Remember the days in recreational league ball when, on the first day of practice, the coach has everyone do drills and the worst athlete on the field gets put behind the plate?
Those days are long gone in stick-and-ball sports, where catching is not only a more revered position in all levels, it's also more popular among young kids and their parents. They may don what was once called "the tools of ignorance," but catchers these days are the ones getting the most attention.
"If you're good at the position you will be recruited," Heritage High School softball coach Steve Chattin said. "College programs are going to carry three or four catchers because they're so valuable to a team's success. It's a great opportunity for kids who want to put in the hard work."
Kids are, obviously, getting the message that it's no longer an insult to get thrown behind the plate. In fact, a peek at last year's Best of Preps baseball and softball all-star teams reveals a hard truth: the Chattanooga area is blessed with catching talent. Among the first, second and third teams, 12 catchers were named in baseball and softball. Five of the six "utility" spots were made up of players whose main position was catcher.
"Kids used to avoid being a catcher, but now we find that once they get back there they don't want to play another position," said Tad Andrus, coach of the Tennessee Fury '95 softball program, which has qualified for the Amateur Softball Association 16-under A national tournament next week in Montgomery, Ala. "They find they can impact a game more than any other player."
The position's popularity has also, understandibly, brought a new level of athleticism behind the plate. Today's top catchers can play multiple positions, which also makes them more attractive to college and pro scouts.
"When I was a kid, girls who played softball were usually big and burly, especially the catchers," Andrus said. "Now they're very athletic and usually are among the team's top hitters. Today, these kids can hit and run and athletically they stand out."
Chattin's Heritage team has an abundance of catching talent. Last season's primary catcher, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga-bound Savannah Goldsmith, will play shortstop this year while Kristin West, headed to Tennessee Tech next year, gets behind the plate. They are easily two of the best athletes on the team, according to Chattin.
"We've been very blessed here and it's a position I've always stressed," the veteran coach said. "Both Savannah and Kristin will catch in college -- and we actually have four girls I would feel comfortable with behind the plate — but I don't hesistate to play them other places because they are such good athletes.
"Most coaches, and I include myself in this, want strength up the middle and that starts at catcher."
As a result, more young catchers are honing their craft at specialty camps, which can be found all over the country. Former Lookout Valley baseball coach David Dinger ran such a camp for 10 years and though he admits the catching position has attracted better athletes, it still boils down to mastering the basics.
"You want that athleticism back there because they have to be able to receive the ball properly and block the ball in the dirt, and that takes repitition and hard work," Dinger said. "We worked a lot on that because the one thing I always ask a catcher is, 'How much are you helping your pitcher?' The pitcher has to have confidence in his catcher or he can't do his job. Catchers have to be tough and have a lot of what I call 'want to' in them."
Dinger also believes the quality has increased because high school coaching staffs are spending more time with their catchers.
"That's the one thing that hurt high school catchers in the past," he said. "Coaches didn't have the time or staff to take the time to work with them. Catchers today are getting more individual time and, if they want to get extra help, there are plenty of options."
It all adds up to a wave of new stars in the Chattanooga area who play a position once thought of as a last resort. Who's ignorant now?
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...