“The Tao of the Backup Catcher: Playing Baseball for the Love of the Game”
Twelve Books, 302 pages
The first time I tried to interview Austin Wynns, the Colorado Rockies’ backup catcher, he was in a hurry. Tyler Kinley was about to throw a rehab session, and Wynns was due up to bat. He was polite but firm: He had to go, but if I’d wait, he said, he’d answer my questions when he got back.
For any number of reasons, that didn’t happen, so I resolved to try again the next time I was in Denver.
But before that next time arrived, I read Tim Brown’s “The Tao of the Backup Catcher: Playing Baseball for the Love of the Game,” a book he wrote with career backup catcher Erik Kratz. I found it to be revelatory, and then I understood — really understood — why Wynns had been unable to talk with me that day. Backup catchers, it turns out, are extraordinarily busy people, and Wynns had a lot going on.
As he explained when I finally caught up with him, “As a backup catcher, you have to be ready at all times every day. You need to do your homework. You’ve got to make sure you stay sharp on your craft, whether catching bullpens or staying in tune, getting in the cage, making sure you’re on the fastball. There’s a lot, a lot goes into it, and it’s not made for everybody.”
If there’s anything that comes through in Brown’s book, it’s the versatility and wide range of skills the position requires.
“The Tao of the Backup Catcher” is many things: a Kratz behind-the-scenes story, a series of well-researched backup catcher biographies, a philosophical treatise on acceptance and service, and just a very good baseball read.
That said, here are five reasons why you should read “The Tao of the Backup Catcher.”
5. It’s well-written
This is Brown’s third book, and he’s developed a nice turn of phrase. Consider, for example, the chapter “Ode to Shower Shoe.” Brown uses the humble shower shoe as a metaphor to give the reader more insight into Kratz, his relationship to the game, his marriage, and baseball itself. And he does this with a common item anyone could recognize. It’s that kind of careful detail that drives this book. Consider this passage:
They are old. They have experience. They are resilient. They’ve seen things. Mostly terrible things. And yet they are unbowed by years of abuse, neglect, the occasional tantrum, and that ribbon of athletic tape that won’t let go. They are possibly somewhat stained, somewhat weary. They would not admit it.
Or consider the chapter on Kratz’s time spent playing Winter Ball or his disappointment in being traded by the Milwaukee Brewers after having the best month of his career or the final chapter when he’s coaching his kids’ middle-school baseball team. The details are evocative but never maudlin.
Brown’s is a well-told story with a style befitting the subject: practical but always compelling.
4. It’s about Kratz
Actually, Kratz serves as a synecdoche, a metaphor, for backup catchers everywhere.
Kratz played his college ball at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. His faith, though never a focus, clearly provides a foundation for his life and approach to his career.
After finishing as a Blue Lion, he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 29th round of the 2002 MLB Draft. He debuted on July 17, 2010, when he was 30.
Kratz’s career would see him playing for nine teams in 332 games over a 10-year career — and that doesn’t include all the minor-league teams (472 games) filling his résumé. His MLB transactions page is a daunting read. That Kratz played in all these games in so many places while he and his wife, Sarah, raised three children speaks to the challenges of being a backup catcher and the stamina required of anyone assuming this position.
Take this exchange that took place in Auburn, New York, on Kratz’s 24th birthday. His dad, Floyd, has come to watch his son play for another MiLB team, and the son is having doubts.
They drove three more miles, about ten minutes, and found a booth at Applebee’s.
“I’m gonna ask for my release,” Erik said. “I’m done.”
He hit well and they didn’t promote him, he said. He didn’t hit and they didn’t play him. Another birthday had come. It was fun for a while. And now it was time to be realistic. Time to grow up and be, you know, he said, looking at Floyd, you.
It was important his dad knew first, that he’d thought it through, that his dad didn’t think of him as a quitter.
“There’s no light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
The burgers arrived.
“Let’s just eat,” his dad said, “and talk it out.”
Of course, Katz stayed with baseball, but this passage shows the kind of doubt he experienced, the importance of his relationship with his family, and the challenges that go with being a backup catcher.
Or read the section on his release from the Brewers. It’s gutting stuff for a player we’ve come to cheer on, even though we know what’s going to happen.
Or read the section describing Kratz’s final games catching Deivi García.
It’ll stay with you.
3. It’s about backup catchers (obviously)
Here’s Brown explaining what sets a backup catcher apart:
The backup catcher is, most often, the guy who was not quite good enough to be the starting catcher. But there are lots of those. The minor leagues are full of those. So are construction sites and insurance firms and high school coaching staffs and wherever glory days are warmed and served with cold beer. He is, then, also the guy who can be trusted with the fragile parts of a team, a season, and a culture. When it is darkest, he laughs. When it is easiest, he shows up an hour earlier. When the wins come and the championships follow, he stands to the side. When the season is lost and the sun seems two feet closer than it should be and nobody really wants to be doing this, he plays more.
Then he’s gone. Because backup catchers also strain to hit .210, because if they hit .250 they wouldn’t be backup catchers.
“The Tao of the Backup Catcher” introduces the reader to many catchers and backup catchers: David Ross, Drew Butera, Tony Wolters, Vance Wilson, Ramón Castro, Eddie Pérez, Matt Treanor, Josh Paul, Jonathan Lucroy — the list goes on.
The number of catchers or backup catchers who became winning managers is impressive — as Brown points out, 13 of the 45 most-winning managers were catchers or backup catchers. That list includes Connie Mack, Joe Torre, Wilbert Robinson, Cap Anson, Bruce Bochy, Mike Scioscia, and Joe Maddon.
A highlight of the book is “Where Johnny Bench’s Gold Gloves Came From,” a chapter devoted to Bill Plummer, the backup catcher to one of the game’s greats.
Backup catchers, it turns out, are made of different stuff.
2. It’s about acceptance
According to National Geographic, “The Tao (or Dao) is hard to define but is sometimes understood as the way of the universe. Taoism teaches that all living creatures ought to live in a state of harmony with the universe, and the energy found in it.”
“Living in a state of harmony with the universe” — or accepting what is, even when “what is” is not necessarily what we want.
The thing about backup catchers is that early on, they had to accept that because they didn’t have the hit tool, they would need to contribute in other ways. As Drew Butera — son of a backup catcher himself — put it, “The one word that describes our role is humility.” He added, “In this position it’s about putting other people first and being OK with that.”
That’s no small thing, and it’s a lesson for all of us, not just backup catchers. At some point in some part of our lives, we have to accept that our place is in the chorus rather than at the front of the stage. Then, we need to be our best selves there.
1. It’s about baseball
The best baseball books help fans see the game in a new way, and in this, Brown succeeds.
After reading “The Tao of the Backup Catcher,” you will probably find yourself less irritated by the slashline of your team’s backup catcher and more in awe of what they do every day — much of which most fans never see.
The book exists as a kind of testament to them. We shouldn’t devalue their skills; rather, we should be grateful for their service.
I asked Rockies manager Bud Black, himself a former pitcher, about his relationship with his backup catchers when he was playing.
Black said this of his games when being caught by a backup catcher: “I felt a responsibility to them because I knew they didn’t catch a lot. And I knew that it was so important for them the day that they played to have a good game, and that meant something to me, that I wanted them to have a good game. I wanted them to get a couple of hits. I wanted them to catch a shutout or catch a win. So I took I took a lot of pride and joy when that situation occurred.”
Even though Black gives a pitcher’s perspective, it reinforces everything Brown describes in his book.
This is the way.