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Wednesday, 11 July 2012 10:46

The unsung heroes of baseball: The bullpen catcher

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Few jobs in baseball are worse than that of the catcher. They say one has to be a little bit crazy in order to be a catcher in this game. With all the foul tips that strike bare flesh, all the balls in the dirt that must be blocked with the body, and the nine half innings of crouching, this position is not for the physically or mentally weak. By this logic, to be a bullpen catcher one must be clinically insane.

The bullpen catcher’s duties are endless. He must be available at all times for pitchers to throw off the mound and work out kinks in their mechanics. He must endure the errant throws and sharp movements of pitches. He must throw endlessly with pitchers who insist  they need to get used to the WMBL baseballs. The bullpen catcher will receive throw after throw as a pitching staff member practices a different grip or auditions a new pitch for his arsenal. The thumb and the hand of a bullpen catcher are frequently sore from tailing fastballs and left-handed cutters, yet he is on call at all times during and before games.
At Telus Field in Edmonton on Monday, in the midst of a 15-2 blowout victory, I quietly lounged in a chair at the end of our dugout. In between crowd scanning and hunting for Spitz, I spotted Tyson Dyck catching Kendall Motes in the bullpen. Not long after I began watching, Motes unleashed a violent fastball from the mound which bounced in front of Dyck and hit him directly in his unprotected throwing hand. Obscenities were clearly audible throughout the park as Dyck angrily launched his catcher’s mask at the outfield wall and sat down in protest. His refusal to catch any further pitches from Motes was accompanied by constricted laughter and uncontrollable smirks from the other pitchers resting in the bullpen.
 Bullpen catching is not an easy gig. Tending to the fastidious needs of pitchers while having a small white ball hurled toward you at speeds close to 90 mph is not my idea of fun. However, bullpen catchers can be an extremely valuable part of a baseball team. Properly preparing relief pitchers to enter a game is key to success in the late innings of a ballgame. Receiving pitches correctly so as to boost a pitcher’s confidence in his strike throwing ability is very useful as well.
Bullpen catchers are like the fourth line grinders who take a beating for the team while receiving little to no praise. My applause goes out to the brave warriors who squat sans-gear and receive pitches that even the pitcher is unsure of where it will go.

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Alex Tufts

Alex Tufts is a pitcher with Swift Current Indians of the Western Major Baseball League. His column will run every week during baseball season.