All Stress, No Glory

by Steve Rosenbloom (Baseball Digest, August 2002)
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Catchers Get Little Recognition For Their Work In No-Hit Games

Behind every pitcher who shuts down the opposition is a backstop who quietly endures nine heart-pounding innings.

"Oh, No!" That's what Jeff Torborg remembers thinking. In fact, that's what the then-Angels catcher remembers screaming as Kansas City centerfielder Amos Otis hammered a fat two-strike, two-out pitch from Nolan Ryan.

"When that ball left his bat," Torborg recalled, "I yelled, 'Oh no! We were within one strike of getting that thing, and that ball's off the wall." The ball was headed for right field, headed for the visitor's bullpen in Royals Stadium, headed for Heart-break Hotel.

"Then I realized they had just put Ken Berry in defensively to replace Bob Oliver," Torborg said. "Ken was way back because he played back anyway, and he had great jumping ability."

Berry raced to the wall and leaped, and when he came down on May 15, 1973, he had the first of Ryan's record seven no-hitters in his glove. But it also was the third no-hitter for Torborg, one of only a few men to catch that many gems. [See 3-No Hit Catchers.]

Such chances don't come along that often for pitchers, so they certainly don't come along that often for catchers, either. Exactly two months later, Ryan was back at it, this time in Detroit. Art Kusyner, now the bullpen coach for the Chiacgo White Sox, was behind the plate. "He was right there with his stuff that day, inside, outside," Kusyner said. "We threw the leadoff hitter two fastballs and then a curveball. The guy swung straight down."

Ryan struck out every Tigers' hitter at least once that day, 17 in all, the most in any no-hitter. One was Norm Cash, who for his last at-bat came up to the plate with a table leg. Funny, Kusyner now concedes. But at the time, "I was thinking, "Hey, come on, I'm working on a no-hitter here," he said.

As he'd done a month earlier, when it was time to close the deal, Ryan left a pitch over the plate, this time for pinch-hitter Gates Brown. "I saw the ball and yelled 'Get up!' to (second baseman) Rudy Meolii," Kusyner said. "As hard as it was hit - it was still rising - it might have gone out of the ballpark. But Rudy jumped up and caught it. I was sweating. I was thinking, 'Come on Nolan, I want to catch a no-hitter."

It was serious business to Kusyner, as it is to every catcher lucky enough to be on the receiving end of one of baseball's great moments. Since Noodles Hahn of Cincinnati threw a no-hitter to catcher Heine Peitz against Philadelphia on July 12, 1900, and through May 2002, there have been more than 200 no-hitters of at least nine innings. There used to be more no-hitters recognized by major league baseball, but a change in criteria eliminated games that went fewer than nine innings or where hits were allowed after the ninth.

Just as there are many pitchers who have thrown multiple no-hitters, there are many catchers (57) who have caught more than one. Boston's Jason Varitek, who caught Derek Lowe's gem against Tampa Bay April 27, 2002 also caught Hideo Nomo's no-hitter in April 2001.

Hall of Fame catcher Ray Schalk caught three officially recognized no-hitters from 1914-1917. He originally was credited with a fourth, but lost it because Jim Scott gave up two hits in the 10th inning. In all 15 catchers have handled three no-hitters. [See Complete Catchers' No-Hitters List.] Some are part of baseball's "Who's Who," such as Yogi Berra and Roy Campanella. Some are part of baseball's "Who's He?" such as Bill Carrigan and Val Picinich.

Others include Schalk, Torborg, Luke Sewell, Charles Johnson, Alan Ashby, Del Crandall and Jim Hegan, showing that no-hit catchers can vary as widely as Sandy Koufax and Derek Lowe.

Whoever they are, catchers ought to get some credit. They might not be the ones giving birth, but they are certainly in the delivery room. "Most people remember who the pitcher was, not the catcher," said Cubs catcher Joe Girardi, who caught Dwight Gooden's no-hitter on May 14, 1996 and David Cone's perfect game on July 18, 1999, both with the Yankees. "But the pitchers give you credit, so that's enough for me."

Pitchers get the fame. Catchers get mental exhaustion. "It becomes somewhat nerve-wracking," Girardi said. "From a catcher's perspective, you go over and over and over the hitters in your head, how you've gotten them out, how you're going to approach them in their next at-bat."

Reason is, you don't want to be the one who makes the mistake that costs the guy a piece of history. "I think I was more nervous than they were," said Ashby, the former Houston catcher who caught no-hitters by Ryan, Ken Forsch and Mike Scott. "I felt like it was on my shoulders to make sure I didn't mess up what this guy was accomplishing. That chance doesn't come along very often. No matter what kind of great stuff a guy has, somewhere in the first five, six innings, somebody's going to get a hit somehow. But when it doesn't happen, you've got that chance now for the last three innings of the ballgame."

Those last three innings can be a killer time for the guy behind the plate. "After the seventh inning," said Johnson, who caught A.J. Burnett's in 2001 after catching Kevin Brown's in 1996 and Al Leiter's in 1997, "I'm really nervous then, because every time you call a pitch, you're just hoping it's the right pitch. You don't know what pitch is the right pitch, but you're hoping it's the right pitch."

Catchers get in a groove just like pitchers, and the two develop a bond as the no-hitter progresses. Lowe, for example, shook off Varitek's sign only once, Varitek said.

Still, most catchers feel compelled to observe the unwritten rule about not talking to a pitcher when he has a no-hitter or perfect game working. "Ryan never talked in the dugout and he wouldn't talk on the hill," Ashby said. "He didn't want you going out to the hill and trying to pretend like you knew more than he did."

The pressure and anxiety are multiplied when the pitcher has a perfect game going. You might want to pitch around a dangerous hitter, especially if you get behind in the count, but you can't put him on and you can't just serve him a fat one either.

"You know you can't afford to walk anyone, not allow a passed ball on strike three or a wild pitch on strike three that you don't block," Girardi said. "It's a lot more to think about."

Said Torborg: "You really feel it, no doubt about it. Your heart's pounding. With Sandy's perfect game (against the Cubs on September 9, 1965), Sandy was so special that I couldn't have put down the wrong sign. There wasn't too much I could've done wrong there. I just had to catch the ball."

The keys are staying with what has been working and staying aggressive, said Texas' Ivan Rodriguez, who caught Kenny Rogers' perfect game in 1994. "We tried to get guys to hit the ball," Rodriguez said. "He didn't strike out that many that night. He just put the ball in play and we got lucky that it was hit right at people."

Perfect games and no-hitters happen more often at the end of the season. There have been 50 thrown in September and October, counting Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

"Teams that are out of it are looser," said Colorado coach Fred Kendall, a former major league catcher. "And teams are changinbg - trades, kid's come up." The Kendall family has an interesting history with no-hitters. Fred lost two in the ninth inning while catching for San Diego in the 70s, but he also broke up Ken Brett's in the ninth inning. His son Jason, the All-Star catcher for Pittsburgh, caught a combined 10-inning no-hitter by Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon in 1997, but had Todd Ritchie, now of the White Sox, lose one in the ninth last season.

"The second hitter in the ninth was the one who got the hit, so they already had one out," Fred Kendall said. "Jason talked to me after the game and said, 'That one will stick with me for a while.'"

Catchers always remember the last out too. It's the moment they have worked for, worked hard for over the last hour or so especially. But sometimes, they have to work a little more.

In Bill Singer's no-hitter for the Dodgers in 1970, Philadelphia's Byron Browne popped up around the plate. It was Torbirg's play, as if the catcher doesn't have enough to worry about when his guy is working on history.

"I used to get all over Singer, sating, 'Hey, you're supposed to strike the last guy out, not make me go over there with my heart pounding and making sure I catch a popup,'" Torborg said.

And if you don't think these guys get worked up about going home with a piece of immortality, get a load of Ashby talking about watching replays of the no-hitters he has caught. "I don't think anybody has video of Ken Forsch's because it came so early in the season," he said, "but Ryan's and Scott's I've seen bits and pieces of, and I feel the same fear because they always want to show that final out, and I see Dusty Baker and I see Will Clark taking big swings on fat pitches and I still think they're going to get hits."

But wait. You know how this movie ends. "No I don't," Ashby said with a laugh. "That's how intense it feels at that time and it carries on and on."

Copyright 2002 by Baseball Digest.