trick your body into playing. I had to do it because I needed to be there for my pitchers — for Andy Pettite and Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina. It was my responsibility to be there.

If you look at my numbers, my best months were always toward the end. Everyone was tired, but I still felt good because I had put my body through intense workouts during the off-season. After the season ended in October, I wouldn’t work out for three weeks. I would just ride the bike and stretch, letting my body catch up and recover.

Once those three weeks were over, I would go through a brutal three-week period of lifting and sprinting on the track. Every three weeks I would switch up my workout and do something completely different. There were days that I’d puke, that I didn’t want to be there, doing six 200-meter sprints under the blazing sun in Puerto Rico.

I wouldn’t even start swinging a baseball bat again until about a month before spring training. Everything I did was to enable me to crouch behind home plate for nine innings and experience the greatest feeling in baseball — even better than hitting a home run:

Full count.

Bases loaded.

Two outs.

Pop! You catch the last strike. You run to the mound to celebrate with your pitcher.

I’ll never forget May 17, 1998, when David Wells was working on a perfect game and I was behind home plate. Every sign I put down that day, he went right along with me. He probably shook me off four times at the most. I know David claims he was pitching with a big hangover that day, so maybe that had something to do with it. After the fifth inning, he didn’t miss my spot once. I’ve never seen anything like it.

As the game went on the crowd was getting really loud. I was nervous. Nobody was talking to me or David when we were in the dugout. I was like 0 for 4 that day because I was so locked into calling the game that I just couldn’t hit anything.

In the seventh, Paul Molitor came up to the plate with two outs. He always hit David pretty well. We fell behind in the count 3 and 1. We had been pitching Molitor the cutter inside all day. So I called something down and away and David threw a great strike. As Molitor put his foot down to stride when the pitch was coming in, I noticed his hips were open like he was expecting something inside. I could just feel it.

Full count. I put the sign down. Same pitch. Same location.

He wants it inside. Let’s throw it outside. Keep it simple.

David threw it, and I felt the glove pop. The crowd exploded. We got him.

The last batter in the ninth inning was Pat Mears. As he was coming to the plate, the announcer on TV actually said, “How nervous is Posada behind home plate? He’s the one making the calls.”

I was so nervous that when Mears popped up to right field, I threw off my mask and started running to the outfield like I was going to field the ball myself.

When Paul O’ Neill caught it, I turned around and the whole dugout was already mobbing David at the mound. When I ran back to him, he said, “Where the hell were you, man?”

There’s nothing like that feeling. Everything I did offensively was a plus, a bonus. The real reward was how I could influence the game defensively. Thurman was exactly right.

Thurman’s widow, Diana, was a big supporter of our team. About a year after I put her husband’s quote up in my locker, Diana found out about it and came up to me at Old-Timers’ Day. She said that for a long time it was too painful for her to watch baseball, but she started following the Yankees again because I reminded her so much of Thurman. Those were the best words anyone could say to me.

Thurman’s words had come full circle.

“… what I do every day behind the plate is a lot more important because it touches so many more people.”

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