The Education of a Catcher

I’m crouching behind home plate, ready to take.

The pitch — my guy’s signature pitch — comes in.

It’s out of the zone.

That, on its own, would be no big deal. Guys miss on location all the time. Well — my guy, not so much. He almost never misses. But it happens.

What I notice on this pitch is that his mechanics are off. Not way off. Just a little. Enough. And trust me, this guy’s usually really steady.

But even still, I’m thinking to myself, Okay — maybe he just needed a warm-up. I’m sure it’s nothing. No problem. I file it away, and crouch back down.

The second pitch comes in. It’s out of the zone again. And my guy’s mechanics still seem off. Like I said, it’s nothing huge — but it’s enough that I notice.

I think about saying something. I almost say something.

But I don’t.

I should, but I don’t.

I think to myself, You know what, he probably knows best.

After all, he’s the greatest closer of all time. And I’m just the backup catcher.

I crouch back down.

Mariano Rivera stares at me, winds up, and pitches again.

The ball never gets to me.

It gets crushed. Home run.

Later that night, in the clubhouse, Mariano comes over to my locker. He looks at me, calmly, with his kind, intense eyes.

“Francisco,” he says. “Why didn’t you tell me my mechanics were off?”

I look back at him, speechless. I try to explain … but the words won’t come out. My face says it all. I’m just the backup catcher.

“That’s not how we do things around here,” Mariano says. “There is no ego on this team. If you notice something, you say.”

He pats me on the shoulder and turns to leave. After a few paces, he turns to me again.

“Francisco,” he says. “All we want is to win.”

Being a backup catcher for the Yankees was like getting an advanced degree in winning. Every day, it seemed, I learned a new lesson about what it takes to be a winning baseball player. Not just how to do certain things — but why to do them, and when, and with what purpose.

I learned from Johnny Damon alertly stealing second in the playoffs — and then, with no one covering the base, making a heads-up play and stealing third. I learned from Mariano, with our backs against the wall, throwing a two-inning save while in enough oblique pain to put 90 percent of the league on the disabled list. I learned from Andy Pettitte, eyes peeking out over his glove, glaring into my signals, waving off and waving off, until he found his pitch.

I learned from Derek, keeping his cool under pressure, unlike anyone I’d ever seen before. From how he led us by example, always by example, and reined us in with his demeanor. No matter how big the moment was, Derek wouldn’t let it get to him. People always talk about how leadership is an “intangible,” but trust me, it isn’t. It’s extremely tangible. It’s a special skill.

And I learned, and learned, and learned from Jorge Posada. Jorge, out of everyone, was the most influential guy for me. Honestly, it would be easier to list the habits that I didn’t try to pick up from him. When I came in for my first spring training, I followed Jorge around constantly. I mean … everywhere he’d go. Just — shadowing him, copying him, seeing the way he worked. And wow … he worked. Jorge believed it was a catcher’s duty, his actual duty, to be the hardest-working guy on the team. And he put the time in to follow through on that belief.

And as patient as Jorge was with his pitchers, he was ten times more patient with me. He took my education seriously. It wasn’t something that he had to do, but he did it. I lucked out, in a very real way, to be able learn from him — to be able to learn from all of them. It was an incredible experience.

But at the same time, I couldn’t help but hope that a day would come when I’d get to take all those lessons from my time in New York and apply them. Because one of the biggest lessons I learned there was how to believe in my own abilities. Finally, I believed that I could be a full-time, starting major-league catcher. I believed that I could play every day. And I believed that I could win.

“Your time is going to come,” Jorge would tell me. “And you’ve got to be ready.”

I was ready, and I got my chance when I was traded to Pittsburgh last winter.

I was sad to leave New York, but when spring training broke, I couldn’t have been more excited. Of course, I may have been the only one.

I was following in Russell Martin’s footsteps — and they were big footsteps to follow. He was the catcher here last year, and did a wonderful job. So when it was announced that I would be the team’s starting catcher, I think the reaction among most fans was kind of, like, “Oh no. We used to have Russell Martin. Now we’ve got some other team’s backup. Now we’ve got nobody.”

But on the team, guys were amazing. I remember Jeff Locke, one of our starting pitchers, coming up to me in spring training. And he just said to me, you know, “Nice to meet you. I’m excited to start working with you.”

He probably thought nothing of it — but to me it meant everything. To me it meant, I’m a starter now. This is my pitching staff. And I’m their guy. It was this little moment in March, not even a half-minute long, but it felt so important.

It felt like I was being given a whole new job, a whole new mindset. I was being given the opportunity that I’d worked for, studied for, and wanted so much for so long. I was finally going to get to play every day.

The most challenging aspect of not playing every day is that it can be hard to find a rhythm. Emotionally, it can be tough: Just knowing that, no matter what you do today, on some level it doesn’t matter. You’re still not playing tomorrow. You could play on a Wednesday, get in a couple of at-bats … and then your week could be over, just like that. Before you even know it. Baseball is such a “feel” sport, a momentum sport. It can be hard to adjust.

I really wanted to prove to myself that I could play a full season, as an everyday player, and make an impact. And I’m proud to say that I’ve done that: On an individual level, this has been the best and most rewarding season of my career, by far. No matter what happens going forward, I’ll cherish it. But this season wouldn’t have meant nearly as much to me if the team was not also having success.

And listen: This team is special.

We’ve got a lights-out rotation, from Cole to Liriano to A.J. and beyond. We’ve got an excellent bullpen, full of guys we can trust. We’ve got Mark Melancon, my old teammate from way back in 2006 (shout out to the Staten Island Yankees), who has turned himself into an elite closer — setting the Pirates’ saves record this season with 51. We’ve got a deep lineup — a lineup where we feel like anyone could be a game-changer for us on any given night: from veterans who’ve been through it all, like Aramis Ramirez, to talented younger players who have the sky as their limit, like Gregory Polanco.

And of course: We’ve got Andrew McCutchen.

Cutch is our guy, our leader by example. Cutch is our Jeter. Cutch is The Man.

When I think of the various things that have defined this Pirates season so far, there is really one big moment that stands out above the rest.

In mid-July, right before the All-Star break, we had a four-game series with the Cardinals. We split the first two. In the third game, Andrew won it for us with a 14th-inning walk-off homer. (Like I said: Our Jeter.) We were in a great spot — with a chance to go into the break with a 3-1 series win over our division’s first-place team. Or: we could lose the fourth game, and split the series, and be right back where we started.

Everything hinged on that last game. We knew it, and they knew it.

And we won it.

With two outs in the bottom of the 10th, Gregory Polanco drove in the winning run.

We shot out of the dugout, and chased after him. We piled on and celebrated. The fans were going nuts. It was just one win, and only the end of one half of the season. But it felt like more. It felt the start of something.

After that game, I said, “We’ve got one mission: everything or nothing.” I always knew, in my heart, that this team had a chance to be great … but that was the moment when it fully came together for me — when I realized just what this team’s expectations need to be, and are. From that series onward, I expected us to be here — to be playing in October. And I expected that when we got here, we would not yet be satisfied.

Everything or nothing. Those are the stakes.


In the end, I always come back to that moment I had with Mariano.

Mo didn’t care about status, or salary, or position, or anything — if you had insight for him, for the team, then it didn’t matter whether you were “just the backup catcher” or the greatest player in the world. If you could help, you could help. All he wanted to do was win.

And that’s the kind of dynamic we have here in Pittsburgh. We’ve built a team and a culture where, truly, everyone is learning from each other, and everyone is important. This is a team where, when we step onto the field, we all have the same, singular focus in mind: Keep this season alive.

We just want to play more baseball.

And why not?

We’re getting pretty good at it.