Given a bit of time, everything develops its own mythology. Baseball is one of the best examples of this. There’s Babe Ruth calling his shot, and Jackie Robinson stealing home, and “the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” and so much more. The mythology is always there, as deep as one wants to look, and it only makes the game richer and more fascinating.
Part of the mythology is the archetypes ingrained in the game. I’ve written before about the importance of shortstops, but that’s only one example. Centerfield might be the most legendary position on the diamond, and I think it’s solely because most seats face toward the centerfielder, and we look out there and see him running down everything near him, going over the fence and deep into gaps, all long strides and grace. Because it’s most demanding position, it draws the most talented players, and so the mythology becomes self-perpetuating. We have Mickey Mantle and Joe Dimaggio and Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr. We have songs about it. Everyone wants to play centerfield.
Shortstop and center field are identified with grace, but that doesn’t fit for catchers. Catchers are some combination of bulldog and point guard. They’re a coach on the field, the dependable captain who hoists it all on his shoulders. A catcher is someone for all others to follow. He’s an ambassador to the umpire, a counselor to pitchers, and a slugger in the batter’s box. He’s a font of wisdom, like Yogi Berra. Often, he’s the best player on the field, like Johnny Bench, but he always get a little less credit than he deserves, because he spends his life squatting down instead of racing into the gaps. We close our eyes and we can see the perfect catcher.
There’s always debate over whether teams, to be successful, need players who fill these traditional roles. Teams try to play a bad glove shortstop for his big bat, or they put a left fielder in center, or a guy know one respects at catcher. Sometimes it works. Usually it doesn’t. We have the images in our head for a reason, and it’s because they are successful. Even if that’s not the case, we can say teams and players need to get over the mumbo-jumbo of it all, but that’s not going to happen. The mythology has become reality, whether it deserves to be or not.
The Mariners have not had a catcher who came close to fitting the traditional catcher archetype since Dan Wilson. Miguel Olivo had the toughness, but he was sufficiently undependable and untalented to prevent him from filling the role. Kenji Johjima had a couple of great seasons with the bat, but language and culture issues kept him from ever being the leader everyone would like.
I never understood how Rob Johnson kept a job. He couldn’t catch and he was a terrible hitter, but somehow he started a lot of games over a few seasons. A lot of that was a lack of better options, but not completely. A few years ago I went to Mariners Fanfest, and we sat down to listen to a Q & A session with a handful of players, Rob Johnson among them. It became clear within minutes why he was the Mariners catcher. He controlled the moment and was obviously well-liked by his teammates. He had a sense of command and confidence that was exactly what we want from a catcher. Johnson didn’t have enough skill to supplement his presence. Ultimately, production wins out, but that he held the job as long as he did says a ton about what teams want from their catchers.
In the first inning of his first game, Mike Zunino stood up for a pop fly and threw off his mask, and it was clear at that instant that he is a Catcher, the kind you dream about. He didn’t even make the play. The camera cut away from him almost as soon as his mask was off, but by some combination of his eyes and the sureness of his movements, his control of the game was obvious. He looks like a catcher, tall and solid but still athletic-looking. You see him move and think, oh, this is what the scouts see, this is why he was the third pick in the draft. There is a stillness and confidence to his movements that makes obvious what Jesus Montero was missing.
This is not a guarantee that Zunino will be a success. Remember Rob Johnson. He will have to hit, and his first at-bat exhibited the questionable strike zone judgement about which so many have fretted. He has plenty of time to work on that, though, and fans can rest easy knowing that he already has those intangibles the Mariners have lacked for years. Maybe finally having a real catcher will be the first step to making the Mariners a real baseball team.