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The backstop boys
They call catching gear “The Tools of Ignorance”, but the catcher is, more than any other player, the most important man on field, despite his hidden identity behind the mask. He is the only player facing the playing field, he calls every pitch, he has to handle every pitch, he controls the running game defensively, he nursemaids the pitcher and, oh yes, if he can hit a little bit, all the better. So here are the top 10 catchers of all time. — Hal McCoy
10. Mike Piazza
Defensive deficiencies kept him from being higher on the list, but for a guy drafted as an afterthought as a favor to his uncle, Tommy Lasorda, Piazza acquitted himself grandly. He was the 1,390th player picked, in the 62nd round, then became perhaps the best offensive catcher ever — 427 homers, most ever by a catcher, with a .308 career average. His 1997 season was probably the best ever by a catcher — .362 with 40 homers and 124 RBI.
9. Ivan Rodriguez
Pudge is still going like the Ever Ready Bunny. He is in his 21st season and entered 2011 with a .298 career average, more than 300 homers, 13 Gold Gloves and an MVP in 1998 with the Rangers when he hit .322 with 35 homers, 113 RBI and 25 stolen bases, an incredible number for a catcher.
8. Gary Carter
Called The Kid for his full-time exuberance and he was a media darling because of his love of attention. In 19 seasons he hit 324 homers and made 11 All-Star teams while playing mostly for the Expos and Mets. He drove in more than 100 runs four times and helped the 1986 Mets to a World Series title. He died after a battle with brain cancer on Feb. 16, 2012.
7. Carlton Fisk
The Iron Man Behind the Mask played 24 seasons and caught 2,226 games at baseball’s most demanding position, providing some sock for the two Sox teams, Boston and Chicago. He made 10 All-Star teams and hit 376 home runs. His home run in extra innings to win Game 6 of the 1975 World Series for the Red Sox against the Reds is considered one of baseball’s most dramatic moments.
6. Gabby Hartnett
Should have been known as Old 97 after hitting 297 home runs with a .297 career average during the 1920s and 1930s with the Cubs and Giants. Most known for his famous Home Run in the Gloaming that helped the Cubs win the 1928 pennant. He was NL MVP in 1935, hitting .344 with 13 homers and 91 RBI.
5. Bill Dickey
Another great Yankees catcher who missed two years of prime time serving in World War II, but he hit .313 for his career as Yogi Berra’s predecessor (both wore No. 8). He hit .362 in 1963 and over .300 in 10 of his first 11 seasons. He possessed a rifle-like arm to highlight strong defensive tools. Like Berra, his teams always won — seven World Series while he made 11 All-Star teams.
4. Mickey Cochrane
Led a potent Philadelphia Athletics team of the late 1920s and early 1930s to three straight pennants, then was player/manager in Detroit, where he won two pennants. He batted .320 for his career and won two AL MVPs before his career ended at age 34 when he was hit in the head by a pitch.
3. Roy Campanella
He followed Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, the year following Robinson's debut. Like Robinson, he endured racial slurs and prejudices and shook them off. Because he came out of the Negro Leagues, he played only 10 years and his career was cut short by an auto accident that paralyzed him. He was an All-Star eight of his 10 years and set a record at the time for catchers with 41 home runs and 142 RBI in 1953.
2. Yogi Berra
He perhaps hit as well, maybe better, than the No. 1 guy on this list and never saw a pitch he couldn’t swing at, but wasn’t as good defensively. He was a three-time American League MVP and 15-time All-Star on New York Yankees teams that totally dominated baseball during his time.
1. Johnny Bench
When one says catcher, one says Johnny Bench, The Big Man on the Big Red Machine. It was difficult to determine whether he was better defensively or offensively because he was so proficient at both. He redefined the position defensively and as his manager, Sparky Anderson, once said, “Don’t ever embarrass anybody by comparing them to Johnny Bench.”