From the first time he stepped foot on a baseball diamond, Rick Straub knew his best chance of a prolonged career would be at one of the least desirable positions among young ballplayers.
Straub had always envisioned chasing down fly balls in the outfield, but when no one volunteered to play catcher during his first little league tryout, he quickly found his niche behind the plate.
"To me, there seemed liked there were about 1,000 kids or so at the tryout when I was 7 or 8 years old, but I'm sure there weren't that many," Straub said. "As I was waiting for outfielders to be called, they called catchers. Nobody moved, so I decided I was going to be a catcher instead, because I knew I could make the team since nobody else wanted to be a catcher."
Taking what he learned during more than 2,000 career games as an amateur and semipro backstop, Straub, 69, has applied that knowledge in his latest venture as a catching instructor. Straub, who graduated from Milford Mill in 1964, estimated that he has worked with more than 100 catchers ages 9-19 in the greater Baltimore area during the last several years.
A Charm City native, Straub previously coached with the Baltimore Baseball Coalition, Bay Bridge Baseball Academy, St. Frances Academy and the now-defunct BATT Academy. He said he was inspired to work with catchers after he noticed coaches were putting a lack of emphasis on the position.
"What I realize, even to this day, is that catcher might be the most important position on the field and on a team, but it gets the least amount of time and attention," Straub said. "The position is just so much different than everything else that happens on a baseball field. But because there is not as much time and expertise given to the position, a lot of coaches at the lower levels just take whatever they can find and throw them behind the plate."
Straub hosts a variety of camps and clinics, ranging from half-hour evaluations to individual coaching sessions lasting about six hours. He acknowledged he developed a strong rapport with his clients, and has seen noticeable improvements the more time he has spent with them.
"It usually takes me between four and six hours to go through a catching clinic class," Straub said. "… In that time, though, I really get a good chance to feel out a catcher's strengths and weaknesses. It helps me understand what to work on with them."
Straub also stressed the importance of his students taking what they learn in the coaching clinics and building off of that on their own. He said coaches and parents play a critical role in applying his teachings in practice and game situations.
"There is enough time spent in instruction, training and drills that the young catcher needs to continue on with that long after the class," Straub said. "It's important that the parents and coaches are part of the instruction and have a tool to use with their kids after I'm out of the picture."
One area Straub dedicates a large chunk of his clinics to is pop time -- the time that elapses between the ball hitting a catcher's mitt to the time it takes a catcher to throw to second base. According to Straub, the difference between a high school and MLB catcher's pop time is about 0.6 seconds, with the major league average around 1.8 seconds.
Straub said pop time is the preeminent measurement by which all catchers are judged.
"A catcher works every day to try and get quicker and better on his throw to second base," Straub said. "I try and work with fundamentally sound catchers with their release on their pop times, because that is where you can make an impact on a kid very quickly. You can't make much of any impact on a kid's throw or velocity -- that will happen over time with practice, strength, size and mechanics."
Straub has authored two books, "Catching4Kids -- Small Targets" and "Advanced Catching Techniques," aimed at providing additional insight and nuisances to everything that comes with catching.
"The books have been very well received," Straub said. "It is just another teaching tool I use to help work with all the catchers."
To satisfiy his passion for baseball, Straub said he plans to continue offering his knowledge and experience to others.
"The coaching of the kids continues to drive me since I stopped playing some years ago," Straub said. "I still want to remain involved in the game as long as I can, and coaching and working with these kids allows me to do so."