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What backup catchers teach us about work and life

Some of your best team members are the backup catchers, those who do their jobs and model persistence and a love for what they do, writes John Baldoni.

5 min read


backup catcher

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When a young person chooses a career in theater, they probably don’t say, “I hope I can be an understudy.” No, they want to be a star on the main stage. Something similar happens with young boys who aspire to become big leaguers. Most realize soon enough that they will never reach the “bigs.” There is, however, one category of player who can make it — and a career of it — by being an “understudy.” We call them the backup catcher.

Long-time baseball writer Tim Brown profiles the backup catcher in “The Tao of the Backup Catcher: Playing Baseball for the Love of the Game.” In the very first paragraph, Brown writes: “If you will work your whole young life to become strong and clever, to see the game in ways others don’t or can’t, if you will commit wholly to yourself, the group, the win, and today, and if you then will give it all away, then you will be the backup catcher.”

What it takes

The chief protagonist in Brown’s book is Erik Kratz, who served 19 years in professional baseball, only a third of those years in the major leagues. Early in his career, he aspired to be the catcher, but that was not the case. He realized that if he wanted to be in the game, he would have to be the backup catcher. 

In a recent interview, Tim Brown told me why he was attracted to the topic of backup catchers. When he began covering the game as a beat reporter, Brown says he realized he would need some inside help. “What I found was the most accessible humble men in the clubhouse with the most perspective were the backup catchers. They were accessible, they were self-deprecating and they loved to talk about the game … and teaching the game.”

As a result, Brown says, “I came to realize that backup catchers really are the soul of the game.” Backup catchers are the yeoman of the game. “It’s about the spirituality of being an athlete. It’s all these things that you have given yourself wholly to body, mind, soul.” To commit so totally, Brown says, “[y]ou just need your soul. Your spirit needs guidance.”

The mindset

Calling them role players is only partially accurate because while they play little, they are integral to the team. The bullpen’s work is warming up players about to enter the game. They also catch all the pitchers in their off days of training. Backup catchers are unique.

“The tools [backup catchers] acquire are just these very relationship-driven tools that don’t just benefit them on a baseball field because they don’t spend a lot of time on a baseball field,” says Brown. But it also benefits them a lot in life.” In his book, Brown writes, “If you will be a second father to some, a big brother to others, a priest to the believers, the best friend some ever had, honest when you must be, and silent when honesty slips into cruelty (and you are sufficiently wise to separate the two), then you will be the backup catcher.”

Many backup catchers find another career when their playing days are over. They become managers because, genuinely, they have been managing all along. “They’ve already done this job,” says Brown. “They’ve run a clubhouse, they’ve run a pitching staff, they’ve thought their way through games. They know what works, they know what doesn’t work, what gains a clubhouse for a manager, what loses a clubhouse for a manager. So I think that they’re just, again, they’ve lived it for so long. I think it’s just a natural sort of process to move to that top step.”

Role model

In the book’s penultimate chapter, Brown captures Eric Kratz’s reflections on the game and, at age 38, was retiring. 

“This was where he handed the game to the generation behind him. On every roster, he was more than a face in a team picture… The next Rookie of the Year likely had a backup catcher in his ear in his last season, in the minor leagues. The emerging young pitcher buckled down on that changeup because a backup catcher coaxed him through a messy year trying — hoping — to trust it. The team’s next manager almost certainly had a backup catcher standing beside him when he was learning to lead minor leaguers, unless he himself was a backup catcher, in which case he absolutely had backup catcher standing beside him. The game was bigger than he was. He’d formed that opinion earlier than most. The game made sure he never forgot it.”

Backup catchers are unsung players. They do not make headlines; they merely do their jobs. And in that way, they serve as a role model of persistence, resilience and love for what they do.

Note: Listen to my full LinkedIn Live interview with Tim Brown.


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