FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Ask any Little League coach. It often takes some coaxing to find a kid willing to be the team’s catcher, with all that cumbersome equipment.
Then there is Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez, whose father, Rafael, was a catcher in amateur leagues in Puerto Rico.
“My father wanted me to be a catcher too,” Vazquez said.
He was 8 when his father gave him his own catcher’s equipment.
“I slept with my catching gear on,” he said. “Not the mask, but the chest protector and shin guards, in my bed.”
Clearly, papa Vazquez had a willing convert, even more so after he gave his son an instructional video from Ivan Rodriguez, a legendary figure on the island who broke into the big leagues when he was 19 and wound up winning 13 Gold Gloves and the American League MVP in 1999, beating out Pedro Martinez that year.
“I watched that video three times a week,” Vazquez said. “It helped a lot. He talked about a lot of little things, like holding the ball with four seams when throwing.”
There was a brief period, however, when someone saw Vazquez as something other than a catcher. His first full year with the Red Sox, Vazquez played some third base in the Gulf Coast League and the short-season New York-Penn League, partly because the Sox weren’t happy about his weight, partly because he wasn’t playing much and needed the at-bats. In the GCL, he was fourth on the catching depth chart behind Carson Blair, Leonel Escobar and Maykol Sanchez. In Lowell, his playing time also lagged behind three catchers -- Sam Killeen, Chia-Chu Chen and Dan Butler. “I have soft hands,” Vazquez said. “Good for the infield.”
But by Class A ball, Vazquez was fully installed behind the plate. Of those catchers who had played ahead of him, only Butler, who made a cameo appearance with the Sox last season, has made it to the big leagues.
Vazquez, meanwhile, comes into this camp as John Farrell’s designated choice to do the bulk of the team’s catching this season, although veteran Ryan Hanigan, acquired from the Padres in the Will Middlebrooks deal, has designs on cutting into Vazquez’s playing time.
Vazquez has worked out regularly with Jose Molina, of the famous Molina catching fraternity that also includes Bengie and Yadier, the youngest, who is widely acknowledged as the best defensive catcher currently employed in the big leagues. Sox pitcher Joe Kelly, a former Yadier teammate, calls Vazquez a “mini-Yadi” in tribute to his advanced skills behind the plate and for a powerful throwing arm reminiscent of the St. Louis star.
Rodriguez played 21 years in the big leagues and caught more games than any player in history (2,427). He retired from the big leagues in 2011, but caught a few games for Caguas that winter, which is when Vazquez, who was playing for Mayaguez, got the chance to meet his idol.
“We were making throws to second base,” Vazquez said, “and he came over to watch. He told me, ‘Good arm.’ That was cool.”
His father, Vazquez said, remains his biggest fan, with a catch.
“I’ve never seen my father catch, not even in a video,” Vazquez says with a laugh, “but he says he was better than me.”