|Jake Romanski — Brad Haynal — CJ Saylor|
SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Getting a player to wear the catcher’s shin guards, chest protector and mask usually takes plenty of convincing.
Catcher is not the most glamorous position on the field. In fact, you’re not on the field. It is the only defensive position not in the field of play.
There is something transforming about the position, however. As difficult as it might be to convince someone to catch, once they’ve had a taste of it, getting a catcher to remove the gear is almost impossible.
Brad Haynal, who was a shortstop at Rancho Bernardo High, remembers coming off the field following the last game of his sophomore season and being pulled aside by an assistant coach, who said, “Get yourself some catcher’s gear because you’re going to be our catcher.”
Haynal’s first reaction?
“I was scared,” he said. “I didn’t want to.
“But during summer ball and winter league I got more comfortable and it turned out I had a knack for it.
“They say if you can play shortstop, then you can play anywhere. I’m thankful. I definitely see myself playing catcher the rest of my life.”
Jake Romanski’s opportunity to start as a freshman at Norco High was tied to becoming the team’s catcher.
“I could not see myself playing any other position — nor do I want to,” said Romanski. “You’re in every play of the game. Once you have that feel of the game being in every play, it is not very exciting to play another position.”
The Aztecs are excited about their catcher corps, which is the team’s deepest in a decade.
“All of them are going to play,” said Aztecs coach Tony Gwynn. “I’m going to rotate them. I haven’t said to myself who’s going to get the bulk of the catching assignments because all three of them are really good and it gives me some flexibility because I’ve got the DH spot there, too (to keep a bat in the lineup).”
There would have been even more depth at the position had it not been for the arm injury to sophomore Seby Zavala, who had Tommy John surgery last month and will miss the season.
“It’s frustrating,” said Zavala, who batted .276 with 14 RBI as a freshman from Bishop Amat High, “but we have a good team this year, so I’m excited to watch them play and live vicariously through them.”
Haynal can understand what Zavala is going through this season as an observer rather than a participant.
Haynal’s season ended almost before it began a year ago. He suffered torn ligaments on the inside of his right ankle and a broken fibula during practice following the fourth game of the season.
At least Haynal could make one claim — his .375 batting average led the team. Haynal batted .348 with three homers and 16 RBI as a freshman two years ago.
“He’s looked great,” said Gwynn. “He’s a hard worker. I don’t really worry about him. I told him to be careful. He’s the type of guy who wants stuff to happen quickly, so I asked him to pace himself and he’s done a good job with that.
“Offensively, he’s much more mature now and ready to have a real good year.”
Haynal and Romanski should be two of the team’s biggest run producers this season. Romanski, a senior, batted .289 with 23 RBI last year.
“January was very fun to watch because Haynal was back and with Romanski, watching those guys battle they obviously feel that they’re fighting for their lives playing-wise,” said Aztecs assistant coach Mark Viramontes, who spends a portion of his time tutoring the catchers. “They’re both going to play.”
And Saylor, from South Hills High, makes three.
“We’re comfortable with all three of our guys behind the plate in any situation with any guy on the mound,” said Viramontes. “This group has been extremely good.”
Saylor would probably get a majority of the starts behind the plate if he didn’t share the position with two veterans.
“CJ Saylor is starting to get it,” said Gwynn. “He’s the type of guy who puts a lot of pressure on himself because he’s trying so hard to impress us.”
Gwynn said in Saylor and Romanski, the Aztecs “might have two of the best throwing catchers in all of college baseball.”
They are eager to get going.
“I’m excited for this year,” said Romanski. “We have a great group of competitive guys who have something to prove.”