American Legion baseball: Catching crew instrumental in Rowan’s success

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 23, 2023

By Mike London

SALISBURY — The shin guards. The face mask. The chest protector.

The “tools of ignorance” is what catcher Muddy Ruel famously called his unique gear.

In the 1924 World Series, Ruel was the catcher for the Washington Senators against the New York Giants.

In the first six games of that World Series, Ruel didn’t get a single hit, but his defense was so good behind the plate that his manager kept him in the lineup every game.

Game 7 went to extra innings, and Ruel struck a blow for defensive-first catchers. He got a double in the 12th and scored the run that decided the World Series on a bad-hop single.

Baseball people have come to realize over the years that catchers are far from ignorant. They are, by necessity, among the smartest as well as toughest players on every team. There’s a reason so many ex-catchers become outstanding managers.

The catcher, the one guy who has the whole game and all of his teammates in front of him, has the widest range of responsibilities on the diamond. He calls the pitches, counsels his batterymates like they are little brothers, frames strikes, communicates with coaches, umpires and infielders, blocks pitches in the dirt, catches foul tips and foul pops, fields bunts, makes tags at the plate, throws out base-stealers and picks off base-runners.

Josh Gibson was the greatest slugger of the Negro Leagues, a Black Babe Ruth, but Gibson also was a catcher. His advice to a young Roy Campanella, who would become a three-time National League MVP catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, was: “Roy, a good catcher has got to have 10 eyes.”

Rowan County American Legion baseball catchers Cameron Burleyson (Carson) and Matthew Connolly (West Rowan) have only two good eyes each, but they have provided an outstanding rotating catching tandem for the program the last two summers.

“The hardest thing to find is catching, and we’ve been very blessed,” Rowan head coach Jim Gantt. “Some progams don’t have a good catcher or maybe they’ve got one good one, but he has to catch every single game. We’ve got two that are co-starters. We try to match them with the pitchers they worked with in high school, but they can both handle anyone on the staff. And we’ve also got Joe Burleyson (East Rowan), who I’d say is 1B. Joe would be the starting catcher for a lot of teams. People probably don’t appreciate our catchers enough, but like a good umpire, that good catcher goes unnoticed. I know we wouldn’t be where we are right now without them.”

It was Connolly’s turn to catch when Rowan (37-5) won the Area III championship game on Thursday. He contributed a double at the plate while catching five different pitchers.

Connolly was due to catch a break and be on the winning side. He’d had the misfortune of being behind the plate for both of Randolph County’s 10-run innings in the Area III semifinals.

At Wednesday’s practice,  Rowan worked on base-running and defensive situations. Connolly and Burleyson were in full gear when they were behind the plate at practice because Gantt wants to simulate game conditions and game speed as closely as possible. It’s hot for everyone, but it’s hottest on the Newman Park turf for the catchers.

“Every practice is hot like that,” Burleyson said. “Matt and I are always drenched.”

Burleyson was a first baseman back in the day, but they put him behind the plate in an emergency when the regular catcher wasn’t there. He found a home.

For Connolly, catching is hereditary. His father was a catcher, so that naturally became his main position.

Burleyson and Connolly are 2023 graduates who had good high school careers. They were All-Rowan County and All-South Piedmont Conference players.

Burleyson is a Catawba recruit, while Connolly is part of a large contingent of Rowan Legion players heading to Surry Community College.

Burleyson is coming to Catawba as part of a tag-team with long-time friend Hayden Simmerson. They played together at Carson and they even signed their Catawba scholarships together. Simmerson is the ace pitcher for Rowan County and also hit a walk-off grand slam to win the Area III championship game.

“Catching Hayden is when I have my easiest Legion nights,” Burleyson said. “When he’s on, he knows what to do. Fastball or slider, he’s going to put it right where I want it.”

But Rowan has only one Simmerson and only three other hurlers (Morgan Padgett, Corbin Bailey and Mikey Beasley) who were No. 1 or No. 2 starters for Rowan high school teams.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who aren’t that experienced and didn’t pitch a lot of high school innings,” Connolly said. “So that’s a key part of a job, helping the staff be the best they can be. What we do behind the plate is more important than anything we can do at the plate.”

Gantt agrees with that. Actually, Gantt lists offense as the fourth most important thing a catcher can contribute.

“Everyone notices a catcher’s arm and how he throws, and they both throw well, but I’d say throwing is third for a catcher,” Gantt said. “The most important thing is calling the game and handling the pitching staff. The second most important thing is receiving the ball. They’re both good at that. They have soft hands. If you’re out there stabbing at the ball and jerking your glove around, you’re going to lose some strikes. Connolly and Burleyson keep the strikes that our guys throw strikes. They are good at getting underneath those low strikes and keeping them in the strike zone. That’s key because we’ve got some guys who need to work down in the zone to be effective.”

Burleyson said he’s checked the stats, and he and Connolly have thrown out 53 percent of the runners who have tried to steal against Rowan this summer.

That’s a terrific percentage.

When it’s their turn to bat, Connolly and Burleyson do their share.

“They’re not easy outs,” Gantt said. “And they’re not base-cloggers. They run better than most catchers.”

Connolly is a tall young man with some power and was a middle of the lineup sort of hitter for West Rowan, but he’s usually batting seventh or eighth for the Legion team. Burleyson usually bats eighth or ninth for the Legion squad.

Connolly is hitting .275 with a homer, a triple and eight doubles. Burleyson is batting .234.

They have combined for 26 walks and 29 runs scored.

“For us, the goal is to get on base and score runs,” Connolly said. “We know if we can get on base at the bottom of the order, we’ve got a row of .400 hitters coming up at the top of the lineup.”

Ask Burleyson about the most fun thing that’s happened this summer and he puts Beasley, a Carson lefty who has gone undefeated this summer at the top of the list.

“He lost so many high school games on bloopers and bad luck,” Burleyson said. “It’s been great to see him be successful in Legion.”

It’s also been fun for Burleyson when he’s gotten to catch Connolly this summer. Connolly has pitched a few innings. His ERA is still 0.00.

“Matt has this wicked splitter,” Burleyson said with a smile. “He’s pretty good on the mound, but we need him more as a catcher.”

When Connolly heads to the dugout after an inning, he usually sits next to Burleyson so they can bounce ideas off each other. After all, no one has a better scouting report on hitters than the catcher who was behind the plate the previous night.

“Like in the Randolph series, I could ask Matt what pitches their guys hit and where they were and where we pitched them successfully,” Burleyson said. “Talking about it, you find out what works. We always get a good plan from the coaching staff, but we still can help each other a lot during the course of a game.”

While Connolly and Burleyson played on high school teams that are serious conference rivals, they have become close friends through Legion and probably will be for life.

“We compete with each other, but it’s a healthy competition, where we have always pushed each other to make each other better,” Connolly said. “When Cam throws someone out, I want to get in there and throw someone out. It’s not something that we ever really talk about, but I’m sure he feels the same way.”

Rowan County starts play in the state tournament against Wayne County at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

Simmerson probably will be on the mound, so Burleyson probably will be behind the plate.

Connolly will be in there to catch Beasley, Bailey or Padgett in Rowan’s second game in the double-elimination event.