Don Sawyer knew Aidan FitzGerald was a talented catcher, and when Sawyer watched the tape of the 2011 Class B state championship game all his expectations were confirmed.
Watching that game, in which Sawyer’s Waterville Senior High School baseball team beat Greely of Cumberland, 1-0, for the state title, Sawyer saw FitzGerald, then a freshman, do things that many veteran catchers would have trouble accomplishing.
“He threw a kid out in the game who I don’t think had been thrown out all year. No passed balls, no wild pitches,” Sawyer said. “He’s just gotten to that point, you can throw anything you need to throw to get hitters out, and we know with total confidence that he can block it.”
FitzGerald is one of a handful of catchers in central Maine starting for the fourth consecutive season for his team. Along with Andrew Pratt at Mt. Blue, Boog Dunphy at Carrabec and Dylan Belanger at Valley, FitzGerald gives his team experience at one of the most important positions on the field.
“You have to do a lot of thinking. After catching, going out in the field gets kind of boring,” Belanger said.
“You’re involved in the game all the time. Everything goes through you,” Pratt said.
That can be daunting for young players, but one of the things that sets this group of four-year starters apart is maturity. When his older brother Eli played for Waterville, FitzGerald was around the team, learning the game but also learning not to be intimidated by older teammates.
“At first, my freshman year, I was looking up to everyone. Get better any way I could. I was looking to the coaches for pretty much every little detail,” FitzGerald said. “Now kids are coming to me, asking what I can do to help them. I’m still looking to improve every day, but for the most part, I’m trying to help other kids improve.”
Belanger is the rare high school player who starts for five years. When Belanger was in eighth grade, Valley’s enrollment was small enough to allow eighth graders on the varsity roster. He stepped right in behind the plate, after learning the position the summer before his eighth grade year.
Belanger recalled the initial coaching from his father, Paul Belanger, Valley’s head coach, was rudimentary.
“I remember my Dad telling me, âDon’t worry about form. Just stop the ball,'” Belanger said. “I stopped a couple with my bare hand, and he told me not to do that.”
FitzGerald caught some playing youth baseball and, like Belanger, became serious about the position just before high school.
“By the time he stepped into it here he was pretty mature for being a freshman. He keeps developing. He keeps working hard at his art,” Sawyer said.
While each of these catchers is among his team’s offensive leaders, what sets them apart is defense. Mt. Blue coach Dave Pepin estimated Pratt threw out approximately 50 percent of would-be base stealers in 2013. In Tuesday’s game against Brunswick, Pratt threw out two runners.
“He’s a leader,” Pepin said of Pratt. “He’s an all-around good catcher.”
The thrill that comes with throwing out a runner is as big as it gets, the catchers said.
“It’s a really good feeling. When I here somebody yell âHe’s going’ I always get amped up and put everything I have behind (the throw),” Pratt said.
Added Belanger: “I like the challenge. I like the bang-bang play when you get the ball there to the second baseman and they slide into the tag — and it’s close.”
Some coaches, like Pepin, prefer to call each pitch, although he and Pratt said they’re usually on the same page. FitzGerald said he knows what pitch Sawyer likes in each situation, and is never surprised by the choices his coach makes.
“I know our pitchers. I can pretty much predict what Sawyer’s going to call for pitches. I know the way we do things,” FitzGerald said. “Just being around for four years, you kind of pick everything up.”
“He knows what I want. We don’t have many conversations about that,” Sawyer said. “He knows my basic entire sequence by now, and he can probably do it just as well as I can.”
At Valley, Dylan Belanger has called pitches for a few years.
“Since he was a sophomore, he’s called every pitch, and I don’t question any of it,” Paul Belanger said.
Experience working with a pitching staff can be as important as being able to block a pitch in the dirt or make the throw to second base. Pratt, for instance, began catching Mt. Blue ace Cam Abbott when the two were 11 years old. He can quickly spot which pitches are working and which aren’t, and knows when it’s time to make a trip to mound to talk.
“You’ve got to think of different things. Some guys you let work through their struggles a little more. I know how to work with our pitchers. Sometimes I’ll get in my brother’s (sophomore pitcher Ryan Pratt) face,” Pratt said.
No other position on the diamond has as much expected from him as catcher. Now a veteran, FitzGerald welcomes the work load.
“I like being involved with every pitch. Pitchers get taken out all the time, get rotated in. For the most part, catchers stay there. I get to pretty much control the game,” FitzGerald said. “I can control the pitcher’s tempo. There’s a lot of pressure put on me, and I like that. I like playing under pressure.”