ATLANTA — Like many young baseball fans around the country in the 1990s, Gerald Laird was served a steady diet of Braves baseball and “America’s team” promotions.
Thanks to former team owner Ted Turner’s national dissemination of the Braves from 1973 to 2007, Laird was sold on his favorite team from thousands of miles away, in sunny Southern California. He watched the games every day, 4:05 p.m. Pacific time — as long as he finished his homework. That was the one rule. And he rarely missed a game.
“I can remember coming here a couple years ago and it was the old-time Braves game and I can remember seeing, like, Sid Bream and like, ‘Jesus Christ, these are all the old guys I watched.’ (Mark) Lemke and (Jeff) Blauser and all those guys,” the 33-year-old catcher said. “I was always a Braves fan. Huge Braves fan. Huge. And now I get to play here.”
Laird signed with Atlanta in the offseason after making the trip to the World Series for the second consecutive time in 2012, this time with the Detroit Tigers, losing in four games. He won a title with the Cardinals the season before. The Braves organization he grew up following can only hope that pattern continues after they locked him up for two years, $3 million back in November as a backup to (and insurance policy for) Brian McCann.
With the team’s six-time All-Star behind the plate coming off shoulder surgery Laird could become the Braves’ first Opening Day catcher not nicknamed B-Mac since Johnny Estrada in 2005. (McCann said he expects to be in the lineup on Opening Day, but his return date is still up in the air.)
If it comes to that, the career .244 hitter says he’ll be ready.
“Last year I had a couple stints with (Tigers starter Alex) Avila going down and I feel like I can play every day for any team. And that’s why I think teams have looked to sign me early because I feel like I can bring a lot when their starter goes down,” said Laird, who played in 63 games for the AL champs. “I feel like I can fill in for a couple weeks, a month, whatever it takes at a time. I knew the situation. When (McCann) comes back, it’s gonna definitely help the ball club, but I’m just here to be ready to play.”
Laird turned down an invite to play for the Mexican national team during the World Baseball Classic despite Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez reasoning that it was “the chance of a lifetime.” Instead, Laird plans to arrive early to spring training, get to know his pitching staff, start studying film and develop a certain comfort zone before the season approaches.
There’s a reason pitchers and catchers report before any other positions — it’s the symbiotic relationship on the baseball field. Talk to either and they’ll be quick to point out the necessary functions of the other.
Walking into game situations without developing a pitcher-catcher rapport can disrupt the entire rhythm and flow of the game.
“That’s the biggest thing between pitchers and catchers is developing that relationship,” said spring training invitee Alex Wood, the team’s 2012 second-round pick who participated in the team’s early pitching program. “They know what you can do. They know when you like to do it. That relationship only grows with the more times you guys are throwing together in bullpens before the game and in the game. It’s like dating somebody, pretty much.”
So Laird will show up early to start his homework for the Braves once more, only this time he’ll be studying the tendencies of Kris Medlen and Craig Kimbrel — as well as the inclinations and quirks of hitters around the National League — instead of watching Maddux or Glavine pitch on his TV screen.
One thing he’s learned over his 10 seasons: It’s a time-consuming process.
“Sometimes I don’t think people understand the importance of catching. I mean, it’s tough, especially when you’re with a new ball club and you don’t know the staff,” Laird said. “I mean, I don’t want to go out there Opening Day and be catching Huddy (Tim Hudson) or whoever is pitching on Opening Day and only catch them twice in camp. Next thing you know there’s a big situation and we’re out there not on the same page.