Los Angeles — Most big league catchers give the impression of being warlike people, a description perpetuated by the fact that they wear a metal mask; encase their legs in shin guards; and use a glove the size of a hatbox. Usually they are on the blocky side physically and run with the speed of wet cement.
One catcher who has never been a cliche coming true is Gary Carter of the Montreal Expos, who moves well, carries 215 pounds on a 6 ft. 2 in. frame, and looks like a fleet-footed outfielder. If Montreal gets past the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League's current best-of-five Championship Series, Gary could very easily emerge as the series' most valuable player.
In Game 1 of the series, Gary had a walk, two hits, including a double, and scored Montreal's only run in a 5-1 loss.
With Johnny Bench preferring to work first base and the outfield to lengthen his career, few objections ever arise now when someone calls Carter the best catcher in the National League. A good defensive catcher who is also a good hitter is as rare as a clock in a Las Vegas gambling casino and Gary's credentials in both areas are impeccable.
Carter, who hit 16 homers and drove in 68 runs for the Expos during baseball's abbreviated 1981 season, then knocked in five more against the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East playoffs, is a four-time all-star. Going into this season his 126 career home runs were the most for any player his age ( 27) currently in the majors.
"When our pitchers have to face Carter with men on base, we never want them to get the idea that they can throw the ball to the same spot twice in a row," explained Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda. "The only thing you can do against a hitter of Carter's caliber is keep the ball down; move your pitches in and out; and try to stay off the center of the plate.
"The ideal thing, of course, would be to pitch around Carter in a situation where he could hurt you," Lasorda continued. "And if first base is open and the main hitting behind Gary hasn't done much that day, you can gamble and do this. But when it's late in the game and what it mostly comes down to is pitcher against batter, you're always afraid that Carter might hit one out."
Even though figures can often be made to say whatever you want them to say, Carter (not counting this year) has 107 home runs for his last four seasons with the Expos. During that same period, Bench, the yardstick by which all power-hitting catchers are judged, has 100.
Catching, like shortstop and pitching, is a very visible position. It's where the batter begins the crusade that he hopes will lead at least to first base and possibly to a run.
It's also the spot where the man in the mask must dig balls out of the dirt; the sun invariably makes catching popups a real trial, and where baseball for a split second sometimes turns into pro football.
Basically, if there is any "dog" in a catcher, it will show when the throw from an outfielder and the runner racing in from third base both arrive at home plate at precisely the same time. The collisions can be heard all the way up to the press box.
This isn't to say that Gary Carter hasn't been knocked down many times on such occasions, but just as many times he has held onto the ball and gotten the putout.
Pitchers who work for a club that has an all-star catcher to guide them invariably win more games and walk fewer hitters than those who are forced to throw to backstops whose chief credentials are their batting averages.
Handling pitchers is an art because it isn't just a physical thing that requires stamina; educated hands; the ability to consistently block balls in the dirt; and the fearlessness to accept foul tips to the body as just so many mosquito bites.
It is also understanding every pitcher's thinking process -- what he wants to throw to certain hitters; how he reacts when he's behind in the count; and how to bring him back mentally after a home run has been hit against him.
Back in 1975, when Carter joined Montreal to stay after playing in nine games at the tail end of the previous season, he told reporters: "If I want something, I go after it and I go after it hard because that's the way I was brought up. Once I decided to play baseball for a living, I was determined to get to the big leagues in three years because that's where the fun and the money and the satisfaction is."
Even though Carter runs a ball game well, throws with speed and accuracy, and hits with power, his greatest asset is probably his desire. It's what puts him in the same class with Bench, Thurman Munson, and, going way back, Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane.