Astro catcher Mark Bailey makes meteoric rise to big league job

He stood outside the batting cage in Dodger Stadium waiting to get in a few practice swings, a young Adonis wearing the gaudy road uniform of the Houston Astros.

If you guessed him to be maybe 6 ft. 5 in. and 195 lbs., and in his early 20s , you'd be right. Name: Mark Bailey. Position: catcher. Status: rookie. Date of arrival in the majors: late April. Minor league experience: a little more than two years and none above Double A ball.

Minutes before, you'd watched Manager Bob Lillis write Bailey's name on his lineup card as the Astros' catcher, a ritual he's been performing almost daily for a month. What made it seem like a fairy tale was that Alan Ashby, the starting catcher for the past five years, was back after an injury and ready to play again.

Why Bailey?

''Because we see a great future for Mark and because he's been playing well for us,'' Lillis replied. ''We know about his youth and lack of experience, but we also know about his size, his strength, his agility, and his mental toughness. The first two weeks he was with us, he hit .300 and drove in eight runs. We might not get that kind of production from him again this year, but believe me, the potential is there for him to hit well in the big leagues.

''Behind the plate, we're not asking him to call every pitch. He gives the signals, but if one of our pitchers doesn't like what he calls, he shakes him off. It's something a manager can allow if he's got a veteran staff. Meanwhile, the kid is learning without having to make decisions against hitters he doesn't know much about.''

Asked if Bailey had been having problems with his throwing, since the Astros' press notes showed that he had erased only one of 13 base runners who had tried to steal against him, Lillis replied:

''Absolutely not. This kid has a great arm and a quick release, and the ability to throw out anyone. The problem has been with our pitchers, who have been careless about holding runners close to the bag. Once we get our pitchers straightened out, you won't find many guys taking liberties with Bailey's arm.''

Bailey probably would be looked upon by a pro football scout as a tight end who got away. With 19 home runs last year at Asheville, N.C., and 11 the year before at Auburn, N.Y. (in only 65 games), his RBI power could become outstanding. Five years from now Madison Avenue is going to find that this kid is perfect for product identification.

''I was so surprised when the Astros called me up that I guess I didn't really have time to think about the pressure,'' Bailey told me. ''I was just out there playing and doing the best I could and trying to remember everything the coaches had told me. Like, until I caught Joe Niekro, I had never worked with a knuckleball pitcher before, where the ball does crazy things. Lillis told me not to reach for the ball because it probably wouldn't be there, but to let it come to me and then gather it in. So far I've had pretty good luck catching the knuckler.''

Asked the difference between minor and major league pitching, he said: ''To me the big difference is location. Minor leaguers seem to struggle a lot to get the ball where they want it. But big league pitchers seem to find the location they want almost every time. My first couple of weeks up here, I saw a lot of fastballs, although never in the same location twice in a row. Now I'm seeing more breaking balls and lately I've been in a little slump.''

Until a year and a half ago, Bailey had divided his playing time between the outfield and the infield.

I'm not sure why the Astros decided to turn me into a catcher, but now that I've been catching for a while I wouldn't want to do anything else,'' he said. ''Back here you're really a part of the game. Although I'm not hitting well now, the fact that I did OK in the minors makes me think I can eventually handle the bat up here, too.''

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