- Adam Rubin, ESPNNewYork.com
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Landon Powell converted from shortstop to catcher as a 9-year-old while playing for the Mitchell's Hair Styling-sponsored team in the Tar Heel League in Raleigh, N.C., because no one else could handle the zip on Josh Hamilton's pitches.
He stuck with that position change because his father Ron, an Atlantic Coast Conference umpire and now soon-to-be inductee into the North Carolina American Legion Baseball Hall of Fame, believed catching would prove the optimal route to a professional baseball career.
Sure enough, Powell became the 24th overall pick in the 2004 draft -- one of three first-round picks on that Mitchell's Hair Styling team, along with Hamilton and Paul Wilder, the first-ever selection of the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Now, after two surgeries to repair the ACL in his left knee and another to clean out cartilage, a scary ordeal during which he experienced the early stages of liver failure and may ultimately require a transplant, and career highlights such as catching Dallas Braden's perfect game, the 30-year-old Powell is the New York Mets' newest catcher.
He signed a minor league deal last week, reuniting with bench coach Bob Geren, his manager for three seasons with the Oakland Athletics.
The Mets promised Powell a chance to compete with Anthony Recker for the backup catcher's job behind John Buck -- at least until highly regarded prospect Travis d'Arnaud is deemed ready for the majors and Buck recedes to the backup role.
Powell faces a challenge to make the Opening Day roster, since each of the other three catchers -- unlike him -- is on the 40-man roster. Powell may very well end up mentoring d'Arnaud at Triple-A Las Vegas in April.
He has confronted greater obstacles.
"I spoke to him the other day. He's feeling great," Geren says. "He's a tough guy. He's gone through a lot. It makes you mentally tough, too."
Hamilton and Jason Varitek, a switch-hitting catcher like Powell, turned out to be two driving forces behind him becoming a catcher.
"When Josh would pitch, no one would ever hit the ball, because he threw so hard. He was such a natural, tremendous talent from an early age," says Powell, who grew up on farmland outside of Raleigh alongside Hamilton, with their fathers coaching their baseball teams as well as in Pop Warner football and rec-league basketball. "But we would lose a game because a guy would get on base because of an error or because of a walk or whatever. Then the next four pitches would go to the backstop, and the guy would just go from first to second to third to home and score. We would lose the game because the catcher was scared to death to catch Josh.
"I think his dad [Tony] went to my dad and said, 'Hey, Landon is probably the only guy who can really catch him. What do you think about putting Landon back there and see if he could catch Josh?' My dad was all for it, because he wanted me to move to catcher eventually anyway.
"My dad was a longtime ACC umpire and had a lot of experience in the game of baseball. He always thought the quickest way to the big leagues, or the best way to the big leagues, would be to be a switch-hitting catcher. Around that time period Jason Varitek was at Georgia Tech. My dad used him as an example to pitch it to me. He said, 'Look, this guy, Jason Varitek, he's going to be a first-round draft pick.' He pitched it to me to start catching and start switch-hitting."
After three College World Series appearances with the University of South Carolina, Powell became a first-round pick of the
A's. Three knee surgeries later, he largely had been restricted to part-time catching duty. Then, during the offseason before he made his major league debut, a scary health ordeal permanently altered his life.
Powell had become sick. He lost his appetite. His skin started turning yellow.
"I had some jaundice," he recalls. "So some friends and my personal trainer were concerned. They said it didn't look normal. I saw the doctor and did some preliminary lab [work], with no real results yet. I was back at the gym the next day and trying to hit it as hard as I could and then I just collapsed in the middle of the workout and started going into convulsions. I had to be rushed to the E.R."
Doctors, initially befuddled, eventually determined Powell had autoimmune hepatitis, a genetic disorder that caused his immune system to attack the liver cells. He had the disease since birth, but it had been latent.
"What I had was kind of obscure for a 26- or 27-year-old man to get," Powell says. "They weren't really looking in the right direction. I finally found out I had a family member that had the same thing. A second cousin had the same exact thing. So that steered them to autoimmune hepatitis, which is a genetic deficiency."
Three months later, Powell nonetheless made his major league debut.
"It was just getting adjusted from there, taking heavy doses of Prednisone steroids for about a year and a half and another medicine called Imuran, which is an immune suppressant," he says. "It was a special year to get to the major leagues and realize that dream. It was also more challenging than it probably would have been because I was trying to get my body to adjust to this new disease and the medicine and all the side effects that the medicine caused."
Backing up Kurt Suzuki, who played in 147 for Geren's 2009 Athletics, Powell hit .229 with seven homers and 30 RBIs in 140 at-bats as a rookie despite dealing with the side effects from long-term use of Prednisone, which included water gain and muscle dehydration, and which made him more susceptible to strains.
Powell since has been weaned off that steroid. He takes a different medication each morning that combats his immune system's predisposition to attack the liver cells.
He eventually played three seasons as the backup with the A's, hitting a game-winning homer against the San Francisco Giants in 2011 and throwing out a solid 40 percent of would-be base stealers (29 of 73) during his three-year tenure with Oakland.
Geren tried to get the Mets to pick up Powell last spring training, after he was released by Oakland. The Mets did not have room at the time, and Powell instead signed with the Houston Astros. He spent last season in Triple-A.
Powell still has mementoes from catching Braden's perfect game. The A's presented him with his glove in a display case. That, along with his game-worn jersey, signed by Braden, as well as his bat and catching gear are in his Greenville, S.C., home.
"I'm not much of a 'display' guy," Powell says. "Most of it is buried in a closet."
Also back home, Powell has hosted for the past three years an annual charity event called "Donors on the Diamond" at Fluor Field, home of the South Atlantic League affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. The event benefits Donate Life South Carolina, the state branch of the national organization, which asks people to register as organ, eye and tissue donors.
"I have to take medicine every day, and I will for the rest of my life," Powell says. "It's not a curable thing. It's genetic. I might need a transplant in my 50s or 60s, but for now I'm just as normal as the next guy."
Reflecting back to his youth days, he adds: "My dream is still to be a major league player. It hasn't changed. I still want to go out on that field and I want to help teams win and contribute as long as my body will allow me."