The Catcher Curse

added 3/6/2011 by Bob Hulsey

In the satire movie "Airplane!", a passenger asks the stewardess (err, pardon me, "flight attendant" in today's politically correct lingo) if she had any light reading material. She decides to hand over a pamphlet entitled "Jewish Sports Legends".

If someone were to write a book entitled "Baseball's Great Catchers", it might also be a short subject. If you limited the book to "Astros' Great Catchers", it might not even exist.

Any personnel man will tell you catcher is probably the hardest position to fill on the team. It's because they have so many roles they have to do and do well. They must be able to stop 90-mph pitches that are dipping and darting in all directions. They must be able to communicate with pitchers (a more complex skill these days when so many pitchers come from Spanish-language countries and some come from the Far East). They have to know the tendencies and weaknesses of some 600 hitters around the league as well as a dozen or more pitchers on their own squad. They must also know the constant array of signals flashed around the diamond and flash their own.

But that's not enough. They also must be diplomats with umpires and opposing hitters. They have to ignore catcalls from the fans and opposing dugouts. They must endure 90-degree summer heat while wearing extra padding. They must be willing to squat close to 200 times a day. They must possess as strong and accurate an arm as a shortstop in order to toss out runners attempting to steal second. And they have to be sturdy enough to stand in there and block the plate when the winning run is trying to score. Plus, only right-handed throwers need apply.

And if a catcher can do all of those things well, he still must contribute on offense four times a night. That's why hitting for power or hitting for average is sometimes sacrificed if a catcher can do the rest good enough.

There aren't many catchers in the Hall of Fame and the truly great ones seem to arrive only once a decade. After Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk and Ivan Rodriguez, it's tough to name a catcher in my lifetime who could do everything well.

Not that Jason Castro would have reached that pinnacle but when the Astros chose him with the eighth overall pick in the 2008 draft, they hoped they were selecting the best catcher the franchise has ever had. Now that he is probably done for the year with a torn meniscus and a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee, Houston must again deal with an obvious flaw behind the plate. The injury may set Castro's development back two years and could cut short his ability to play the position later in his career.

Pop Quiz: The Astros have only had one catcher selected to the All-Star team in their history. Can you name him?

While you mull that, I'll mention that the Astros have had some solid defensive catchers in their history. Johnny Edwards (1969-1974), Alan Ashby (1979-1989) and Brad Ausmus (1997-2008) all had reputations as outstanding defenders but each had trouble producing on offense. Edwards hit .237 with a .336 slugging average while an Astro. Ashby (.252, .374) and Ausmus (.246, .327) also struggled as hitters which is why Houston has always been in search of a better catcher.

In the 1960s, there was John Bateman who had two big offensive years (10 HRs, 59 RBIs as a rookie in 1963 and 17 HRs, 70 RBIs in 1966) surrounded by years when he couldn't keep his batting average over .200.

In the 1970s, the Astros thought they'd solved their problem when they traded lefthander Jerry Reuss, who went on to win 220 games over 22 seasons, to the Pirates for Milt May after the 1973 season. May hit a respectable .265 with a .360 slugging average but was shipped to the Tigers two years later when the Astros hit bottom and chose to rebuild.

In the 1980s, Houston had switch-hitting Mark Bailey (.223, .340) competing with Ashby for playing time but, like Bateman, he was inconsistent.

In 1991, the Astros swapped outfielder Kenny Lofton, who has an outside chance of making the Hall of Fame after batting .299 and stealing 622 bases over 17 seasons, to Cleveland for catcher Eddie Taubensee (.234, .351) who struggled and was dealt to the Reds in 1994 where he bounced back to have a decent career.

The Astros also had the under-appreciated Tony Eusebio from 1991 to 2001 who hit .275 with a .383 slugging percentage but spent most of his time as a backup, topping 100 games only twice during that span. Tony's weakness seemed to be on defense and in throwing out runners.

Houston thought so highly of Mitch Meluskey that they traded away Ausmus just to get him into the lineup. And when he was healthy, Meluskey hit well (.300, .487 in 2000) but he didn't get along with teammates and became a liability on defense so the Astros traded him to Detroit for Ausmus, who had his one All-Star season as a Tiger and is, to some, a Jewish Sports Legend.

The Astros have also had players who came up as catchers but proved more useful elsewhere (Bob Watson, Craig Biggio), sluggers tried as catchers to get their bat into the lineup (Cliff Johnson, Joe Ferguson) and a long line of highly-drafted catchers who never panned out for various reasons - Martin Cott (whom the Astros drafted in 1968 one spot before the Yankees chose Thurman Munson), Robbie Wine, Max Sapp and J.R. Towles notable among them.

Hopefully, Castro doesn't join their ranks one day. There's no reason to bury his career before it has really begun. There are other catchers around the majors who have bounced back from knee surgery but, by its nature, catching is a demanding position on the knees and many great ones had to eventually move to other positions - often third base or first base - to extend their careers.

Time's up. Who was the only Astros catcher to make an All-Star team? It was the versatile Craig Biggio in 1991, his first of seven All-Star appearances. If it took you awhile to come up with that answer, it might be because Biggio was switched to second base the following season and spent 15 more years in front of the dish before playing his final game behind it.