Russell Martin: Another Sport’s Mastery

A reader sent me a link to this New York Times story about Russell Martin, the New York Yankees’ catcher. In, “For Catcher, Mastering Mind Games Within the Game,” David Walstein, writes about a day in the life of Martin.

Actually, it was a couple of innings in a life:

It was hot on June 16 in Nationals Park in Washington — hot enough for the Yankees to have ammonia-soaked towels in the dugout to cool off. Russell Martin had called 115 pitches, and was 2 hours 49 minutes into the game after catching a three-hour game the night before.

The score was 3-3 with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning, and Martin was fully aware that in Tyler Moore, the Nationals had a fast threat on first base. Adam LaRoche was also making his way to the plate to pinch-hit, another puzzle to solve on the fly.

Walstein goes on to lay out six fascinating pages of what this big league catcher and his various pitchers went through to finish off this fourteen-inning marathon.

Along the way, we learn the complexities of the catcher’s job: knowing each of his pitchers and their pitches, knowing whether his pitchers are “on” or not, knowing the other team’s batters and their tendencies and knowing the recency of those tendencies.

It is a cat-and-mouse game that ebbs and flows from home plate, to the dugout and back again. It is mentally demanding because the information you need to know is part memorized knowledge, part fluctuating situations in the game and part gut instinct honed from years of watching the show unfold out in front of him.

The major difference in skill sets between the professional catcher and the professional golfer is that the professional golfer is “in it” for the entire five hour round while the catcher gets a little reprieve every half inning in the dugout. And while the catcher needs to blend an almost encyclopedic memory with the physical part of the game, the professional golfer incorporates years of wisdom into a see-and-react, instinctive response to the shot in front of him. Both interesting contrasts of the same mastery skill set.

The other cool thing about the piece is that the mystery of the catcher’s signs to the pitcher is revealed…or at least explained. Still, I’m surprised that Walstein got out of Yankee Stadium alive.

In any event, I think you can tell that I really enjoyed this and I hope you do too.

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