LAKELAND, Fla. — He sees them all, every spring, from behind the bars of his sweaty black mask. The pitchers cannot hide. Not from him. With each thud in his glove he knows who is smokin’ and who is just lighting up and who can’t even generate a spark. You want to know something about something?
Ask the catcher.
Ask Lance Parrish. As these baby days of spring training unfold he is out there in the morning sun, squatting like a pillbug, feeling the future of this ball club with each fastball that smacks his leather mitt. The longer you stay around, the better you get at reading your pitchers, and Lance Parrish, the quiet muscleman behind the plate, has been down here 10 straight years now. Seen ’em come. Seen ’em go.
Ask the catcher.
“Every spring there are young guys trying to impress you,” he says, suiting up for another day’s work in his chest protector and shin guards.
“They throw harder than the other pitchers.’ ”
He holds out his left hand. “Stings like hell,” he says.
On go the shoes, the cap, a special plastic thumb protector. “You can’t blame them, I guess,” he says. “They’re trying to earn a job. They throw 90 miles per hour. They go for the corners of the plate. They pitch like it’s the damn World Series out there.”
Parrish catches them all, spring after newborn spring. In his years as a Tiger he has seen well over 100 pitchers throwing at him, the sure-shots, the long-shots, the no-shots. Imagine his perspective. No. Scratch that. You can’t. None of us can.
You want to know, you gotta ask. Every spring, new faces to learn
A catcher spends more time staring into the faces of his pitchers than anyone save the umpires, and maybe the pitchers’ wives. He comes to know every cheek full of chewing tobacco, every look of terror, every leer of confidence, every grin.
And then spring comes and there are new faces, and there are new faces again this year. Dave LaPoint is a new face. A starting pitcher acquired in an off-season trade. For everyone else on the Tigers, LaPoint is a guy to get to know over time. For Parrish and the other catchers, the time is now.
“We have to learn how to work together,” Parrish says. “Since Dave is from the National League, I’ve never gotten to really see him. So I ask around about him, find out what he likes to throw.”
Parrish says it should take “one good start” for the two to establish a mound-to-plate rapport.
There are other newcomers. Veteran Bill Campbell — “sliders and sinkers mostly,” Parrish reports — and a handful of minor league hopefuls.
He takes their measure, and then he measures them against the past. He can tell by the way a curveball breaks, the way a fastball jumps, just where the pitcher is, and just how much further he has to go.
“The hardest spring thrower since I’ve been here was probably Dan Petry,” he says. “(Juan) Berenguer was one, too. And Bob James.”
And this year? “So far it seems like Chuck Cary and Bill Scherrer are throwing the hardest,” Parrish says. No surprise. The two might battle for a spot on the roster should the Tigers carry only nine pitchers this year.
But it is still early. There are those youngsters. New arms. New faces.
Parrish reaches for his mitt. “I guess in a perfect world for catchers there would be no new pitchers — just the old ones,” he says. “But . . . “
He shrugs. This is not a perfect world. Work is hard and days long
Parrish puts in his time, which is longer than most players.’ Catchers must be out on the field at the start of practice and stay until the last pitchers are done throwing.
Hours go by. When he returns to the clubhouse, he is matted with dry sweat. He drops onto a stool, and looks up as Cary walks by.
“You bleep,” he says, grinning.
“Whaaaa?” Cary says.
“Why don’t you lob one up there in batting practice so I can hit it? I couldn’t hit anything off you today.”
Cary laughs. It’s a compliment of the highest order. A catcher nodding at a pitcher’s stuff.
Parrish undresses slowly. He is 29 now; young, but then catchers age differently than others. The squatting slowly grinds their leg speed down to nothing — “I used to be fast in high school,” Parrish laments — and the lower back and the knees and the fingers endure endless punishment.
But they see it all, every spring, and Parrish is seeing it all again. He knows who’s cooking, and who’s burned out. Has he ever been wrong with an analysis?
“No,” he says, leaning back. “I’ve always been right on.” And then he laughs.
Let the other guys romp. The view from behind the plate is unique. A seat of wisdom, really.
Ask the catcher. He’ll tell you so himself.