Braves' young backstops following Laird's lead
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Early in his career, catcher Gerald Laird was one of several twentysomethings to make up the Rangers' youthful rosters. During his six seasons in Texas, the average player age never climbed higher than 29.4.
But despite his youth and that of the club, Laird always sought veteran advice wherever he could find it, learning about life in the Majors from the likes of veteran catchers Sandy Alomar, Todd Greene and Rod Barajas.
"I'm still learning," Laird said. "Picking guys' brains, that's how you get better. You ask questions. You watch. You're never going to know too much about this game.
"Those guys really influenced me and helped me along the way. I'm just going to try to pass down what I learned and try to help other guys along the way."
Laird now serves as a mentor and a clubhouse leader for Atlanta, the defending champion of the National League East. Though only 34, he is one of the Braves' oldest players.
Only four players on the 40-man roster are older than 30.
But age alone does not inform Laird's experience. The product of Cypress (Calif.) College has played for a postseason contender in three consecutive seasons.
He earned a World Series ring with the Cardinals in 2011, lost with the Tigers in 2012 and fell short in the NL Division Series with the Braves last October.
He believes that the way last season ended has shaped the mood in the clubhouse and set the tone for what Atlanta hopes to accomplish in 2014.
"These guys have an understanding of what they want to do now that they got a taste of the postseason last year," he said. "It left a bad taste in their mouth, so I think it makes us even hungrier to get back to where we were and advance farther."
Getting back to the postseason will require the Braves to weather the departure of seven-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann, who signed a five-year deal with the Yankees in December.
In addition to helping fill the void, Laird is taking on an increased role as a mentor to young catchers Evan Gattis, 27, and Christian Bethancourt, 22. The Braves even placed his locker right next to Bethancourt's in the clubhouse at Champion Stadium.
Laird plans to help mold Atlanta's talented young backstops into bona fide big league catchers in a simple manner -- "by doing my job."
"They have questions, I'm here. If they want to watch, watch. Ask me questions. That's my job," he said. "I'm not going to go up to them and try to bombard them with questions and answers and [say], 'This is what you've got to do.' No.
"I want them to feel comfortable and catch the way they want to catch. If they have questions on game calling or anything else, I'm there for them."
Gattis has wasted no time picking Laird's brain, having thrived under the tutelage of McCann and Laird in 2013 during his rookie season.
"[Laird's] a book of knowledge," Gattis said. "He's been around for a long time. He knows a lot about how to handle a staff. He's just a great influence, a great baseball guy and a good presence in our clubhouse."
So far Laird is impressed with what he sees out of the young catching duo.
"They do a really good job," he said. "Bethancourt does a good job of watching and getting ready to play. Gatty, obviously, took huge strides last year and became a really good catcher. I think you're going to see him improve even more this year."
Laird shares his knowledge with Atlanta's catchers, but his influence spreads throughout the clubhouse. Reliever David Carpenter especially appreciates Laird's experience "in a lot of key situations" with the Braves' young pitching staff.
"It's really, really valuable having a guy like that back there to be able to rely on," Carpenter said. "He's been in those situations where it's crunch time, and he's putting down the right fingers with confidence, and that helps give us confidence."
But as valuable as Laird is as an influence on the diamond, the Braves also love his ability to keep the clubhouse in good spirits during the season.
"Multipurpose for G-Money," outfielder Jason Heyward said. "He keeps everybody loose, but then when it's time to get down and dirty, he keeps you on your toes as well."
Added outfielder Jordan Schafer: "He's a good guy. He's always picking on people and joking around. He's kind of a funny guy, but he's a really good teammate."
Laird enjoys having fun. He likes to chat with fans during batting practice, and you can hear his laugh in the clubhouse.
"Just have some fun," Laird said. "Make some guys smile and laugh. This game's hard. It's a game of failure, and there's going to be weeks and days that are not going to go your way. For me, the biggest thing is to be the same guy every day."
Laird is not Atlanta's everyday catcher. He is not the kind of guy who lights up the scoreboard whenever he steps up to the plate. But his impact on the Braves is indelible.
"You don't want to take players like that for granted," Heyward said.