Catching Houston fireballers is no easy job

Some guys get all the breaks! The Houston Astros, for example, have a player with a .233 lifetime major league batting average named Alan Ashby, who already has one foot (one is tempted to say hand) in baseball trivia's Hall of Fame.

Years from now when some network television quiz show host wants to know who regularly caught the two fastest pitchers in baseball in 1980 (and no help from the audience, please), the name Ashby will keep coming back like a song.

The Houston pitching staff this year is so good that one of its flame-throwing aces (Nolan Ryan) has four career no-hitters and another (James Rodney Richard) is a threat to throw one every time he walks to the mound. Ryan , acquired as a free agent last winter, led the American League in strikeouts seven years, including the last four in a row, while Richard was the major league leader in that category last season.

Then there is Ken Frosch, who threw a no-hitter last year against the Atlanta Braves, plus knuckleballer Joe Niekro, who once hurled eight and one-third hitless innings against the Yankees. Niekro, in addition to winning 21 games last year, was runnerup to Chiago's Bruce Sutter for the National League's Cy Young Award.

Ryan's and Richard's fastballs have been clocked this year at just under 100 miles per hour. This may explain why a standard catcher's mitt, even with a batter's glove underneath, isn't enough to reduce the feeling of being pounded in the palm of the hand with a large hammer.

All I can say is that it's a good thing Ashby opens doors and eats with his right hand.

Just so you won't entertain the idea that Ashby got the Astros' catching job because nobody else wanted it, this is one of the finest defensive backstops in the game. He's on this year's All-Star ballot, and when he has to keep a base runner from stealing with a perfect throw, his peg is invariably right on the money.

"Although Ashby had to take some days off early in the season because of injuries, and Luis Pujlos did a good job filling in for him, Alan has never been anything but my No. 1 catcher," explained Manager Bill Virdon. "Defensively he's as good as any backstop in the game.

"He's smart, he knows his staff, and he also knows how to set up the hitters, " Virdon continued. "I put him out there and I forget him because that's the kind of confidence I have in his judgment.

"Ashby calls his own game, with no help from me or anyone else. When one of our pitchers does shake him off and wants to go with a different pitch, he'd better have a pretty good reason. Johnny Bench hits better and has a better arm , but otherwise my guy is just as good."

Nature cast Ashby (who is 6 ft. 2 in. and 195 pounds) in upper case, Gothic type. His body is all whipcord and whalebone and his catching hand, if it isn't from the Planet Krypton, at least has the staying power of the pyramids.

"Even though I'm working with one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, still feel a lot of personal responsibility for what happens," Ashby told me. "It's my ball game as far as setting up the hitters and calling the right pitches, and it bothers me when I'm wrong.

"To have a successful staff, I think the pitcher and catcher have to trust each other," he continued. "It's important that they challenge the hitter together sometimes, if that's what the situation demands, and you can't have that without a lot of understanding."

Although both Ryan and Richard are power pitchers. Ashby says their styles are actually quite different.

"Nolan's fastball has a tendency to rise sharply and move a little more against the hitter than JR's," Alan explained. "In other words, you're up and reaching a lot more when you're catching Ryan.

"What makes Richard so tough is that his fastball darts so quickly that even the good hitters have trouble getting a piece of it. JR also throws the hardest slider I've ever seen -- around 90 miles per hour.

"But Forsch, who is also a hard thrower, is actually around the plate more than either of them. With Niekro it's better to wait until his knuckleball is right on top of you before you reach for it. Otherwise, you risk losing the ball and having it roll all the way to the backstop."

So there you have it from the man who runs the pitching staff that has set the baseball world on fire -- and probably never will have to go back for more matches!

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