All Hail the Left-Handed Catcher

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I DON'T recall if the field had a name, nor do I remember any of the players' names. But Barney Penn - tall, bandy-legged and pot-bellied - stands by third base forever wise in my memory wearing a gray uniform too small for his body. He was the manager of the Monrovia Merchants, a semi-pro baseball team of scruffy never-beens who Barney pushed beyond normal capacity each Sunday against better teams from the San Gabriel Valley. That Sunday, the day I learned that the catcher is the heart of baseball, the Merchants played the legendary Highland Park Ramblers, a team with major-league connections and uniforms that glowed in the sunlight because they were white and clean and new.

During the games I hung around third base, next to the fence with my glove, shagging foul balls for Barney as a 10-year-old. I watched him more than I did the game, because all the old men in the covered bleachers behind home plate said Barney should have managed in the big leagues. He could have revolutionized the game, they said.

Barney said catchers were the burros of baseball, the key to the game, not the hitters or the pitchers. The best catchers carried the game, he said, moved it forward, guided it, and determined the outcome.

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So we come now to the game that Sunday. Me, by the fence, watching Barney with the lineups of both teams on an envelope in his hand, little notes beside each name, signaling during the game, waving the envelope, moving players around to compensate for their weaknesses, not their strengths.

What is not important is how the Merchants got a 3-to-2 lead going into the top of the eighth when Barney took his stumpy rightfielder with the rocket arm and made him the catcher. You could hear the crowd gasp: a left-handed catcher? Catchers are never left-handed. This is a world of right-handed catchers.

Before the inning started, Barney stood before his new catcher, telling him something secret, shaping a concept with his hands, tapping his shoulder with the envelope.

The game resumed. The catcher dropped the pitches; two got by him. He fell once. Chasing a foul ball, he ran into the fence. Laughter was rippling through the crowd and the Ramblers. But no runs were scored that inning.

In the top of the ninth, more of the same. The first batter grounded to third after the first pitch hit the catcher in the mask. The second batter hit a deep fly ball to left field for a long out. The third batter kept the game alive by cracking a single to right field. When he stole second, the catcher threw the ball so low to second that the pitcher had to dive out of the way, and the second baseman used his body to block the ball from squirting into center field.

The Babe Ruth of San Gabriel Valley was at the plate, capable of winning the game.

Everybody knew the runner would steal third on the hapless catcher. On the next pitch, he broke for third. But the caterpillar became the butterfly. In a deft, sure move, the catcher swirled and used that rocket left arm to fire the ball ankle high to the third baseman, who had the diving runner by two feet. End of game.

Of course it was a setup. Barney had told the catcher to play the fool, to be a fumbler so that the game would focus on him until he could take charge of it. After the game, Barney stood with his players, tapping the envelope on his knuckles, telling them baseball is always a catcher's game.

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