Catch as Catch CanAugust 16, 2011
What compels a baseball player to offer up his services behind the plate? Who raises their hand willingly to strap on the tools of ignorance, squat down and brace themselves to be peppered, battered and bruised?
“As long as I can remember,” said Wisconsin Timber Rattlers Catcher Tony Pechek. “I have a picture on my phone, to this day, that I use as my background…me as a kid with all of my catcher’s gear on when I was nine years old.”
The 24-year-old Colorado native didn’t acquire his desire by training his eye on any number of popular catchers in the 1990’s. Instead, Pechek found inspiration in the form of a fictional catcher, Jake Taylor, from the movie “Major League.”
“Even as a young kid I got to watch those movies…good parenting I guess,” joked Pechek. “I always liked catching and surprisingly, because of it, I actually lost a lot of speed. I was actually quicker than I am now.”
Pechek stayed fleet of foot by dancing all over the diamond, taking his shots on the infield at second and third and then some corner outfield action when he was in high school at Pueblo South, where Pechek was tabbed First Team All-State as a senior.
“I kind of moved everywhere except for shortstop and centerfield,” said Pechek. “But catching, that’s where I feel at home.”
Finding a post prep baseball home behind the dish is another story.
Make that, a series of stories.
“I did not take a very good journey through college,” explained Pechek. “I started off at Wichita State (2006) for a year and a half, had 23 at bats and zero success. I came back into what I thought was going to be a backup role playing some first base and DH-ing a lot more, but that changed in the fall, so I left and went to a junior college, Central Arizona (2007) and loved it there. I loved the coaches, but from there I had three offers…go back home and play, go to Northern Colorado or Creighton in Omaha, which is in the same conference as Wichita State.”
This was a chance for Pechek to block balls in the dirt at the Division 1 level once again, maybe even exact a touch of revenge against the Shockers program where things just never stayed in sync. But the Blue Jays couldn’t provide a place for Pechek to nestle in for keeps.
“They gave me every opportunity and I started out real slow, my playing time diminished and my relationship with the coaches wasn’t flourishing,” said Pechek. “My dad lost his job so I couldn’t afford to go back…I couldn’t get a loan. I finished up my last year at home at a Division 2 school (Colorado State University-Pueblo).”
With all the bouncing around, perhaps Pechek was wondering if he erred when he didn’t sign with the Detroit Tigers back in 2005 when he was drafted out of high school in the 41st round. His post college agenda included playing with a men’s summer league team, more recreational than competitive, and Pechek playing all over the diamond that included a cameo on the hill. The 2009 Major League draft came and went but didn’t call his name. Tony Pechek was moving on, and up.
“I’m up mountain climbing in Colorado, a 14,000 footer, get off the mountain and there’s like eight voice mail messages,” said Pechek. “I’m thinking, either (my sister’s) wedding is off or someone died. It’s a call from the Milwaukee Brewers asking if I was interested in coming out and playing in Arizona. I call them back and go, yeah, I’m very much interested, but what position am I playing? I had no idea when they saw me play.”
The Brewers request was to put Pechek behind the plate for good, and they also needed him in Arizona on a Saturday, the same day as the wedding. Pechek explained he was in the wedding and got a reprieve, signing a free agent deal and strapping on the gear one day later. One year later, Pechek was in Helena, a notch up the Brewers food chain, where progress took a spiral turn when he injured his wrist diving for a foul ball, landing in an awkward position and dealing with a nagging sensation the rest of the season. Pechek’s offensive numbers suffered, but he remained focused on his task behind the mask.
“My offense is suffering no doubt about it,” said Pechek. “I don’t know if it is because of the defense or confidence right now. There are probably a number of different things why my offense isn’t very good. But I feel like I’ve gotten pretty good at being able to control what happens on the defensive side. When I come back from the dugout the offense is put away. It’s about switching gears.”
This conqueror of mountains continued his assent by making the Class A Timber Rattlers roster in 2011 as Wisconsin’s third catcher. But when former second round selection Cameron Garfield got nicked up, Pechek was able to catch on and catch more often than he anticipated.
“I’m the oldest guy on the team which is kind of funny,” said Pechek. “It’s just getting to know your pitchers more than anything, knowing if you need to go out there and coddle them, tap them on the butt and say that they are the best, or going out there and getting in their face and say this is the way it’s going to be.”
Pechek has an infectious personality and a veteran presence that allows him to corner a younger pitcher during a conference on the mound with a businesslike approach. His speech is straightforward and no-nonsense.
“You’ve got one of two choices, either pony up or we’ll get you out of here and get someone in here that can,” barks Pechek. “I think it really comes from the work I do with the pitchers outside of the game, catching their side bullpens and always being available for them to have that trust in me when I’m back there putting down the right fingers or saying to him hey, I know this isn’t your best pitch right now, but this guy can’t hit it.”
Catching is a true love/hate relationship for Pechek. He adores the position with a passion, but isn’t a fan of the toll it takes on his psyche.
“You wear stuff on your sleeve more so,” explained Pechek. “The mental side of it is a rough grind day in and day out. I had a bad pitch call that ended up tying up the game and I sat there wearing it on my sleeve because I know I called the wrong pitch. I take games personally…It’s more of a mental thing because the physical part sucks, but you sign up for it and take your beatings and it’s just part of the job.”
Understanding that his job description also includes being a part time psychiatrist to the talented young arms he is catching, Pechek uses some of his down time to get a vibe that might help during game time.
“You learn most of that just sitting around the clubhouse playing cards or talking to them about family members,” said Pechek. “You can learn a lot just becoming friends with them more than anything. First instincts of someone do carry over, but I really believe you get to know the way they’re going to be on the field by hanging out with them off the field.”
And this is where Pechek shines. Approachable and chatty, Pechek carries himself with the confidence to easily flip his switch and adapt to the scenery.
“I know when you have to be serious and when you don’t have to be,” said Pechek. “When I’m sitting out in the bullpen, I’m a different person then when I’m catching a game because I’m a competitive, tough-nosed person. No one’s going to hurt me or my pitcher and that’s the way I am. But when I get away from it I like to screw around and have a good time. That’s my personality.
“I’m talkative so I get pulled into the kangaroo court box for stupid things I say just to keep people happy. I think my fines are going to be pretty high this season but that’s part of my personality. I just try to remember to have fun because it’s just a game.
“I’ve got a job that not many people can ever say they have had or ever will have.”
His father, Wayne, had that same opportunity, a 1976 draftee of San Francisco who played four seasons in the Giants organization, but never tasted the absolute tip of the peak. His son, the mountain climber, dreams that he will someday be able to catch on in the big leagues and reach that summit.
“There’s always that, I think that’s why you play this game, to move up and experience something new and ultimately reach that goal that you set for yourself as a kid, and that’s being a major leaguer,” said Pechek. “As you see yourself play through and measure other people’s talents and skills and play against big name guys, rehab with major leaguers, it’s a very humbling sport…not forgiving. But it’s always fun to see having an opportunity to move up.”