Tyler Flowers might have gotten out of this baseball life without eating foul tips like sunflower seeds. He could have led the upright life of a first baseman, never having to hide his face behind a cage or clad his body in padding and plastic, a polymer knight dressed for battle.
But then calamity struck one night in Rome in 2007.
Both the Single-A Braves starting catcher and his backup were hurt in the same inning. Flowers, who had caught a bit at a Florida community college and distinguished himself so much in that role that the Braves ordered him to do something else, was the last man standing. Or squatting.
He did OK in a pinch. And when he was approached afterward by the team’s roving catching instructor, Joe Breeden, Flowers uttered those fateful words that changed forever his playing wardrobe and perspective.
“I was like, ‘Joe, I’ve been trying to catch since I signed,’” Flowers recalled.
“He said, ‘All right meet me out here tomorrow, let’s start doing some work. If you look good I’ll make some calls and see if we can do it.’”
Sure enough, when the Braves brought him to spring training the following season, Flowers was handed the keys to the filthiest, hardest, most contrary-to-every-instinct-of-self-preservation position in the game.
The free agent the Braves brought back this season to split time with A.J. Pierzynski — having loaned Flowers to the Chicago White Sox for seven seasons before reclaiming their 2005 draft pick — is markedly different from the 2008 version.
Flowers then was such a raw product that Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez — a former catcher of some renown — had a little game he played during bullpen sessions. He began counting how many pitches the kid dropped, and how many he caught. “And I dropped more than I caught,” Flowers said.
Thirty years old now and mature in the ways of the human backstop, Flowers comes to the Braves as another veteran in the mold of Pierzynski, a nanny for the team’s many young pitchers. Flowers’ offense can be spotty. He is a career .223 hitter who has never hit more than 15 home runs in a season. But behind the plate he is known as being gifted at framing pitches, getting the umpire to see things his way.
His biography guarantees him a certain amount of popularity from the jump — a local who grew up on the youth fields of Cobb, who still lives in Milton and whose parents live just a few miles from a certain important construction site off the Cobb Cloverleaf. But let him turn a borderline pitch into a strike here and there, that will greatly enhance his popularity.
“A catcher,” the late, great practitioner of the craft Bill Dickey once said, “must want to catch. He must make up his mind that it isn’t the terrible job it’s painted (to be), and that he isn’t going to say every day, ‘Why, oh why, with so many other positions in baseball did I take up this one?’”
Why anyone who is not into regular doses of pain would volunteer for this duty is unclear. Here, live a life squatting on your heels, catching bullets (average fastball velocity in 2015: 92.4 mph) and taking foul tips to some of the most sensitive of body parts. The pay’s great, and it’s all the infield dirt you can eat.
And you get so see baseball from some of the most exotic angles (see famous photo of Braves catcher Greg Olson standing on his head after a collision with Minnesota’s Dan Gladden).
But Flowers gets downright flowery when talking about his weird profession:
“It would be real boring (playing somewhere else now),” he said. “You’re involved pretty much in every aspect. Not just during the game but before the game and after the game. Working with people, recognizing personalities. How do I get this (pitcher) to stay confident, how do I get him to get back to whatever his key thoughts are to get him on track?
“Then it gets real fun when your pitchers start believing in you and they don’t shake you off. And then it’s on you. When you have success, of course, the media goes to him. But then he comes to you, thanking you for your hard work and preparation and leading him and keeping him in rhythm.”
Last week, just how serious Flowers is about his chosen position was on display on the dugout floor of the Braves’ spring resort. Spread out was an array of equipment from a company called Force3 Pro Gear that Flowers first advised, and then joined with a small share of ownership.
They call catcher’s gear the “tools of ignorance.” These pieces were meant to educate them a little.
Some of the gear was on the frivolous side. Flowers has an artistic side, which he mostly has employed in decorating his kids’ playroom with cartoon and fantasy characters. Sometimes he’ll take pad and art pencils on the road to kill time. He designed a couple pair of brightly colored batting gloves that Force3 president Jason Klein calls “sexy.” Although Sofia Vergara probably won’t be modeling them.
Some of the gear just underscored what hazardous duty catching is, like the shin guards and chest protector lined in Kevlar. (No, Flowers is not bullet-proof.)
One piece, Flowers said, is revolutionary (did we mention he is very adept at marketing, too?). His mask is unlike any other in the majors, a spring-loaded creation that Flowers said absorbs up to 75 percent more force than a conventional mask.
Another quote from catchers past, this one from Johnny Bench: “A catcher and his body are like the outlaw and his horse. He’s got to ride that nag till it drops.”
The idea is to give that nag a fighting chance. While Flowers said his head probably took more abuse playing high school football at Blessed Trinity in Roswell, he’d like to keep it that way. (Others, notably Cardinals manager Mike Matheny and former Brave David Ross have not been so lucky).
So, it is in both the Braves and Flowers’ best interests to remain healthy this season — for what better advertising for his equipment could there be?
And implied in his continued good health and hoped-for production with the Braves would be an endorsement for the life he chose.
The message, then, he dreams to deliver to parents who want to keep little Johnny all bubble-wrapped and safe is simple enough: “It’s OK to catch.”