Latino players thriving at catching position
Venezuela, Puerto Rico leading way in emerging trend behind the plate
Volunteer work can change your life. Ramon Hernandez is living proof.
At 17, dreaming of a life in baseball, Hernandez attended a tryout in his hometown of Cumana, Venezuela, held by the Oakland Athletics. He was a shortstop and center fielder with a lively bat but limited speed.
"I did the tryout at shortstop and hit," Hernandez recalled. "They had some pitchers who were supposed to throw that day, to test their velocity, but the guy who was supposed to catch them didn't show up. I told the [scout], 'If you want, I'll do it.' I caught a little bit when I was 8 or 9. So I put on the catching gear and caught those guys.
"When it was over, the scout said, 'I'll be back in two months. Train yourself as a catcher.' I started blocking [pitches], throwing to the bases, doing everything I could in practice. When he came back, he watched me throw and catch and said, 'OK. We'll sign you as a catcher.'"
Twenty years later, Hernandez is still catching.
With 500 Minor League games of experience and considerable attention to developing his English skills, Hernandez made his Major League debut with the A's in 1999. He's in his 15th season, backing up A.J. Ellis with the Dodgers, his sixth big league team. On Hernandez's resume: 166 homers, a .263 lifetime batting average, 25 postseason games and a 21.4 career WAR (wins above replacement player). Not bad for a guy who had no idea he'd be a catcher and didn't start playing the position, on a whim, until he was 17.
In another part of Venezuela, Salvador Perez was the biggest shortstop in his neighborhood, if not all of Valencia. He would fill out at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds -- not ideal dimensions for a shortstop.
"I was 14 or 15 when a scout told me I should become a catcher if I wanted to go to the big leagues," said Perez, the Royals' rising star. "So I became a catcher. I loved it right away. You're always in the game.
"I'm trying to make myself a better player every day. I have so much to learn. You never can learn enough in this game."
The impact of Latin American ballplayers in Major League Baseball is profound. Nowhere is that more evident than at the most important position on the field -- behind home plate, where the masked men ply their demanding trade.
Of the 72 players who have caught in MLB games this season, 32 (44 percent) have Latin American heritage. Fifteen hail from Venezuela, which has become to catchers what the Pittsburgh area once was to NFL quarterbacks: the spawning ground.
Headlined by the great Yadier Molina of the Cardinals, Puerto Rico has seven native sons catching in the Majors, three more than the Dominican Republic. Panama, Colombia, Cuba and Brazil also are represented on MLB rosters behind the plate.
"When I broke in with Oakland," Hernandez said, "there were only three catchers in the big leagues from my country: Eddie Perez, Carlos Hernandez and Henry Blanco.
"Not many people like to catch. You have to love the game to catch. That's why so many of us [from Latin America] do it. It's a tough job. Who wants to get beat up? You take so much [abuse] back there with the collisions, foul tips, balls hitting you all over your body."
Molina is the gold standard, with defensive skills bordering on the sublime. Run on the Redbirds at your own risk. His increased offensive production has lifted Molina into the conversation with the best ever to play his position.
"In my 50 years in the game," former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said during the postseason last October, "Yadi's the best. He does everything back there as well as anybody ever has."
Yadier learned the family trade at an early age from brothers Bengie and Jose. Combined, the Molina brothers have started 2,965 games, winning 1,588, for a .536 winning percentage. Their teams have been World Series champions five times in seven appearances.
Bengie and Jose were the backbone of the Angels' 2002 title run, sharing catching duties for manager Mike Scioscia.
Bengie, now retired, had an impact on both Fall Classic teams in 2010, mentoring a young Buster Posey and handling Giants manager Bruce Bochy's staff before getting sent at midseason that year to Texas, where he guided Rangers pitchers en route to the American League pennant.
After the Giants dispatched the Rangers in five games for the championship, Posey, Tim Lincecum and their teammates were effusive in praise of Bengie's role in paving the way for their success.
"When I was with the Giants, I became a brother," Molina said. "I became a father, sometimes. I became a guy who took aside a lot of the young kids and talked to them about not only baseball, but life itself."
Jose Molina, moving to the Bronx from the Angels in a 2007 deal, had a role in the Yankees' 2009 World Series triumph as the backup to Jorge Posada -- a fellow Puerto Rican and Yanks leader for 15 years, with four World Series championship rings.
After two seasons in Toronto, Jose Molina became the Rays' primary catcher last year and guided the staff to a Major League-best 3.19 ERA. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon saw the Molina influence up close as Scioscia's bench coach with the Halos.
While he's never been a dangerous hitter in the mold of his older and younger brothers, the middle Molina clearly has a knack with bringing out the best in pitchers. That is why Maddon refers to him as a "difference-maker."
His brothers were his mentors, but Yadier Molina also is continuing the tradition of exceptional Puerto Rican catchers, notably Ivan Rodriguez, Benito Santiago, Posada and Javy Lopez. Twelve Puerto Rico-born receivers have caught MLB games this season.
Wilson Ramos, a Venezuelan entrusted with manager Davey Johnson's elite staff in Washington along with Kurt Suzuki, was fortunate to arrive in the nation's capital as Rodriguez was wrapping up his brilliant career.
"Pudge taught me a lot about calling a game, commanding the game," Ramos said. "When I got with this team in 2010, I felt a little pressure. Pudge taught me that you have to be confident. When you put down your hand for a pitch, you have to have confidence that it's the right one."
For Ramos, a catcher since childhood, the job required considerable homework -- in language skills.
"It's not only physical," he said. "It's 80 percent mental. You have to do so many things on the field -- know every hitter on the other team, all your pitchers. You have to command the game.
"For Latin players, especially, communication is so important. You have to be able to communicate with your pitchers, the pitching coach. So you need to learn the language while you're learning everything else."
Ramos, sharing the job with Suzuki after a knee injury limited him to 25 games last season, aggravated a hamstring ailment while going 2-for-2 Wednesday night against the Dodgers and then went on the 15-day disabled list on Thursday. In 2011, his breakout year, Ramos contributed 15 homers and 52 RBIs, batting .267 in 113 games.
"It's a lot of responsibility," Ramos said. "That's why most guys want to play shortstop or third base, the outfield, pitch. For Venezuelans, it's a big honor to be the captain. In this position, you are the leader on the field. That's what we love.
"A couple of years ago, some catchers hit .200 and played every day. Now, there are a lot of catchers who can hit."
The D-backs' Miguel Montero, a Venezuelan, is another highly productive offensive player regarded as a fine defender.
Perez has the ability and desire to reach that elite class of all-around receivers. Royals management went all in this winter, loading up the rotation with James Shields, Ervin Santana and Wade Davis. It is Perez's responsibility to tie it all together.
"He's a special player," said former Major League catcher Jason Kendall, who works with Kansas City's receivers. "He's got a chance to do some amazing things. With the talent he has, he has a chance to be an All-Star for a long time."
Perez, 23, agreed to a long-term deal last year that could keep him in a Royals uniform for eight years.
"He's got it all," Kendall said, "but the big thing with him is his desire to get better every day. He's a tough kid, too. You see catchers get a foul ball off the arm and flail around for five minutes. He doesn't do or say a thing. Getting a nick, a bruise is part of it.
"It's a lot to take on, but he wants it. It's a big job, and you've got to enjoy it. To me, it was fun -- and that's what I see in Salvador."
In "The Fielding Bible" rankings of the defensive skills of players by a panel of insiders, seven of the game's top 15 receivers have Latin American heritage, led by Yadier Molina -- the unanimous No. 1.
Seven times in the past 11 seasons, a Molina has appeared in the World Series: Yadier on three occasions and Bengie and Jose twice.
"We don't talk about that," big brother Bengie said. "Once we're done with baseball, we're going to sit down with pina coladas somewhere and talk about what we've done in baseball."