(BaseballStL) -- The road to the major leagues winds and bends in unexpected ways. Ultimately, all that matters is that you get there, not how you get there.
Tony Cruz knows this better than anyone. Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals as a third baseman, Cruz had some catching experience but had never been developed as a catcher.
After his initial season in 2007, Cruz returned to spring training where the Cards decided to see what the youngster had behind the plate. He was assigned to work with Dann Bilardello, current manager of the Cards Class A affiliate Peoria Chiefs, who was then the organization’s catching instructor.
The Cardinals told him “’This is a move that might be in your best interest,’” Cruz recalls. “’We know you can play third, but catching is a spot that you know, there’s not many good catchers out there in any organization.’ They just kind of said that was my best chance so I went with it. That year I split more time between catching and third, and the next year it was more strictly catching, so they slowly got me into it.”
Bilardello, himself a first round draft pick and major league catcher, recognized a fellow backstop right away.
“He was playing third base and he showed a lot of the skills a catcher needs,” he recalls. “He had good hands, quick feet and a solid arm. I wanted a chance to see what he could do.”
So Bilardello worked out Cruz at Class A Palm Beach. “I thought he had a real good chance to make the big club,” he said. “One day I was sitting with Craig Shipley, head of international scouting for the Boston Red Sox. I pointed to Cruz and I said, ‘See that guy right there? He’s going to be a catcher in the big leagues.’”
Early on, Bilardello recalled, the instruction progressed slowly because there is so much to learn as a catcher; some of it physical, but most of it mental, he said.
“Here’s the best way to explain it,” Bilardello said. “If every coach was thrown out of the game, whom would you hand the line-up card to? The answer is the catcher. That’s how good he has to be. It’s not just catching ability, it’s leadership. Body language is important. It’s his whole demeanor. He has to look sharp with pep in his step. And he has to be confident because he is the leader.”
Cruz worked hard with Bilardello and then, when he arrived at the big league camp, spent more time with Yadier Molina and manager Mike Matheny, himself a former catcher.
“I took advice from everybody,” he recalled. “I always believed I could catch. I had done it before so I think it was more fine-tuning and really learning (the position).”
With Molina the Redbirds’ catcher for years to come, some people might think being his backup would be a dead end role. Not so, says Bilardello. “I backed up Benito Santiago and I know it is tough. But it is also a very important role. When Yadi went down (15-day DL) Cruz filled in and did a nice job. That is very important to a team. You have to be ready to go every night. You have to know the pitching staff and have their trust and confidence. The back-up catcher better be a quality guy. And Tony is,” he said.
Bilardello said calling the game might seem to be the hardest aspect of catching, but in reality, it’s one of the easiest once you know what you’re doing. “You call the pitcher’s best pitches in (game) situations and take advantage of the hitter’s weaknesses. You have to understand your pitcher and his strength and not call pitches he can’t execute.”
Cruz said he often calls the game from the dugout to see how his calls compare to Yadi’s and to give him practice for when his time comes. Do they ever disagree?
“Sometimes we do, sometimes it’s what he feels. Sometimes he might feel something out there that’s different than what I might be seeing,” he said.
Additional reporting by JJ Bailey / BaseballStL