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Rookie of the Century

Could the Cubs' new catcher be the key to a world championship?



The catcher's mask, chest protector, and shin guards are baseball's "tools of ignorance," but there's no more mistaken moniker in the game. The catcher is generally expected to be the smartest player on the field. He sets up behind the plate, facing the diamond and his teammates. He calls the pitches, and he makes sure the defense is positioned to catch the ball if it's hit. He has to know what his own pitchers can do, as well as the hitting strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies of the opponents. If not the field general—let's leave those military metaphors to football—he's the team's conductor, the player on the field directing the game.

Then he has to hit, too, and if weakness here is often forgiven in a catcher, much as it is with pitchers, as just too much to ask, it's the skill that separates a good catcher from the merely serviceable ones.

No wonder catchers typically make good managers when their playing days are over, notable examples being Joe Torre and now Joe Girardi with the New York Yankees, and the Los Angeles Angels' Mike Scioscia, who played under Tommy Lasorda and is considered one of the best managers in the game.

Catcher isn't a position a contending team entrusts to a rookie. In fact, even a veteran catcher joining a new team is considered a liability until he gets a full season to learn the pitching staff—though A.J. Pierzynski did OK when the White Sox won it all in 2005. In big-league history, no true rookie has been the primary starting catcher for a World Series champion, though Yogi Berra of the 1947 Yankees and one Jack Lapp of the 1910 Philadelphia Athletics came close as part-timers. In recent years a few catchers on championship teams were barely more than rookies, including one pertinent example in 1990—but permit me to hold that name for the moment.

Instead, let's focus on how manager Lou Piniella, trying to end the Cubs' century-long title drought, is relying on a rookie catcher, Geovany Soto, who happens to be a key reason why, for the first time since 1908—yes, the year of their last championship—the Cubs entered June of a season with the best record in baseball.

In his first full season, Soto, 25, has handled everything—his pitching staff, the pressures of hitting, his teammates, and himself. "I've told the story before, and he doesn't like me to talk about it," said the Cubs' TV color analyst, Bob Brenly, who's a former catcher and series-winning manager himself, "but when the celebration was going on in Cincinnati last year, when they clinched [first place in the Central Division and a playoff berth], Geovany stuck his head in Lou's office and said, as the beer and champagne were flying everywhere, 'In a couple years I'm gonna be your captain.' And I thought that was a pretty bold move for a kid just up from the minor leagues. But he went out and worked hard in the off-season and worked hard in spring training, and he's earned that starting spot." Now the notion of Soto becoming team captain as well doesn't seem so far-fetched.

The Cubs front office thought it had something special in Soto when it drafted him out of Puerto Rico in 2001. He'd attended the prestigious, bilingual American Military Academy in San Juan, and colleges were after him, but the Cubs offered him enough money to persuade him to sign. Since then, however, it's sometimes taken a trained eye to see the diamond in the rough. Through his first six minor-league seasons he didn't once hit ten home runs or bat .300.

It's not unusual for catchers to develop slowly, at least offensively. There's so much craft to learn—calling a game, giving the pitcher a target that's clear to the pitcher and undetectable to the batter, quickening the release on the throw to second and blocking home on the play at the plate, to name just a few of the skills Soto has mastered—that hitting is secondary. Even Carlton Fisk, the Hall of Fame catcher who played for the Red Sox and White Sox, never hit 20 homers in a season before he notched 22 to win the American League rookie of the year award in 1972.

Hitting "is the last thing to come," said Oneri Fleita, the Cubs' vice president of player personnel and longtime farm director, "but [Soto] obviously took care of everything."

Though Soto has the face of a telenovela star, it was grafted onto a stereotypical catcher's body—sturdy tending toward stocky. Soto struggled with weight and conditioning. He'd typically make the midseason all-star team as he rose through the minors but fade late in the campaign. He had a couple late-season cups of coffee with the Cubs in '05 and '06 and looked like a strictly defensive catcher.

That changed last year. Before the season he joined Kerry Wood on a diet involving organic meals delivered to the players. "It's just something he asked me about," Wood said. "I came in and lost a lot of weight doing it. It felt good. I felt strong. So it just basically started out by talking about it, and I think actually Henry Blanco [Soto's defense-minded backup catcher and one of his mentors] might have bought some of the dinners for him and got him started on it."

"I really, really focused on my weight. I lost like 20 pounds," Soto told the Daily Herald late last season. "Then it was just a matter of being more aggressive at the plate and hitting the ball where it's pitched."

If that sounds simple, Soto made it look simpler. Playing last season for the Cubs' Triple-A team in Iowa, he hit 26 homers, drove in a league-leading 109 runs, and batted .353 to win the Pacific Coast League's most valuable player award, the first catcher to get it since Sandy Alomar Jr. in 1989. Alomar went on to a long big-league career, including three stints with the White Sox in the mid-2000s.

Soto was called up again in September, and this time he played 18 games, hit three homers, drove in eight runs, and batted .389. The performance moved him straight to the top of Piniella's depth chart at catcher. He caught the first two games of the playoffs, and his two-run homer, which briefly put the Cubs ahead of Arizona in game two, was probably the high point of their three-game sweep at the hands of the Diamondbacks. It set the stage for this season.

"It was huge," Soto said recently. "I came up here to open some eyes and get the attention of the staff and come here to play, and I did a pretty good job. That gave me a lot of confidence coming into this year to take charge, knowing my pitching staff and the relievers, and do my job a little easier, knowing that they know what I can do and taking a little pressure off." When the Cubs let Jason Kendall go through free agency over the winter, Soto was the clear starter.

"I think the lightbulb went on for him last year," Brenly said. "He realized what he had to do to be a good offensive player as well as a good defensive catcher. And he just hasn't stopped hitting. The brunt of it for him is confidence."

It's not surprising, given the times, that some suspected more than confidence was behind Soto's power explosion. When Wood was mistakenly named last winter as a possible steroid user in an early release of the Mitchell Report, commissioned to investigate steroid use among baseball players, fingers were instantly pointed at Soto because of their shared training regimen. Both shrugged off the accusations: what else could they do except prove themselves on the field? So in what has to be the cleanest baseball season since the 1998 Flintstone-vitamin-and-Androstenedione-fueled home-run chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, Wood led the National League in saves through a third of the season, while Soto was hitting .284 with ten homers and 39 RBI—decent numbers for a full season for most catchers—and had been named NL rookie of the month for April.

About the only major-league skill he hasn't mastered is the interview. It's not that Soto is shy or taciturn. But as the season's gone on, he's seemed more concerned with his duties on the field and in the clubhouse than with massaging the media. A rookie, after all, he's deferred to Derrek Lee and Carlos Zambrano as spokesmen for the team, and he's seemed to flourish in the shadow of fellow rookie Kosuke Fukudome, the 31-year-old veteran of the Japan League who attracted most of the media attention early on, making the cover of Sports Illustrated as the player who "can end the Cubs' 100-year wait." Soto's rookie award was announced during a game, and he said afterward, "I noticed when I went up to hit and it said 'NL Rookie of the Month' [on the scoreboard]. It's pretty good. It's something. But right now we're still in May. So [there's] a lot of games to go, and the most important thing is to win games, and everything else will take care of itself.... I just want to feel like I belong here."

Soto has a sound, disciplined approach to batting. He stands with his feet wide and his knees bent, his stance faintly reminiscent of that of Houston's Jeff Bagwell. But unlike Bagwell he keeps his hands high, next to his head, and where Bagwell's stride was simply a transfer of weight from back foot to front foot, Soto flexes his left knee and strides toward the pitcher. His sound fundamentals —and his six-one, 225-pound frame—give him his power, but like any rookie he's been prone to slumps, at one point pulling off the ball and striking out eight straight times. Yet after Soto struck out five times in a 7-0 victory in Washington, Piniella said Soto impressed him by pointing out afterward, "I caught a shutout."

Piniella is known to be hard on catchers—he chased Michael Barrett out of town last year. A student of hitting as a player, Piniella doesn't have the same acumen about pitching, and he relies heavily on his pitching coach and catchers to handle the staff. "Talk to the pitching coach" is a familiar refrain. He's been more than pleased with Soto, who entered June leading the league in catchers' earned-run average (i.e., the ERA for pitchers in games he catches); he's shown faith in him since opening day. Asked whether he and pitching coach Larry Rothschild signal pitches for Soto to call, Piniella said, "We will help him if necessary in critical times. But we're comfortable with Soto, we really are.... We let the catchers handle most of it. That's the only way they learn, and that's how they work better with pitchers."

"He's been amazing," Wood said more recently. "For a kid with his talent with the bat in his hands to stay focused behind home plate at that young age and be able to handle this pitching staff—you know, we don't have the easiest guys to catch. We've got some guys with some pretty good stuff."

Soto has a special affinity for the young pitchers who rose through the ranks with him. "It's a comfort level, knowing him, back there," rookie Sean Gallagher said. "You know, we were together last year a lot. He understands me, I understand him. We're on the same wavelength. A lot of the time I already have a pitch in my glove that I want to throw, and he'll call it."

Gallagher was even more expressive after his first major-league win. "We went over all the batters before the game," he said. "We went over all their weaknesses and strengths, and he told me, 'Go out there like you have been.' Me and him been through it before. He's like, 'I don't want to see you let up. Do what you've been doing in the past and keep doing it.'"

Soto's known to call an "aggressive" game, in that he tells pitchers to trust their stuff. If the batter likes the inside fastball and the pitcher likes throwing the inside fastball, he should stick with it and match strength against strength. Catchers build pitchers' confidence that way, and it's as true of veterans as young pitchers. Soto's a rookie, but the Cubs' vets rarely shake him off.

"One of the key points is the pitchers like throwing to him," Fleita said. "And that's usually a true indicator of a guy who might sustain a long career."

Yet Soto also knows a key to pitching is unpredictability. He'll call for breaking pitches to start hitters off or in the typical fastball count of 2-0. "Before we started doing that we got ourselves in trouble throwing first-pitch fastballs," Wood said. "I gave up some hits, gave up a couple home runs on first-pitch fastballs. So we work together and he's putting down suggestions and most of the time I'm right on the same page with him."

"More than anything else I think that's just a feel for the game," Brenly said, "a feel for what his own pitcher's doing well and what the weaknesses are of the other team. He's not afraid to hang those fingers down there." That is, he'll signal for something other than the usual fastball with the usual index finger in a fastball situation. "It's very easy to second-guess, especially a young catcher," said Brenly, "but I can count the number of mistakes he's made on one hand this year.

"You can't not be impressed by what he's done up to this point. I remember when I was a rookie we had a very veteran pitching staff. I just kept my mouth shut. I was afraid to ask questions. I was afraid to take charge of the game. But Geo plays like he's done this ten years."

Even as a rookie, Soto has offered the same sort of leadership in the clubhouse. During a game early in April, second baseman Mark DeRosa made an error that contributed to a loss. Afterward, he dutifully appeared at his locker to deal with the media and accept blame, then got some food at the buffet and sat down by himself at a table. The first player to approach him was Soto, who sat down opposite him and didn't just say, "Bad break, we'll get them tomorrow." Soto engaged DeRosa in a long conversation. Later, DeRosa couldn't even recall what they'd talked about, but it had helped him put the game behind him.

"He's just one of those guys, man," DeRosa said. "People gravitate toward him. He plays with passion. I think he inspires a lot of his teammates that way. He's a great guy to be around. But ultimately I think the thing that's impressed me most is he's not afraid to speak his mind—to the coaches, to the pitchers, to the position players. I think he realizes he controls a big part of the game and takes on that leadership role.

"I think he's comfortable in his own skin," DeRosa added. "He knows what he brings to the table."

Unlike football and boxing, sports of emotional peaks, and even basketball or hockey, baseball is a day-to-day sport where quality establishes itself over time. The best baseball players are even-tempered and philosophical, and Soto, through highs and lows, has kept himself that way. "I think I've done it all," Soto said in the Cubs locker room the day he was named rookie of the month, adding (should those words have sounded cocky), "from eight straight strikeouts to two homers in a game. But that's baseball. You gotta adjust to every situation. It's never that bad and it's never that good."

Oh yes. That near rookie with 1990's world champions? Joe Oliver of the Cincinnati Reds, who'd broken into the big leagues in July of 1989. The manager of that team? Lou Piniella.v


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