JUPITER, FL. (KMOV.com) -- It’s 4 a.m. in Jupiter, Fla. Roads are empty, everything in the waking world is closed and the searing Florida sun is still over the horizon. But in apartments across from the Roger Dean Stadium complex, the Cardinal catchers are readying for work. If spring training is like boot camp, these men are in Ranger school.
They arrive early; “6 a.m. to eat breakfast. Then we have early work at 7. No one else is doing anything,” says Mike Ohlman, a catcher acquired from the Orioles before the 2015 season. Last winter he said he learned more in one season with the Cardinals than he had in five with the Orioles. “Expectations are at the maximum.”
Ohlman is underselling it a bit. Many days the St. Louis backstops, from major leaguers down to Single A, arrive even earlier, at 5 a.m. They eat together, work together in the pre-dawn darkness and challenge one another. It is a system built on competition and strengthened by brotherhood.
“I’ve never been in a camp where you’re trying to make that guy next to you better so that makes you better. You’re competing against that guy still, but if he’s getting better you still have to push yourself to that limit and hold yourself to that standard of number 4 across the room,” Ohlman says.
"They see first of all how early he gets here, how hard he works even after everything he’s accomplished"
Number 4 belongs to Yadier Molina, a perennial Gold Glove winner and arguably the most respected catcher in the game. He’s the mold from which the organization hopes to sculpt its next pad-clad game manager, and his presence seems to permeate every moment of the catching corps’ day.
“That’s the biggest cog that makes this thing go. They see first of all how early he gets here, how hard he works even after everything he’s accomplished,” says catching instructor Jamie Pogue. “Then just the way he pours (knowledge) into the other guys. This is a guy that has enough accomplishments in this game that he could show up and do his own thing and do his work on his own, but he doesn’t. He chooses to work with those guys and take his time to try and help them. I don’t care what position you play across this game, there’s a lot of the elite superstar players like him that that’s just not the way they work or operate.”
For the amount of recognition his name carries, Molina is a low-profile superstar. He’s not in any national ads, and rarely makes a television appearance. His interactions with the media are often brief, if he has them at all. But he has the heart of a teacher, and inside the privacy of player-only spaces, he is a fountain of information.
Molina had perhaps the best set of teachers a player could hope for growing up. In addition to Mike Matheny and Dave Ricketts at the professional level, he had tutors from his earliest days. His brothers, Bengie and Jose, were both major league catchers. His family knew baseball and his childhood was one extended education in the sport’s intricacies.
“I learned that when I was little,” Yadi, as his teammates know him, says. “Seven years old, eight years old. Even when I was five I think. With my dad and my uncles down in Puerto Rico. The way we played down in Puerto Rico is like it’s Game 7 of the World Series every Saturday,” Molina says. “People watching you, people screaming at you - in a good way. ‘Hey thanks for the 0-2 setup away!’ You know, the little details. ‘You got a man on third base, watch him! Fake him!’ Little stuff. So I’ve been learning since I was a kid. Playing with the head. Playing with balance and thinking ahead. I’ve been like that since I was a kid.”
Sharing that knowledge is part of who he is.
“In his position you can be very guarded. Obviously with media and outside people you can be super guarded, but also with your teammates,” Adam Wainwright says of his longtime batterymate. “Your time becomes very important. You have a family and a lot of people pulling you in different directions. You could potentially shut that down and just retreat. With teammates he’s never, never done that. He’s always been very very giving, very approachable. He wants to talk about getting better. About catching and learning. It’s just amazing.”
The catchers gather in the batting cages behind the clubhouse every morning before their work begins. It serves as their sanctum, and a place where the bond between backstops is forged. Single-A players and MLB veterans alike, discussing things in an open forum. Most of the talk centers on the craft of catching, but the breadth of topics is extensive.
“When we’re in that cage together, nothing is off limits. There’s no judgment, everybody is pulling for each other,” Pogue explains. “We’re here. Whatever you got going on, bring it. We’re not just brothers with the catcher’s gear on, we’re brothers. Whatever it is, we’re here to help you.”
As iron sharpens iron, so too must man sharpen his fellow man
How that embracing, egalitarian philosophy began is readily evident. On the outside fence of those cages in the back of the Cardinals’ training complex is a modest plaque. It is a small bronze dedication to Dave Ricketts, the man who shaped the way catching is taught in St. Louis, and whose work guides the catchers of today. It reads:
“For 35 years (1974-2008) Dave Ricketts tutored every catcher in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. His tireless work ethic and mastery of the fundamentals of the catcher position left an indelible mark on countless athletes, from rookies to Rawlings Gold Glove winners such as Tom Pagnozzi, Mike Matheny and Yadier Molina. Dave Ricketts’ passion for the great game of baseball and for the men he taught will never be forgotten.”
Ricketts was a former MLB catcher who acted as catching instructor and minor league manager for the Cardinals. He passed away in 2008. He was the tutor to many of the franchise’s best signal callers and his philosophy of camaraderie through competition still governs the modern crop’s development.
“The amount of resources and people that are here to help you, it’s a lot to take in. Everybody is willing to help,” says Carson Kelly, winner of a Gold Glove in Single-A in 2015 and perhaps the most well known candidate to inherit Molina’s throne.
Early in camp, Kelly got a tip from Molina about how he was holding his weight in the crouch. The 33-year-old approached him with a tweak, and within moments he felt the difference.
“What I needed to do was put my weight more inside on the balls of my feet. The smallest little detail. It allows me to go different directions, allows me to get in a better position. Those are the smallest little things that Yadi, Mike (Matheny), all these guys find. That’s how we get better, those little tiny details,” Kelly says.
Absorbing the information to enable self-correction is vital to success. Molina discovered that quickly, and was determined not to atrophy when he was out of coaches’ gazes. He expects the same from his understudies.
“I was like, ‘I need to know this because when they’re not around I need to be able to make adjustments,’” he says. “Right now I’m going to be here for them because we’re like a family and we care about each other. But when the season starts, one guy is going to be in Jupiter, one guy is going to be in Double-A, one guy is going to be in Triple-A, one guy is going to be in A ball. Everybody is going to go different ways and they should know what we’ve been doing here so far. What we’ve tried to teach them and the right way to go about it. They should know and they should be their own coach.”
His ability to see what others miss helps young prospects and veterans alike. Former Reds’ catcher Brayan Pena, signed to be his backup, says he has the eyes of a hawk. Nothing, no matter how small, escapes him. “He has that blessing where he can see what you’re doing wrong. Right away he comes up to you and goes, ‘hey, just try this and let’s see how you feel,’” he says. “Having a guy like that, a future Hall of Famer, God knows how many Gold Gloves, having a guy like that take the time to make sure you know he’s there for you, that says a lot about his character.”
"Find the small things, work on it until becomes second nature...doing it over and over again, it becomes habit”
In the early days of camp when drills dominated the agenda, catchers wrapped their early work before the daily clubhouse meeting. Then they scattered across the complex’s six practice fields to catch bullpen sessions, live batting practice, or workshop with pitchers and give feedback to coaches. They ran from station to station, always having somewhere to be and a detailed assignment to complete. Molina, his hand still recovering from surgery, floated from catcher to catcher giving feedback on form, tips on receiving certain pitchers and acting as a roving catching instructor.
For players like Kelly, those teaching moments can fix something they never knew was wrong. “It’s like the door opening. It’s brand new. You’re like, ‘I never felt that.’ Then you know it’s going to help you. Then feeling that every single time, doing it over and over again, it becomes habit. Find the small things, work on it until becomes second nature,” he says.
As his surgically repaired hand grew strong enough to receive pitches, Molina’s instruction occurred more by example. He may be the most accomplished defensive catcher in the game, but he does every bit of work as though it’s his first day on the job. Everything is precise, everything is measured. It’s a diligence that resonates and inspires.
“All the little tedious things that you don’t want to do, he takes pride in,” Wainwright says. “You see him do this little drill where he catches the ball and then brings it to his nose with his bare hand. He does it for 10 minutes. Every rep is the same. There isn’t a couple minutes of snatching and a couple minutes of serious. It’s always taken serious.”
Wainwright has been watching Molina do that drill for years, and 2016 was the same.
When Molina hears about his ace’s admiration, he lets out a rare chuckle. He shakes his head and explains, “I just try to be disciplined and do my best because I know they’re watching. I want to do the right things.”
And they are watching.
Even as the camp wraps up for the day for most players, the catchers remain on the field. They hit last. Then they do core work. Then, once the heat has passed its apex and the sun has begun its descent, they return to the clubhouse. They walk in lugging duffel bags of gear, drenched in sweat and caked with dirt. They plop onto stools and do little more than breathe, letting their bodies recuperate before they eat. Even in these moments, Molina is in the front of their mind.
“You look at that guy over there, I just watch what he does. I follow him around, that’s basically the MO. He always does the right thing, so you know if you’re around him, for the most part you’re going to be in a good spot,” Ohlman says, his clothes more sweat than fabric.
“It’s not like you’re trying to be his shadow, but at the same time, you’re trying to get closer to him because you want to be like a sponge. You want to absorb everything he says,” Pena adds.
As spring marches on and games dominate the schedule, the intensity continues. As most players head to their cars at the end of the day, catchers who were behind the plate hours before in Roger Dean Stadium are now in the weight room. Free of their gear, they carry kettlebells around a prescribed circuit. With weights suspended on a barbell across their shoulders, they perform lunges. They stretch aching muscles, careful and exact. Everything is done with rote precision, like it’s a solemn duty.
It’s a breathtaking amount of work, but those undertaking the challenge are eager and grateful for the opportunity. They listen enthusiastically, and find joy in the labor.
“Just having this opportunity and being in this clubhouse with all these great guys, it is Disney World,” Kelly says.
“I fight to stay awake and not nap, so I can go to sleep around 9,” Ohlman adds. “But I come in here with a big, fat smile on my face every day.”
Such is the happiness that comes from education; to learn from perhaps the greatest mentor the game has ever known.
“You never stop learning,” Pena says. “The day you stop learning is the day you’re going to retire. You see a guy like Yadier Molina, every time he talks about catching he always says, ‘I have to continue to work, I have to continue to improve my game.’ I don’t know how much more he can improve his game, but the sky is the limit for this guy. You see a guy with that success in the big leagues, a guy that’s going to be in the Hall of Fame someday, why not me? Why don’t I take advantage of that? Why not push myself?”
Perhaps the Cardinals have found the secret formula to building a catching empire. Mix competition with community, and find a soldier willing to lead. Through all the drills, all the meetings, all the study and all the weights, it never stops being Game 7 of the World Series.
“Every game you catch, every game you play, every day you have to feel that way,” Molina says.
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