Andy Etchebarren spent parts of 15 seasons in the big leagues, including the first 12 in Baltimore. A two-time American League All-Star, and one of the best defensive catchers of his era, Etchebarren helped backstop the Orioles to World Series championships in 1966 and 1970. A long-time coach and manager in the Orioles organization, Etchebarren recently completed his third season at the helm of the short-season Aberdeen IronBirds. David talked to Etchebarren about catching some of his generation’s best pitchers, why the Orioles won the 1966 World Series, and Steve Dalkowski’s legendary fastball.
David Laurila: What are the most important attributes of a good defensive catcher?
Andy Etchebarren: You need to have foot quickness–quickness on your feet. That’s number one, and you need a good release. You can get by with an average arm behind the plate if your release is good enough, but if you have slow feet it’s hard to teach a quick release. When I say “foot quickness,” I’m not talking about running speed. I’m talking about foot quickness and reactions behind the plate.
DL: Is that something that can be taught?
AE: You can teach a shorter step, but if there’s no quickness in the step–no quickness in the legs–then you can’t teach that. It’s like a hitter; either a guy has bat speed or he doesn’t. If a guy has good hands going through the strike zone, that’s where power hitters get their power from. If you could teach bat speed, everybody would hit home runs.
DL: What else is important?
AE: I absolutely like arm-strength, because it always helps. You should have at least an average arm, which is 50 on a 20-80 scale, and hopefully we can get catchers with 60-65 arms.
DL: A good catcher has familiarity with both his pitcher and the opposing hitters. Which of the two is more vital?
AE: I believe that your own pitcher is the most important, because you never want to take your pitcher away from his strength to pitch to a hitter’s weakness. It’s great if you have both, and you do want to know what the weaknesses are, but you don’t always pitch to weaknesses. A lot of times the game is 5-0 or 6-1 and you just want to throw strikes and keep the ball down in the zone. Then, if you get into a jam, you can throw more to the weaknesses without the hitter knowing what you’re trying to do. But I basically believe that you should stay with a pitcher’s strengths.
DL: Does a good catcher have a big ego or a small ego?
AE: Different players are different ways, and I don’t think you can categorize all catchers as having big egos, no egos, little egos, or anything else. I think it just depends on the personality of that individual.
DL: I’m thinking primarily of how headstrong a catcher might be regarding pitch selection.
AE: I’ve caught a lot of good pitchers, and I believe that you shouldn’t try to force a pitcher to throw a pitch he doesn’t believe in. Even if a catcher absolutely believes in a pitch, if the pitcher doesn’t, he’s not going to put everything into it and that might mean getting hit. I don’t believe you should ever force a pitcher to throw something he doesn’t want to throw.
DL: At this level, you’re working primarily with catchers who are new to pro ball. What is the first thing you focus on with them?
AE: You start right from their set-up. A lot of catchers sit on the inside of their feet with their knees together and their rear end down, and it’s hard to move from that position. So you start with the set-up, where they get on the balls of their feet a little bit so they have some maneuverability behind the plate, and you want to get them to work low to the ground. Basically, I start with the set-up and getting their feet into a position where they can move quickly and block balls if they have to.
DL: Your playing career spanned the 1960s and 1970s. Who were the best defensive catchers in that era?
AE: In the American League, probably–Thurman Munson was very good before he had his disaster. He didn’t have great arm strength, but he had a great release and could throw from any position and get rid of the ball. He was also a good hitter. In the National League, Johnny Bench was probably the best.
DL: What about Bill Freehan?
AE: Bill Freehan was a very good catcher for a big guy. There aren’t too many big guys who became good catchers, but he’s one of them. He didn’t have outstanding arm strength either, but he had good feet and could block balls well. He also knew his pitchers. Freehan was fortunate enough to catch a long time in Detroit, with some good pitchers, just as I was fortunate to catch a lot of good pitchers in Baltimore. The pitchers also make the catchers look better if they throw the ball over the plate with the kind of stuff those guys had.
DL: You shared catching duties with Elrod Hendricks for much of your career. Was that platoon based primarily on the opposing pitcher, or on who was on the mound for the Orioles?
AE: Well, it wasn’t a strict platoon, but it was a platoon. You know, I hit left-handers pretty well, but I had trouble with right-handers who had good sliders. So, what Earl [Weaver] did was, he knew which right-handers I could hit; guys who were basically fastball/breaking ball/changeup, instead of a slider. I just had an awful time trying to pick up sliders–I always thought they were fastballs–so Elrod started hitting against some right-handers and I hit against left-handers and a few right-handers.
DL: Were there certain pitchers who preferred throwing to either you or Elrod?
AE: I think our pitchers were fine with both of us. At least they never said anything to Earl about wanting this guy, or that guy, to catch them. I mostly caught [Dave] McNally every time he pitched, though, even if a right-hander was going against us. I caught McNally from A-ball on up, so I knew him really well–I knew how he pitched.
DL: You’ve been quoted as saying that McNally is the best pitcher you ever caught, which is notable in that you caught Jim Palmer. Can you elaborate on the reasons?
AE: I caught Nolan Ryan for two-and-a-half years in Anaheim too, and I caught Frank Tanana when he threw 96 miles per hour. I mean, guys like Palmer, Ryan, and Tanana should have been great pitchers because of their stuff. Their stuff was way better than average. Way better. McNally probably had average stuff, but he won 20 games four times. For his stuff, the way he pitched, he was the best pitcher–the best pitcher that I ever caught.
DL: What made McNally as good as he was?
AE: Well, I think that he knew his own stuff, and he knew the hitters. I’m not saying the other guys didn’t know their stuff, because we had good pitchers every year. Palmer was a great pitcher, and so was Cuellar. I’m not taking anything away from those guys; I’m just saying that their stuff was a little better than McNally’s, and McNally basically got the most out of his stuff that he could get out of it.
DL: The two of you made your big league debuts on the same day, in 1962, with McNally throwing a two-hit shutout. What do you remember about that game, specifically how he worked the hitters?
AE: I went over the hitters with the manager before the game, but I had caught McNally all year in Elmira, New York and knew how he was going to pitch. We basically went with how he pitched in the minor leagues. And one of those two hits was foul, too–Bobby Del Greco hit a ball down the third base line that shouldn’t have been ruled fair. That was the first game for both of us, and it’s also still the shortest game in Orioles history. We played nine innings in an hour and 32 minutes. He threw a lot of strikes that day.
DL: Someone who struggled with throwing strikes was the legendary Steve Dalkowski. What can you tell us about him?
AE: I caught him in the minor leagues for two or three years, including 1962 when he had a really good season, in Elmira. That’s when he finally started putting it together where he had control of his fastball a little bit, and he also had a pretty good slider. I think he had the big league team made in spring training the following year, but then he hurt his arm and that was it for him. There are a lot of stories about Dalkowski, but I’ll tell you this, I faced a lot of guys who threw hard like Sam McDowell, Koufax in the World Series, Bob Gibson and Jim Maloney in spring training; we’re talking about guys with real power arms. Dick Radatz, in Boston, was another–and Nolan Ryan. On today’s gun, I’m sure Ryan threw over 100, probably 103-104. Now those guys threw really hard, but I don’t think anyone threw harder than Dalkowski. If he came to the big leagues today, and didn’t worry about his control, just turned it loose, I would guess he could throw 105-106.
DL: What can you tell us about Mike Cuellar?
AE: The thing about Cuellar is that everybody says that he won because of his screwball, but a lot of people don’t realize he had a pretty good fastball. On today’s gun, he’d probably throw 93-94. He also had a pretty good curveball. He had more stuff than just his screwball, believe me. When we got him from Houston, he had the second-best ERA in the National League, right behind Koufax. A lot of people said he had a good screwball, but he had a lot more than that.
DL: Did Cuellar have the biggest repertoire of the guys you caught?
AE: I wouldn’t say that. He threw a screwball, a changeup, a curve, a fastball, and he didn’t have a slider. He was a four-pitch pitcher. The one thing he didn’t mind doing, unlike most left-handers, is throw changeups to left-handed hitters. Jamie Moyer has no problem with that, but most guys without a great changeup don’t like to, because left-handed hitters will usually hit that pitch on the inside half. Cuellar didn’t mind throwing his screwball to left-handers, even though it moved into them, because as long as he kept the ball down it was a good pitch for him.
DL: You caught all four games of the 1966 World Series, a series in which the Dodgers were held to only two runs. What can you tell us about those pitching performances?
AE: The first thing I’m going to tell you about that series is that one of our advance scouts had the Dodgers for the last month of the season, and when we had our pre-World Series meeting–it lasted for about three-and-a-half hours–Hank Bauer got up and said “We don’t have a chance if these guys are that good.” I remember him saying that. The first game, McNally comes out and he’s really wild, which was very unusual for him, so we bring in Moe Drabowsky and he strikes out 11 guys and doesn’t give up any runs. He did that by basically throwing hard and away to every guy. He had great command of a pretty good fastball, which he probably threw around 93-94, and he kept putting it on the outside corner. When that game was over, I went in and told Hank, “Hank, you know what? This is what happened today, and I think we should stay with it until they show that they can hit the ball away.” He said, “Go ahead,” so we just kept throwing hard stuff away, and they didn’t score for the rest of the series.
DL: Did you talk to opposing players much while you were behind the plate?
AE: I never talked to opposing players. I was taught that by Frank Robinson. Frank Robinson didn’t believe in that, and when we got him from Cincinnati, in 1966, he made it absolutely plain that the other team wasn’t our friend on the field. If you wanted to be friends with someone after the game, that was different, but on the field your only friends were the guys on your own team. We weren’t allowed to talk to the players on the other team.
DL: What about the umpires? Did you have many interesting exchanges with them?
AE: I got along with umpires pretty well, I believe. I could talk to them. The first real experience I had with an umpire was Ed Runge. I’ll never forget that. It was my second at-bat in the big leagues, and he called a pitch on me that I thought was outside. I got out of the box and said, “Mr. Runge, I think that pitch was outside.” He said, “Son, do you see all these people sitting in the stands? They didn’t come here to see you walk, so start swinging the bat.”
DL: You singled in your final big league at-bat, off Jim Palmer. What does that mean to you?
AE: Ha! Nothing; he’s a friend of mine. Maybe he took care of me, I don’t know. But I hit a ground ball up the middle against Jim, and it was one of those things. Maybe I got fortunate?
DL: Did you have any memorable collisions at home plate?
AE: Oh, yeah. I had numerous collisions at home plate. One time, I was a runner and I hit Thurman Munson, in Baltimore. I was low, and he was low, and I would have been out, but he dropped the ball. They charged him with an error, and it was the only one he made all year. I got hit hard a couple of times behind the plate myself, but never so bad that I had to leave the game.
DL: You caught your first big league game 45 years ago. The game has changed in many ways since that time, but what about the catching position itself? Has it changed?
AE: Well, I think something that’s different is that there aren’t very many catchers–nobody wants to catch anymore. When I came up, there were some pretty good catchers, and they enjoyed it. Nowadays it can be like pulling teeth to get guys to want to catch. I think part of it is the money. Guys know that if they can play another position, and get strong, they can hit some home runs and make a lot of money in this game. Catching is a lot of work, and you have to love it to want to do it. I don’t want to brag, but when I was in Triple-A, in 1965, I caught 140 out of 144 games. I mean, if we tried to do that to a catcher today, the front office would call and ask you what you’re doing. But I don’t remember even being tired that season, because that’s what that position was back then. That’s what Freehan did, what Bench did, what a lot of guys did. More recently, Pudge Rodriguez caught 150 games, or 155 games, in Texas where it’s 102 degrees. He didn’t think anything about it–he just caught the games. That’s something that isn’t easy to do.
DL: Having split time with Elrod Hendricks, what is your opinion of platooning at the catching position? Does a pitching-staff need a lot of continuity?
AE: Oh, yeah. I think they need to know the catchers. Today you have bullpen catchers, and we didn’t have that when I played. Elrod and I caught all of the sides, so we knew our pitchers. Today, they don’t do it as often. The second catcher is usually on the bench, and a bullpen catcher is warming guys up in the bullpen. Catchers don’t work with their pitchers as much as they did when I played.
DL: Do you see that as something that needs to be fixed?
AE: That’s just the way that baseball has gone. I will say that if you want a good rapport, your catchers should be catching your pitchers as much as they can.
DL: What do you consider the biggest contributions you’ve made to the game of baseball?
AE: That’s hard to say, but I do enjoy the teaching part, with young players. I was a coach in the big leagues for a long time, and I have no ambitions of going back there as a coach again. I enjoy teaching young kids baseball. Baseball. The little things about baseball, like when to take the extra base; when to take that chance. Or, what is an important stolen base? You see guys stealing bases, but what was the importance of that stolen base? Is that base important to the situation of the game? There are other things, like cut-offs and relays. Why do you need to hit the cut-off man? You do that to keep the runner on first base to keep the double play in order. A lot of young players never think about things like that. It’s those little things, which will help make someone a good big league player, that I enjoy teaching.