East region baseball coaches probably had their sliding pads full trying to figure who to vote for in the Player of the Year balloting — Payson’s Ridge Halenar or Show Low’s Clay Hathaway.
We think Halenar — a hometown favorite who has been the foundation of the Longhorn program for the past four years — should be the eventual POY.
But over in Cougar Land, coach David Nikolaus is stumping for Hathaway.
Last year, Halenar was beaten out for the coaches’ POY by a Blue Ridge player, but was named Player of the Year by Sports Zone magazine.
He was also first team All-East region and named to the Class 1A-3A All-State first team.
He was the only East player named all-state first team.
This season, Halenar and Hathaway are fairly even statistically.
The Show Low star has a bit of an edge in that he can pitch and hit, often with power, as evidenced by his region-high 15 home runs.
However, Halenar, the East’s leading hitter at .621, is among the state’s best — regardless of school size classification — when donning “The Tools of Ignorance” — a nickname for catcher’s equipment.
I’ve always admired that ironic phrase, credited to Bill Dickey, because it contrasts the intelligence needed to play catcher with the foolheartedness it takes to play a position where so much protective equipment is needed to keep one safe.
I argue catchers are baseball’s least appreciated players, and deserve much more respect than they receive in all ranks from Little League to pros.
Former New York Yankee manager Casey Stengel once summed up the position by deadpanning, “You have to have catchers or you would have all passed balls.”
That’s funny, but probably not to those who play the position.
Halenar’s contributions to the team often go unnoticed because he is so smooth and polished at the position that he can make his job look effortless.
In 30 games this season, he committed only two passed balls, which is remarkable for a player who is so involved in the game.
Watching him all his career, including Friday evening at Surprise Stadium, I marvel at the way he goes out and does the dirty work with little fanfare.
If everything is going the Longhorns’ way, the credit often goes to the pitcher. But Halenar is the guy sacrificing his body to block the pitches in the dirt and throwing his body in harm’s way to keep an opponent from scoring.
On plays at home, Halenar guards the plate with the ferociousness of a mother lion protecting her cub.
There is no player on the field who shoulders more responsibility than Halenar. He not only calls pitches, he must sometimes play as an infielder running down bunts, corral high fly balls, read and transmit signals and serve as a cheerleader and lead psychologist to the pitcher.
Halenar obviously takes all those responsibilities very seriously.
And oh yes, he must read how and where the hitter is setting up in the batter’s box, whether or not he swings at first pitches, what pitches he can and cannot hit and what is the best strategy for pitching to him.
Finally, Halenar does his job entirely while squatting, with a usually foul-tempered umpire hovering over his shoulder and foul balls glancing off every part of his body.
Such is the life of Halenar, the catcher, and for those reasons he should be chosen the East’s Player of the Year.