04/03/2004 12:42 PM ET
New backstops hope to catch on
By John Schlegel / MLB.com
|Ivan Rodriguez will call pitches for the Detroit Tigers this season. (Scott Audette/AP)
First, Damian Miller was a trusty sidekick to the Dynamic Duo of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in Arizona. Then in 2003 he was a masked mentor for Cubs phenoms Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.
Another year, another group of Cy Young candidates for batterymates for Damian Miller, catcher to the stars.
Playing for his third team in as many years, Miller will be peering through his catcher's mask at the Oakland trio of aces Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito in 2004, giving signs and lending experience behind the plate that he's gained in working with only the best lately.
"I tell people all the time, 'Good pitchers make catchers look pretty good,'" Miller said earlier this spring. "When a pitcher believes in his catcher and trusts his catcher, he can only have success."
Miller is among several catchers who have been developing trust with new pitching staffs this Spring Training. From established veterans like Pudge Rodriguez in Detroit and Javy Lopez in Baltimore to players on the rise like San Diego's Ramon Hernandez and the Cubs' Michael Barrett, the last several weeks have been one long introduction.
Like Miller, Rodriguez is with his third team in as many years. He left behind a Texas pitching situation that not even he could help for a mostly young staff in Florida that helped lead the Marlins to the 2003 World Series title.
From the very outset of camp, Rodriguez impressed Tigers manager Alan Trammell by making himself open and available to the staff.
"He goes, 'I'm going to be a sponge. I'm going to ask the whole staff.' He's been a lot more interactive than I anticipated. He interjects. He suggests things," Trammell said.
With the Tigers heading into the season now, Rodriguez feels as though it's an ongoing project, this getting to know each other.
"Now that we're close to the start of the season, pitchers are starting to get in shape," he said. "I'm learning them still. We have to keep working together. Everything is going in the right direction."
Now that Barrett has replaced Miller as the new backstop for the talented Cubs pitching staff, the 28-year-old has soaked in everything he could this spring in daily meetings with pitching coach Larry Rothschild.
"We go into great detail on every pitcher, about the mentality of the pitcher, about the pitches that the pitcher throws, how we can put the odds in the pitcher's favor," Barrett said.
But a lot of it is just plain, old relationship building -- getting to know one another and getting to know each pitcher's makeup.
"You have to be careful what you say to them and over time I just learn and watch their reactions and pick up their personality differences and how can I motivate them," Barrett said. "I'm still learning."
For Hernandez, the learning process of going from the A's to the Padres wasn't terribly drastic, but there is a difference. He now has a staff led by veterans like David Wells and Trevor Hoffman that also includes younger starters like 22-year-old Jake Peavy.
Whatever differences may exist in the personnel, Hernandez says the basics of how he works with pitchers and helps the team in the process doesn't change.
"It's about knowing if they're throwing well that day or not and then you can decide what pitches they can throw at certain points in the game," Hernandez said. "I got along OK with [the Oakland pitchers] because we had good communication. That's the main thing. What they want to do and what they feel they should do and what they don't want to do. When you have that type of relationship it helps everything."
In a way, it's a simple recipe that's not that easy to put together: Get to know each other and do what needs to be done to work together well.
Miller knows the transition as well as anyone, and says there are different levels of understanding one another.
"It's tough and it's not," Miller said. "The physical part is easy. I mean, one [finger] for fastball, two for breaking ball, wiggle for change. That's the same. That's easy. The part that's not easy is trying to figure out what makes each guy tick, because everybody's different. And that takes time."
Over time, Miller hopes he can develop in Oakland a similar level of trust to what he had with the pitchers in Arizona and Chicago.
But he knows it's a brand new ballgame for a catcher with a new pitching staff.
"Sometimes your track record only goes so far," Miller said. "You still have to prove yourself on the field."
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. Reporters Jason Beck, Carrie Muskat, Mike Scarr and Mychael Urban contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.