In the geography of a baseball diamond, catcher is the Pittsburgh of positions. It is a grimy, blue-collar place where no one reports to work without a hard hat. Wimps and Bozos need not apply.
Baseball is supposed to be right there with golf as a noncontact sport. But there is nothing noncontact about catching. Even the cockiest players cower at the thought of squatting behind home plate, blocking sliders within inches of swinging bats.
"Catchers are definitely a breed," Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia said last week. "Nothing is supposed to phase a catcher. Not an injury, not striking out. He has to be the most composed player on the field."
Professional scouts scour high schools and colleges for masked men willing to wear welts as badges of honor. A catcher who can crack a smile while covered with bruises and brick dust is quite a catch.
"Most big league organizations place catchers at a premium," said Dale Sutherland, a Cleveland Indians scout. "They are usually drafted higher than players with equal skills who play another position."
Scouts are reluctant to discuss players who interest them, but they acknowledge there are several outstanding catchers in the Valley area this season.
"There is a better group of catchers in this area than I have ever seen," said Jay Robertson, a Philadelphia Phillies scout assigned to the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County.
Four high school seniors--Mike Urman of Canoga Park, Jim Henderson of Westlake, Tim Laker of Simi Valley and Frank Charles of Montclair Prep--have scouts scribbling glowing reports.
The same goes for Cal State Northridge junior Scott McIntyre and College of the Canyons freshman Mike Bible. And another catcher with local ties--Andy Skeels of the University of Arkansas--may be the best of all. Skeels, a senior who played at Thousand Oaks High and Oxnard College, has 16 home runs--one shy of the single-season Arkansas record shared by Kevin McReynolds and Jeff King.
Two other high school seniors--J.P. DesEnfants of Reseda and Joe Sturges of Thousand Oaks--would be the best local catchers in a normal year, but this season they must take a back seat to the top seven backstops.
Although catching on with a professional team is the first choice of the magnificent seven, there is no guarantee they will sign if drafted in June.
The high school catchers, for instance, won't go pro unless bonus money equals the value of a college scholarship. Despite what you hear about catchers wearing the "tools of ignorance," they're smart enough to realize that college is a viable alternative to life in the minor leagues.
"I'm getting the word around that I want to sign," said Henderson, Westlake's 6-3, 190-pound catcher who carries a 4.0 grade-point average.
Charles is similarly smitten by the thought of professional baseball, even though he's had serious overtures from Pepperdine.
"I'd like to go to college," he said. "but everybody wants the chance to play pro ball."
Ah, the lure of professional baseball. But can the mystique cause a mistake?
Scioscia, who spurned a scholarship to Clemson after being drafted No. 1 by the Dodgers in 1976, thinks it can.
"If I had the choice over again, I'd go to college," Scioscia said. "My suggestion to a young catcher would be to go to college. The quality of college baseball and the whole life style make it a good choice."
Scioscia insisted before signing that the Dodgers pay for his college education. The club agreed, but Scioscia has managed to complete only two years at Penn State.
"I plan on finishing, but there are so many conflicts," he said.
Scioscia's second-guessing is surprising because he will earn $875,000 this year.
The four years he would have spent at Clemson were instead a blur of bus rides and Burger Kings: He spent a year at Bellingham, Wash., a year at Clinton, Iowa, a year at San Antonio, Tex., and a year-and-a-half at Albuquerque, N.M.
"The lure is that kids think the younger they start, the better the chance they have of getting to the major leagues," Scioscia said. "But these days, choosing college does not mean you're throwing away a major league career."
The uncertainty of having to wait until draft day, June 1, and catch as catch can doesn't sit well with catchers, who like to control a baseball game the way a maestro directs a concert.
It's a whirlwind process: If drafted, a player quickly weighs the bonus offer--which ranges from $500 to $150,000--against the value of a scholarship.
Accepting a scholarship to a four-year college means a player is ineligible for the draft until after his junior year. Attending a junior college is attractive because a player is eligible for the draft the following June.
Whatever choices they make this summer, the choice to play catcher may rank as their finest.
"Catching is the quickest path to the major leagues," Scioscia said. "If you stay with it, you can evolve into the type of player suited for the position."
A Pittsburgh kinda guy.