Los Angeles — So many ingredients go into the making of not just a presentable but a thoroughly reliable big league catcher that no manager's cookbook ever seems to start with the same basic requirement.
Most scouts look for the rifle-like arm first, figuring if a catcher can't throw hard and accurately, opposing runners are sure to take advantage of him on the base paths. What usually can't be determined right away is the player's desire.
Is he willing to pay the physical price that invariably comes with putting on what veterans call "the tools of ignorance?" Are his hands clever enough so that he can consistently dig balls out of the dirt? Does he mind subjecting his body to an occasional traffic jam at home plate?
And if the answer to all three questions is yes, then the team's general manager also has to ask himself: Can this player do all these things and still make a contribution with his bat?
Even though the Atlanta Braves are not saying that 25-year-old Bruce Benedict is the best young catcher in the National League, they are not discouraging other sources from making that statement. In fact, they revel in the fact that when National League managers filled out their circuit's All-Star roster this year, Bruce was on it.
"Two years ago Benedict was still learning what our pitchers throw best, plus the strengths and weaknesses of every National League hitter," explained Braves' Manager Bobby Cox. "It didn't come easy and it didn't come overnight and while he was learning this it didn't allow him much time to grow as a hitter."
"But after catching 120 games for us last year, raising his batting average 28 points, and more than doubling his RBI total, we feel he is ready for big things," Cox continued."Except for an occasional pitchout, which I call from the dugout, the game is his to run the way he wants.
"Bruce knows he's in charge out there; he knows I won't second-guess him; and he's also become a pretty good clutch hitter. In a normal year he'd probably catch 135 games for us. Now, with the strike behind us, we'll use him as often as we can."
Gaylord Perry, who has been pitching in the majors since 1962 and is approaching his 300th career victory, says that Benedict has helped him out this season on several occasions.
"If you go by Bruce's age, he's still a kid," Perry remarked. "But he doesn't handle himself like a kid and when I forget sometimes and drop down in my delivery, he isn't afraid to come out to the mound and tell me about it. I also have complete faith in his ability to catch every pitch."
That statement, of course, takes on considerably more significance if you already know that what Gaylord refers to as a forkball the rest of the baseball world is convinced is a spitter.And Perry's irrigated delivery, which can cause a ball to break sharply either up or down, often makes catchers wish they could work with a short-handled fishing instead of a glove.
Benedict's father, who was a minor league pitcher for both the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals without ever seeing the majors, has spent the last 23 years as baseball coach at Boys' Town in Nebraska.
"Although Dad never forced any of his sons to play baseball, he did make sure that we were all heavily exposed to the game as kids," Bruce said. "Why baseball took with me and neither of my two brothers is something you would have to ask them."
Benedict says that even though handling pitchers and defense are a catcher's first responsibility, he really shouldn't use that as an excuse for a poor batting average.
"I think a man, if he concentrates well, can do both," Bruce said. "To me, pitching is basically applying the pitcher's strength against the hitter's weakness, with a lot of help from his catcher."
Hall of Famer Luke Appling, who serves as a special batting instructor for the Braves, says that Benedict was already a pretty good line-drive hitter when he first came up, only someone in the organization didn't know enough to leave him alone.
"Once in a while you'll run into someone with authority who sees a young player with exceptional potential and wants to rush him. I think this is what happened to Benedict two years ago when he had to struggle to hit .225. Instead of letting the kid mature first physically, the Braves tried to make him into a power hitter before he was ready.
"Last year we got him back to what he was doing in the minors by making him more aware of the strike zone, by cutting down on his swing, and by insisting that he be more selective at the plate. He's never going to hit a lot of home runs, but there's no reason why he shouldn't eventually hit 20 or 30 doubles a year. And with the super arm he's got, and the way he calls pitches, the Braves won't need another first-string catcher for 10 years."