YUMA, Ariz. — They are the slow, fat kids in Little League. They are the down-and-out journeymen in baseball movies. They even snub Charlie Brown for the piano in the comics.
They are catchers, the grunts of baseball.
There is little glory in the position, unless you like a lot of sweat, broken fingers, aching knees and fan abuse.
Baseball executives say catcher is the most important position on the diamond. Managers maintain it can mean the difference between greatness and mediocrity. And scouts will tell you it the quickest route to the big leagues.
"People ask all the time how come there aren't any good catchers anymore," said Gordon Lakey, Toronto Blue Jay scout. "I tell them go to the playgrounds. You can't find anyone who wants to catch. The best athletes are all playing shortstop, center field and pitching.
"That's the whole problem."
The dearth of top-quality catchers is the reason there soon could be a state of emergency in Southern California, specifically at Dodger Stadium, Anaheim Stadium and San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
The Dodgers believe this could be Mike Scioscia's final year. The Angels already are looking for someone to replace Lance Parrish. And, although the Padres have one of the best in Benito Santiago, they can't afford to keep him.
"If you look at all 26 major league teams, the two positions that are most undermanned are catcher and third base," said Joe McIlvaine, Padre general manager. "We've recently gone through a golden era of third basemen, so we know that runs in cycles. But catching, you wonder if that cycle will ever come around again."
Said Charlie Blaney, Dodger farm director: "If I had a son, I'd want him to be a left-handed pitcher or a catcher. That's the fastest way to the major leagues."
Is there another position to which former first baseman Mike Piazza, a 62nd-round draft pick, could have been converted and become one of the top prospects in the Dodger organization?
There were only nine players in the major leagues last season who caught 120 games. There were only three who hit at least 15 home runs and drove in 70 runs. There are only two who have spent the last 10 years with the same team.
The situation in the National League--where there is more running and no designated hitter--is even bleaker. In the last four seasons, Santiago is the only National League catcher who has hit more than 15 homers or driven in at least 75 runs in a season.
"Catching today is an absolute disaster," one scout said. "I was asked recently to name the 10 best catchers in the game, and I couldn't even come up with 10 \o7 good \f7 ones."
Little wonder agent Scott Boras is smiling these days. He represents perhaps the three finest young catchers in the game--Sandy Alomar Jr. of the Cleveland Indians, Ivan Rodriguez of the Texas Rangers and Santiago.
It is also no coincidence, Boras says, that all three are from Puerto Rico.
"Culturally, catchers in Puerto Rico are revered," Boras said. "In the states, catching is something you do as an alternative because you have shortcomings."
Indeed, Carlton Fisk was a shortstop and pitcher in high school. Bob Boone was converted in double A from a third baseman. Parrish also was a third baseman until double A. Gary Carter was a shortstop. Rich Gedman was a first baseman and pitcher. B.J. Surhoff was a shortstop.
"It's a societal thing," Angel Manager Buck Rodgers said. "Mothers don't want their kids back there, getting hit by foul tips and bats. And fathers don't want their athletic son catching. They could get hurt."
Said Ray Miller, Pittsburgh Pirate pitching coach: "I've got all the respect the world for anybody who can catch. I mean, you've got to like pain. Try squatting for 15 minutes, then running. I go out to warm up a pitcher and squat for 15 minutes, and I can't even walk afterward.
"That's why you don't see any kids catching."
The Kansas City Royals, looking to find a replacement for Jim Sundberg, traded pitcher David Cone for a catcher named Ed Hearn. St. Louis traded Andy Van Slyke, Mike Dunne and Mike LaValliere for Tony Pena. The Blue Jays once ignored the highest-rated available player in the draft and selected a catcher.
They took Matt Stark instead of Roger Clemens.
"There's no doubt in my mind I could have outplayed catchers that were in the game last year," said Boone, a former Angel. "And I'm not talking about just a few catchers. I mean the majority of them."
Boone, who caught a record 2,225 games, is 43.
Boone and Fisk are the only ones who have caught 100 games after turning 36. Johnny Bench stopped catching when he was 33. Gabby Hartnett and Bill Dickey were part-timers when they were 35.
Boone and Fisk also were in the American League. There are typically 33% more stolen-base attempts in the National League each year than in the American League.
"It's a totally different game in the National League than the American League," Rodgers said. "If you don't think defense first and offense second, you can be run into the ground."