When fans think of Sal Fasano, the first things that come to mind are usually the Fu Manchu, Sal’s Pals, and a popular journeyman catcher who poses little threat with a Louisville Slugger in his hands. Those working within the game of baseball see a cerebral backstop who is both a mentor to young pitchers and a great presence in the clubhouse. Fasano is, without question, all of the above. A 37-year-old veteran of 11 big-league seasons with nine teams, Fasano finished the 2008 campaign with the Cleveland Indians.
David Laurila: Catcher’s gear has historically been called “the tools of ignorance.” What are your thoughts on that?
Sal Fasano: I still believe in it. You have to be at least semi-ignorant to want to get hit by balls all the time. I’ve always said that it’s a lot easier to get hit by a pitch when you’re batting than it is when you’re catching. That’s because when you’re batting you see it coming. When you’re catching, you never see it coming. So you know you’re going to get hit, and you know you have to do certain things, and the best catchers in the world go unnoticed. So yeah, you have to be a little ignorant to do it.
DL: I saw you lose a game of chess to Cliff Lee in the clubhouse yesterday. Why did he beat you?
SF: That game in particular? I won the first one, you have to mention the first one! But, seriously, chess is a lot like pitching, which is why I like to play it a lot with the pitchers. There are certain fundamentals that you have to do; you have to establish the center of the board, get your pieces of power out, and then you have to keep every piece protected. In that game, he actually established the center of the board before I did, so he had the upper hand. I couldn’t play enough defense to undo that.
DL: Do you feel that chess can help the thought processes of a pitcher?
SF: Oh, for sure. If you equate it to pitching-what happens if a pitcher doesn’t establish his fastball down and away, or his fastball in-if you don’t establish one of the sides, hitters are going to become that-side dominant. All of a sudden, it will limit the amount of pitches, or the types of pitches, that you can throw on both sides of the plate. I think they’re both very symmetrical in the process.
DL: Orioles manager Dave Trembley recently said of Garrett Olson, who had just had a bad outing, “It looks like he’s trying to figure it out with angles, you know, diagrams.”
SF: It’s funny, because sometimes you can overanalyze what you’re doing. Pitching is predictability and unpredictability, all at the same time. You know you’re going to get a fastball, but when are you going to get it? You know you’re going to get a breaking ball, but when are you going to get it, and where are you going to get it? That’s why pitchers always have the upper hand, and a lot of times pitchers play away from the strengths of the hitters; sometimes they forget about their own strengths. So, to me, be predictable; know your strengths and what you want to do. That’s what makes Cliff Lee so effective. He knows what he’s doing; he knows where he wants to throw his fastballs, and he executes. He doesn’t worry about the hitter’s strengths; he’d rather focus on his own strengths.
DL: How differently do catchers and pitchers think?
SF: When you first catch a guy, you should be completely different. The second time you catch a guy, you should start to understand what he’s doing, and he should start to understand what you’re doing. Your third time with him, hopefully you’re on the same page. Very rarely do you and a pitcher click right away; it’s almost impossible, because you need to learn their personality, whether they’re aggressive, non-aggressive or passive, whatever. You find a way to work within the realm of what you have. Is he an aggressive guy? Let’s be aggressive. Is he a passive guy? Now I have to find a way to make him be more aggressive. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on, so it’s like being a psychologist sometimes.
DL: A pitching coach I spoke to recently said that catchers will often fall into a pattern with their pitch calling. Do you agree with that, and would it be a problem?
SF: I think that at times, with young guys, it is a problem. Just in general-I’m not pointing anybody out-a lot of times, if a young catcher has trouble hitting a breaking ball, he thinks everyone else in the league has trouble with a breaking ball. If he has trouble with a fastball, he calls the game the same way. So your job is to separate your hitting part from your catching part. When you deal with patterns, sometimes patterns can become predictable, but [Greg] Maddux pitched with a pattern; a lot of guys in the past have pitched with patterns and have been successful. The problem is that if I keep going up and in, and down and away, eventually the hitter is going to figure it out. So there’s that unpredictability part-sometimes there has to be some unpredictability just so that the hitter will go, ‘Oh my gosh, what was that pitch and why did he throw it? What is he trying to set up for the next one?’
DL: How important to you are charts?
SF: When I was younger, they were very important to me. Now that I’m older, they’re not very important to me at all. Now I really try to focus on the pitcher’s strengths, and not so much the hitter’s strengths. Charts are okay, but spray charts are probably better because you see what a hitter’s approach is. And if you know what his approach is, you can alter your pitching style to his approach. Of course, that goes back to the major fault of pitching to a hitter’s strength or weakness. If you pitch to your strengths, you’ll be successful. You don’t need charts.
DL: What if a given hitter is murdering balls in a certain area? Don’t you need to know that?
SF: Well, yeah, but more if he’s hot. If he’s hot, then you want to pitch around him. So you have to know what his hot spot is, because if you’re going to pitch around him, you’ll be able to try to get to the cold spots. But most of the time, if a guy is a giant in the batter’s box, sometimes you need to test your strength against him, and challenge him in his best part. Then, if do you get that ball by him, or if he fouls it off, he goes, ‘Oh man, that was my pitch and I didn’t hit it; now what?’ So you can use it as a psychological edge or you can use it as a deterrent. It works both ways.
DL: You feel that a catcher, and a pitcher, can get into a batter’s head?
SF: Oh yeah, for sure. I mean, that’s your whole job. If you can get into his head, or into his body, and get him to commit one way or the other, he should be out if you execute your pitches.
DL: Have you utilized charts as a hitter?
SF: As a hitter, not so much. Most of the time, it’s my weakness-when I try to think about what my weakness is. I know my strengths, so hopefully I don’t have to focus on those as much as I do my weaknesses. But basically, when you’re a role player like me, you just try to do your job, the task at hand. Maybe that’s to move a guy over so that someone can drive him in. You keep it simple.
DL: Who is the smartest pitcher you’ve caught?
SF: The smartest? Wow, that’s really a tough question, because I’ve never really thought about it as being “smarts.” Probably knowing their body the best, like body awareness, is what it is. Kevin Appier and Mariano Rivera knew their bodies and what they were capable of, and never tried to do anything they weren’t capable of. I think that’s what makes them smart. It’s not about IQ-it’s about knowing your body and what your limits are.
DL: Who is the most headstrong pitcher you’ve worked with?
SF: Oh, man; there are quite a few. I think that most of the time, the closers I worked with were really headstrong. They weren’t really intimidated by anybody; they never really said, ‘I can’t throw this pitch in this situation.’ Even going all the way back to guys like Jeff Montgomery and Doug Jones, or more recently, Jason Isringhausen or B.J. Ryan or Rivera-they were all headstrong guys who knew what they wanted to accomplish every time they went out there, which was to get outs as fast as they can.
DL: How different are most players from the public’s perception of them?
SF: In general, I think they’re very different from the public’s opinion. It’s depends, really, on where you’re at, but for the most part, people see superstars differently from the way we do. Like Grady Sizemore; Grady Sizemore is a superstar, but he’s very soft-spoken and very humble, he’s quiet. You see him as bigger than life on the field, but off the field he can just blend in with anybody, because he’s just a nice guy.
DL: You’ve been a popular player throughout most of your career. Do ever think about why that is?
SF: I think about it all the time, and I don’t understand why I would be popular. I certainly don’t put the best stats up. I try to play hard every time, and like I said before, I’d rather go unnoticed than noticed. So it always kind of blows my mind that I would be popular. I guess it must be the hair.