By Louis Berney
Who is the best Oriole catcher of all time?Rick Dempsey, the Orioles' former MVP catcher, bullpen coach and current first base coach, had some suggestions.Dempsey caught for the Orioles for 12 seasons, beginning in 1976. He ended his playing career in 1992 and has been an Oriole coach for the past six years, working with the catchers during that tenure.
So, Mr. Dempsey, the winning envelope, please.
"Offensively," he said, "Gus Triandos was probably the best."
Triandos was the first power hitter the Orioles had, tying a then-record for major league backstops with 30 home runs in 1958. Triandos didn't hit for much of an average, batting only .240 in eight seasons in Baltimore. Still, he was a big enough offensive threat for the Orioles in an era dominated by pitching. He led the team in home runs five seasons and a Baltimore street was named for him.
When it comes to selecting the top defensive catcher, Dempsey can't help but be a bit immodest. He calls himself the best defensive backstop the team has ever had, considering his handling of pitchers, blocking of errant balls, and an arm that regularly kept opposing runners at bay.
But when it comes to the overall best catcher in Oriole history, Dempsey nodded in the direction of the man currently wearing the chest protector and mask for the team: Ramon Hernandez.
"It could be him," Dempsey said.
Perhaps, it's early to be giving Hernandez such a label. A decade ago, some were suggesting that Roberto Alomar might be the best player ever to wear an Oriole uniform. But his performance quickly went down hill, and Alomar was gone almost as quickly as he had arrived.
But in almost half a season, Hernandez is putting together a solid year in a position that has not traditionally been a strong one for the Orioles.
In the franchise's history, Baltimore has had 57 All-Star players. Only four of them -- Triandos, Andy Etchebarren, Mickey Tettleton and Terry Kennedy -- have been catchers.
Hernandez, though slumping at the close of the team's last road trip, was still hitting .285 and with 49 RBIs was second only on the team to Miguel Tejada.
At press time, he leads this season's major league catchers in runners caught stealing with 25, eight more than the next catcher. The Orioles picked up Hernandez in the offseason for his ability to call a good game. This asset has complemented his defense as Hernandez has given some much-needed direction to the Orioles' young pitching staff.
Jim Duquette, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations got a chance to watch Hernandez play for San Diego last season and said he might have been the best overall catcher in the National League in 2005.
Hernandez's free-agent contract will keep him with the Orioles through 2009, giving him plenty of opportunity to burnish his reputation in Baltimore.
Hernandez came to the Orioles with a .262 lifetime batting average and 90 home runs in seven years with Oakland and San Diego.
Hernandez is not without his liabilities as a catcher. Two years ago, he was injured in a collision at home plate with then-Blue Jay Howie Clark. The crash sent him to the disabled list robbing him of a month of play. Since then, some suspect he has been reluctant to use his body to block home plate, a tendency that already has cost the Orioles some runs this season.
His aggressive arm has sometimes proven to be errant. After a few botched pick-off attempts, management reportedly asked him to be somewhat more prudent in trying to nab runners who stray a little too far off the bag.
Overall, however, he has been one of the biggest benefits for the team this year. When he's hitting well, he drives the ball hard all over the field. He also provides the team with great defense at perhaps the most key position on the diamond, outside of the pitcher's mound.
Dempsey might have gone out on a limb, calling Hernandez the Orioles' finest catcher ever. Now let's see if Baltimore's new catcher can prove him right.
Photos: Sabina Moran/PressBox
Issue 1.9: June 22, 2006