Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mask

I have often thought about what might be the easiest and most difficult jobs in pro sports. I haven't thought it all the way through, so I'm sure there are some sports that I've missed, like Australian Rules Football or Mongolian cliff diving. But among the sports I've thought of (now there's a category for you), I imagine these two are the easiest:

1. Pro golfer. Golfing is an insanely difficult game to master. But if you are very good at it, you have got it made. The game is leisurely. There is little danger of major injury. You almost always play in warm climates. And everyone has to be quiet every time you do anything. You can't beat that.

2. Pro bowler. The surroundings aren't great (how many hot dogs can you eat?), the footwear sucks. But again, the sport has "fat guys can do this, too" written all over it.

Now onto the most difficult jobs, which is what this post is all about. I've often though that hockey goalie was the most difficult and potentially frightening task. In fact, even though I've never played goal in my life, I have had dreams in which I was a hockey goalie. None of them have been pleasant. Standing still while everyone else is moving a 100 miles an hour and a rock-hard piece of vulcanized rubber is moving even faster seems positively bananas.

The second-most-difficult, to me, has got to be offensive lineman. What a thankless, uninspiring career occupation that is. Think about how much you enjoyed helping your friends move. The shoving, the heavy lifting. Well, that's all linemen do! And they don't even get to drink beer while they're doing it.

But there is one position that I constantly overlook even though I have heard all my life how difficult it can be, and that is baseball catcher. All you have to do is look at the mask they're required to wear. Nobody else on the field is wearing that.

Think about how you felt when you saw Ellis Valentine here or Gary Roenicke wearing that football half-face guard thing for the first time. If you're anything like me, you thought, "My gosh, what happened to him?"

But we don't think that when we see the catcher wear an entire mask. We shrug it off and say, "yep, that's the catcher." We've heard it all before. The foul tips off the fingers, the shots to the groin, the backswings in the head, the foul balls off the shoulder. But catchers don't forget.

See? Look at Bill Schroeder here. He doesn't even want to put his mask back on. "I've got to wear this thing again?" He knows what's coming.

So, in an attempt to honor the catcher, I've put together my favorite catcher cards in my collection. I've limited it to 10 cards, and in all of the cards the catcher must be wearing his mask. Because the mask defines who they are: the baddest players on the field, the ones that make that relief pitcher who comes in to throw four pitches and get one out look like, oh, I don't know, a pro bowler.

10. Dann Bilardello. 1984 Topps. This is what's known as self-preservation on a card. With one skillful move, Bilardello ensures that there will be little Bilardellos in the future.

9. Rick Cerone, 1982 Donruss. You have all you need here. Player, mask, chest protector, catcher's mitt, ball. And I love that old-school mask.

8. Javy Lopez, 2006 Upper Deck. There are a lot of UD photos like this, so I just picked one. I like a play at the plate and Javy's doing it all with his mask still on. But unless he's got the plate blocked exceptionally well, I think the runner's safe.

7. Sal Fasano, 2006 Upper Deck. Check out the goggles. Fasano is doing his best impression of "The Fly."

6. Butch Wynegar, 1985 Topps. Love the intensity on his face as he throws to second base. He may be merely sending his last warm-up pitch down to second, but you could never tell from the look on his face.

5. Hector Villaneuva, 1992 Triple Play. Now that is a tight shot. Doesn't this job look like FUN?

4. Jason Kendall, 2000 Topps. I had a friend that wanted Jason Kendall cards. I gave him two to choose from, including this one. I hoped he didn't pick this one. He didn't. I was relieved.

3. Joe Oliver, 1992 Upper Deck. Having never played catcher, I'm not sure why Oliver is looking this Brave runner in the eyes. Maybe he thinks he can freeze him with his X-ray vision, because I think the runner is going to be safe.

2. Jerry Grote, 1976 Topps. I like this card so much because you really didn't see many photos back then with a catcher's mask on. Catchers were often posed squatting without a mask or pretending to flip the mask away. Making sure the collector saw the face seemed to be critical. I'm pretty sure this wasn't the first "mask-on" card. But it's got to be one of the pioneers.

1. Ron Pruitt, 1979 Topps. This was my first experience with a "mask-on" card. I thought it was so cool. Not just the mask, but the eye-black. And that "OF-C" designation isn't one you see a whole lot. Pruitt may have been strictly a backup during his career, but thanks to this card, he will never be forgotten. Not by me.

So, if you see a catcher, give him a hug. Well, a hearty handshake anyway. That mask could poke you.

9 comments:

  1. When I saw the title on my blogroll I thought this post was going to be about the Cher/Eric Stoltz film.

    I'm glad it wasn't.

    What's also sort of cool is the evolution of catcher's masks, thanks to technology. Greg Zaun is sporting the hockey style mask this year for the O's and I like it.

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  2. Ron Pruitt may have been a backup guy, but he was a valuable guy to have in APBA and Strat leagues. He played a lot of positions and if you didn't want to have to sub very often you could have him on your roster and satisfy several "backup" requirements at once.

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  3. I love the posed pictures of catchers with their gear. It's like, "Look, we got equipment and everything!"

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  4. Being a catcher is one of the most thankless jobs on the diamond. I once had a ball move suddenly over my mitt, during practice, and pop my lens out. Thank goodness the lens was plastic or I might not have a left eye!

    My friend was loosening up his arm with some soft tosses and without thinking, he let one go. I was shocked that I didn't have a black eye to go along with that. Say what you will about plastic aviator lenses, but I popped it back in and I was good to go seconds later.

    After crouching down for half the game and having contact with almost everyone who crossed the plate, my knees still click today. I have a healthy respect for the catcher!

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  5. Great collection of cards. I remember when my oldest son was playing t-ball. For some reason, the made the kid playing catcher wear a mask. for the first few weeks the kids playing catcher would stare at the inside of the mask during the game. The catcher in t-ball rarely has anything to do. It wasn't often that a throw into the catcher actually came anywhere near him.

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  6. I immediately thought of the Pruitt and Grote cards. Nice selection of cards.
    As a catcher in a softball league, I wished I had the mask a couple years back. The batter took a mighty swing and missed. On the backside, his bat knocked my hat off and if I hadn't half-fell, half-jumped back, it would have clocked me and probably knocked me out.

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  7. Great Brewers card of Rock. He is a great color commentator these days, much better at that than he ever was as a backstop.

    Want to here my catcher anecdote? In little league my younger brother and I were the main battery for the team - me on the mound, him behind the plate. He called for a high inside fastball, and with a guy on second I missed the sign and so what he got was a curveball in the dirt...which he stopped with his groin. No cup that day, he left it at home.

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  8. I love the position of catcher - it's the most exciting, by far. I occasionally play it for my adult baseball league team. Love the comment on the '92 Joe Oliver card... his eyes jump off of that card!!! It always stands out to me when I sort through the billions of 92 UD cards I own.

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  9. Thanks to the Troll's Nitty Gritty Blog and your comment on it, I got to read this awesome post. Since I didn't discover the blogosphere until August of 09, I missed this gem. I now rates as one of my favorite Night Owl posts. And that's saying something.

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