Communication skills key for Mets catchers
Working with Japanese hurlers takes creativity, patience
NEW YORK -- Pity the fool, but more than that, pity the catcher -- the Mets' catcher.
Whether it is Rod Barajas or Henry Blanco, understand what he must endure. One night, it's a knuckleball -- dipping, darting, devilishly denying the man trying to catch it any sense of security. The next night, the strain is exclusively in the catcher's head. Communicating with Hisanori Takahashi or Ryota Igarashi -- or both -- is as challenging as catching the knuckleball, but there are no oversized mitts to facilitate the exercise. The catcher's difficulty cannot be masked.
Neither complains. Indeed, each says he tries to make the best of a good situation, which is not to suggest the communication is readily achieved.
"You have to work at it," Blanco says. "It's just part of your job."
And so he and Barajas use whatever means is available to them to get their points across to the two Japanese pitchers on the Mets' roster -- facial expressions, sign language, some hybrid of the two, noises and, on occasion, actual words.
"They understand more English than they get credit for," Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen said.
He faces the same obstacle.
"They call it a barrier," Warthen said. "That's just what it is. I think we're doing a pretty good job with it. But you can't always tell."
The barrier will be in place Thursday night at Citi Field against the Tigers, when Takahashi makes his seventh start opposite the pitching half of the Galarraga-Joyce Almost Perfect Partnership of Understanding (GJAPPU).
Takahashi no longer is a curiosity to the population of the Citi. His assortment of obedient left-handed pitches has produced a 6-2 record, 3.13 ERA, 12 scoreless innings and a victory against the Yankees, a victory against the Phillies -- it also was a scoreless performance -- and, like the work of knuckle-balling R.A. Dickey, more than the Mets had a right to expect.
Galarraga, three weeks removed from his 28-out "perfect" game, will be the primary curiosity Thursday when the Mets seek to complete a sweep of the Tigers. But Barajas or Blanco will have some curiosity about the Mets starter, specifically, "Are he and I on the same page?" How will they know for sure?
"You hope it's not trial and error," Barajas said, fully aware of the chance for "error and error."
"He knows all the words he needs to know," Warthen said of Takahashi. "They don't have a problem that I know of. I think they understand me. They just don't get my jokes. But I think both catchers are OK with it."
Barajas, more than Blanco, you'd think -- his wife, Stacie, is half Japanese. But the words he has learned from her mostly involve food or are interjections that convey anger. He's good with "thank you very much" and sushi. But Stacie isn't one to discuss back-door sliders and changeups.
"So we use something between sign language and hand movements," Barajas said. "[Takahashi's] English is getting better. I don't think my Japanese is, though."
And whatever nuances might be expressed probably are lost between the catcher's lips and the pitcher's eardrum.
Through his interpreter -- one who uses words, not his hands -- Takahashi said: "I try to understand. Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's difficult. Somehow Barajas understands my English."
Of course, the catchers aren't alone. The infielders must communicate -- kind of -- with the pitchers as well.
"No chance," says Jose Reyes, who resorts to signs and "attaboys."
The shortstop's English has dramatically improved during his time in the big leagues. But he still speaks too fast, in English and Spanish, for almost anyone to digest. Japanese would be a whole new ballgame.
"You keep it simple," rookie first baseman Ike Davis said. "The fewest words possible."
And he notes that eye contact is essential.
"You want to make sure there's never a blank stare coming back at you," he said.
"Whatever I say has to be in English," David Wright said. "It's usually positive. You move your body and smile. That usually gets it across."
If any of them need to communicate with Takahashi or Igarashi off the field, they can rely on the pitchers' interpreters, or Pedro Feliciano, who spent the 2005 season pitching in Japan -- his Japanese is adequate -- as the Mets relied on Timo Perez to converse with Tsyoshi Shinjo in 2000.
But it's usually Barajas who does most of the communicating.
"A couple of times, it's taken longer than normal to get a point across," Barajas said. "You know, when you change the sign with a runner on second. Or there was one time when I went out to the mound to talk to Tak because I just wanted him to throw a specific pitch with no sign.
"I looked at him, looked in his eyes. I knew he didn't understand. But knowing that he didn't ... that was communicating, too."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.