- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — Matt LeCroy was ready to take part in the pop-up drill for catchers yesterday when he discovered a problem — he couldn’t find his catchers mask.

He found it in time for the drill, which involves shooting a ball out of a pitching machine high into the air while the catcher starts from a crouched position behind the plate to run it down. (The drill nearly killed a woman and her baby twice just outside the backstop when the ball shot over the fence.)

But it would be best for everyone involved — the Nationals, LeCroy, women and children — if he could misplace that catchers mask for most of the 2006 season.

Put it in a locked glass box with a sign that reads: “Break open in case of emergency.”

Right now, LeCroy is one of the Nationals candidates for backup — not emergency — catcher, along with Robert Fick, though neither of them are full-time catchers. LeCroy — a very popular player in Minnesota who looks like your softball league teammate — played just one game at catcher out of 101 total for the Twins last season, spending most of his time as a first baseman and designated hitter. The most games he has ever caught were 49 back in 2000. Fick caught 28 games for San Diego last year, but played 29 at first base and a handful of games in right and left field. The most he has ever caught is 78 games for Detroit in 2001.

According to reports, this was the backup catcher plan general manager Jim Bowden had for the Nationals going into spring training. It’s not manager Frank Robinson’s plan, though. Either no one asked Robinson what he wanted in a backup catcher or no one paid attention.

Robinson’s take on the LeCroy-Fick combination at catcher: “From what I read, that is the perfect scenario for this ballclub. That’s what I read.”

Asked if he was comfortable with that, Robinson said: “That’s the first time I’ve been asked. It’s a little late now. You would think that would be something coming from the manager, wouldn’t you? But you guys chose to go to the general manager. So I am not going to comment and second guess the general manager. I just work here.”

Excuse me while I take a moment to heat up the keys on my laptop. They just froze from the chill of those comments.

Here we are in the fourth day of spring training, and the tension between Robinson and the front office has now been officially documented, though it was hardly a secret, and there are good reasons for that tension.

When a manager has no input in not just the backup catcher but the last man on the bench, and can’t chose his own coaches — and that manager has just one losing season out of four under the most bizarre conditions ever — he has every right to be upset.

Responding to Robinson’s comment, Bowden said the plan for a backup catcher is hardly set in stone, and he, as much as anyone, is hoping neither LeCroy nor Fick serves as anything but the third catcher — the break-the-glass emergency backstop.

“The plan is to have Pudge Rodriguez and Brian Schneider and all the top catchers in the game,” he joked. “Obviously, you always like your No. 2 catcher being a good catch-and-throw guy. That’s the goal. Unfortunately, right now we have two No. 3 catchers in camp. We don’t have our number two catcher, as far as we know. Maybe he is here. We tried to sign Todd Pratt, and at the last minute he went with Atlanta over us.

“We would like to have a third catcher who has offense, and we think we have two of those in Fick and LeCroy. Certainly they are both different. LeCroy is more of a backup first baseman and right-handed hitter off the bench. Fick is more catcher and first baseman, left and right field, and a left-handed hitter off the bench. Last year we hit about .190 on the left side pinch-hitting, and it cost us probably five games. We wanted to improve the bench, and we think we have done that with LeCroy and Fick and Marlon Anderson.

“Would we like to have a No. 2 catcher with them? Yes, absolutely. Fick can be a third catcher and LeCroy could be a backup first baseman. That would be great. But we don’t have that yet. It’s too early to tell. There are a lot of teams out there that have three catchers who are out of options who will have to make a move before the end of spring. A lot can happen between now and Opening Day. We have pieces to trade now that we didn’t have a year ago. We have a lot of parts that are valuable to other teams.”

It would seem, though, that the bigger problem is the ice forming between the manager and the general manager — probably an extension of the bad blood between Robinson and team president Tony Tavares. Bowden insists there is no tension on his end.

“I love Frank,” he said. “I get along great with him. He came into camp with two of his best friends, Don Buford and Tom McCraw [two former Nationals coaches who were not retained] gone, and his favorite extra player, Jamey Carroll, is gone. I understand why he would be unhappy, but those are professional decisions and you have to respect that. You are never going to have your manager and general manager agree on everything. I have no issues with Frank.”

Position players are scheduled to report tomorrow and begin workouts Friday. When Alfonso Soriano and Jose Vidro both try to declare squatters rights at second base, whose issue will that be?

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