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Mudville: January 25, 2021 3:41 pm PDT
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The Catcher Whisperer

The art of catching is one of baseball’s great mysteries.

Everyone is certain they know how the job should be done, but the reality is that very few people really understand catching. They talk a good game. So, when you come across a catching genius you make the most of the situation and that’s what we do here at The Story.

Jerry Narron is just such a person. Jerry Austin Narron is –

The Catcher Whisperer.

With the Mets’ signing of free agent catcher James McCann who made great progress catching and framing in 2020 because of his mask-to-mask work with Narron, accolades have come Narron’s way. Narron is in his 47th year in baseball.

Before that, in Narron’s previous three seasons, he was with the Diamondbacks as bench coach but was a free agent for a short time after the 2019 season. So, McCann’s agent got in touch with Narron around Thanksgiving, calling him at his home in North Carolina and Narron got to work on video of McCann.

Then in early January of 2020 McCann and Narron got together.

“He picked me up at the Nashville airport at 8 AM one day and we went to a real nice batting cage where he works out,’’ Narron told BallNine. “We went over some drills and worked with him there. He took it to heart and did everything we talked about.’’

That’s the key, of course. There are no shortcuts in the art of catching. There is knowledge and then there is work to put that knowledge to good use. That is a lesson for all players trying to get better.

This was the task at hand. The classy Narron also made sure to clear his work with then White Sox manager Rick Renteria just to make sure it was okay.

“McCann had been near the bottom in framing in 2019 and to his credit he wanted to get better,’’ Narron said. “Everybody I talked to said this guy is as hard a worker as you’ll ever be around and he’ll get better.

“I kept up with him and followed the grades every game,’’ said Narron, who became bench coach of the Red Sox in spring training of 2020. “McCann had never been around a club that had really put a lot of emphasis on framing. He didn’t know about the grading system or anything. He had some really good games last year.’’

McCann went from one of the worst-framing catchers to one of the best.

How? He worked at it. When Narron first looked at video of McCann before the session this is what he saw.

“It was real easy to see on the video,’’ Narron explained. “He set up real high and his numbers showed that he was real good at the top of the zone. We just talked about being lower. I think he had a pretty good idea about what he wanted to do. And I kind of reinforced the line he was going off of. He was going to try going to his knee and get to the lower pitch. But you know just getting down on your knee isn’t a cure-all, a panacea. It is still about the angles. It’s still about beating the ball to the spot, controlling the ball and having the mindset where you are going to fight for every pitch.’’

That is a great description of framing.

For those who watched Gary Sanchez last year, it’s clear just getting down on one knee is not the answer. There is so much more to it. The Yankees are trying to salvage Sanchez’ career.

No one explains framing better and Narron has deep baseball roots with an understanding of the role of analytics as well.

Jerry Narron serving as bench coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks

“It used to be when I was playing and even up until a few years ago everybody was kind of catching the ball as if it were an egg and bringing everything soft into you and now it’s almost with all the video you have, it’s almost like you meet the ball, and go through the ball,’’ said Narron, who spent eight years as a left-handed hitting catcher in the major leagues, managed 633 major league games with the Rangers and Reds and coached for six different organizations. “And you get around the ball and bring it over into the zone where the umpire can get a better look at it.’’

And yes, before you ask, this day and age there is a framing approach for different umpires as well. Video has shown that you can get a grading system on different umpires, where they are tight and where they’re big in the zone, and use it to your team’s advantage. There is a lot to digest.

During his time playing in the majors, there were different zones for different umpires as well but it was a much different baseball world.

“The biggest difference then was you had to be nice to these guys or else they were going to stick it to you,’’ Narron said with a laugh. “Every game today is graded out and on video.’’

Umpires now don’t have the leeway they once had to make a call. You might say Big Brother is watching these days. Back in the day it was as much a philosophy and psychology course to work with an umpire. Narron loved working with all the umpires through the years but singled out umpires like Richie Garcia as one of his favorites. He had a game in 1974 in Instructional League with Garcia, the year he was drafted by the Yankees. He also goes back to legendary umpire Nestor Chylak.

Like I said, Narron, who turns 65 next week, has spent a lifetime in baseball. He played those eight years in the majors. Yankee fans will remember him as the Yankee who caught the first game after Thurman Munson’s death. Home plate was left empty that night during a standing ovation and later Narron will tell you how that all developed, the inside story on a huge piece of Yankee history.

James McCann has been putting in offseason work to improve his framing.

Narron was tutored by the likes of Yogi Berra and Elston Howard. Bob Boone was a teammate. He spent eight years as a coach and manager with Hall of Famer Pudge Rodriguez in Texas and was smart enough to pretty much stay out of Pudge’s way. Narron was a coach with the Brewers when Jonathon Lucroy upped his catching game. Martin Maldonado was also a Brewer. Maldonado thought so much of Narron’s catching wisdom that when he won the Gold Glove in 2017 with the Angels, Maldonado sent a Gold Glove to Narron.

Narron was a coaching free agent after the 2019 season but soon wound up as the bench coach of the Red Sox. The Mets nearly hired him as bench coach but went in another direction and as we all know, it did not work out for the Mets last year.

The Red Sox were pretty much doomed from the start last year and did not re-hire Narron after the 2020 season. They went through some issues, to put it kindly, but Narron is much too talented not to be working in Major League Baseball so figure him to get back in the game soon with another organization.

McCann loved working with Narron. He came away with a much deeper understanding of the job but to his credit, he said he is not just a robot behind the plate.

“I want the numbers to be my foundation, and then I want to trust my eyes in the game,” McCann said after signing with the Mets for four years at $40.6 million. “The game has become so number-based and so heavily focused on defensive metrics and analytics. You have to be able to sift out what’s most important. The way I look at the metrics is that that’s my foundation.”

All winter McCann caught Steven Matz in Nashville.

Could McCann be the one who finally unlocks the gift that Matz has in that left arm and make him successful, make him confident, make him calm and not lose his cool so much in games?

Narron as bench coach of the Boston Red Sox in 2020. Photo: Stan Grossfeld / Boston Globe

Narron believes McCann can do all of that. Look how much the Mets have improved already this offseason up the middle with the additions of McCann and shortstop Francisco Lindor. The Mets were pathetic on defense last season, especially up the middle and if they add centerfielder George Springer that improvement will be off the charts.

Jerry Narron will always have his place in Yankees history because of his catching the game the day after Munson died in 1979.

BallNine will tell you how the Yankees decided to honor Munson that night at Yankee Stadium. It started with The Boss, of course, George Steinbrenner.

“Early that afternoon Mr. Steinbrenner came in and he told me everybody was going to stand in front of the dugout and then the club will take the field, but I want you to stay there next to Yogi and Yogi will tell you when it’s appropriate to go behind the plate,’’ Narron recalled of that night.

After a prayer for Munson said by Cardinal Terrance Cooke and a stirring rendition of God Bless America by Robert Merrill, the crowd of 51,151 gave a 10-minute standing ovation to honor Munson.

The Yankees took the field with Luis Tiant on the mound, but they did not have a catcher. That empty position was one of the most moving times in Yankees history as Narron stayed along the dugout as home plate was left empty to honor The Captain.

August 3, 1979: Jerry Narron stands next to Yogi Berra as the Yankees paid tribute to their captain Thurman Munson.

Billy Martin was a wreck with dark sunglasses covering his tear-filled eyes in front of the dugout. Tiant wiped the tears away on the mound. In right field Reggie Jackson was sobbing as held his cap over his heart. Lou Piniella was heartbroken in left field.

Recalled Narron: “The ovation got so long that Yogi finally said, ‘If you don’t go out there, this will never stop.’ ’’

Grief, cheers and tears filled the Stadium as the flag was draped at half-mast in centerfield. It was one of the saddest nights in baseball history.

The 23-year-old Narron went to his position like Yogi told him to do as home plate umpire Don Denkinger checked in on Tiant at the mound. Richie Garcia was the first base umpire. Yankee announcer Frank Messer said: “You have to wonder how a kid like Jerry Narron will handle all this.’’

The Kid handled it. All the Yankees and Orioles did. Like the professionals they were they somehow got through the night.

“It was like losing somebody in your family,’’ Narron said of Thurman. “It’s still something that I think everybody that was on that club thinks about every day. As professionals we went out and did our jobs.’’

Munson was always a huge help to the young Narron. Just to be clear – and this is something I have written a number of times – Thurman Munson deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Narron agrees.

“I sure hope Thurman gets in the Hall of Fame someday because he had about 10 years there where he was as good as anybody has ever been behind the plate,’’ Narron told me. “I don’t understand how one guy’s career can be cut short and they say it’s okay, it’s Hall of Fame numbers and another guy’s is cut short and he doesn’t get that.’’

That is such a great point.

“I signed with the Yankees in ’74, my first (major league) spring training was in ’76 and got called up in ’79,’’ Narron explained. “Thurman was always helpful to me, I could not have asked for any more help than Thurman gave to me. A lot of people think he was gruff and terrible to writers, but he was the leader of the team, man.’’

After the season Narron was traded to Seattle in a deal for Ruppert Jones. From there it was onto the California Angels where he was teammates with Bob Boone, Aaron’s dad. He finished his career in 1987 with the Mariners. Edgar Martinez was a young player with the Mariners that year.

Then began his career as a coach and manager and back to coaching, decades of his life have been in the big leagues. Narron noted, “18 or 19 players I either played with or coached or managed are in the Hall of Fame.’’

What keeps the game young for him as he moves through different eras and embraces those eras and everything about them from old school baseball to analytics?

“I love it,’’ Narron said. “It’s all I ever wanted to do. It’s unbelievable that I’ve been able to stay in it so long, but you have to adjust. You have to keep making adjustments. I’ve always liked the analytical part of it and I think most guys who have managed have always done it.

“But when you come up and you are playing for Billy Martin and guys like Gene Mauch and I played for Dick Williams, too, it was a pretty good group of guys I played for, I was also fortunate that Sparky Anderson would take time and talk to me.’’

That’s a strong baseball foundation.

Here’s a final interesting tidbit too. It happened in one of Narron’s conversations with Mauch, his manager while with the Angels. “It was 1985 or ‘86, early morning in spring training in Palm Springs before anybody was out there and Gene was out there smoking a cigarette in the dugout,’’ Narron said. “I asked him who are the best managers he had faced, that he went up against. I thought he was going to say somebody like Walter Alston or Danny Murtaugh, back from that day, and if you knew Gene you knew he thought about it before he answered.’’

Remember now this was some 36 years ago. Mauch was 60 in 1985. Mike Port was the Angels GM. Gene Autry was the owner.

“Mauch said, ‘I tell you what, the young guy in Chicago is going to go by all of them,’ ’’ Narron recalled.

That young guy in Chicago with the White Sox was future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, who is now back managing the White Sox at the age of 76.

44+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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