Henry Blanco teaches next generation
Veteran catcher tutoring, advising young Montero in Arizona
Henry Blanco's marathon tour of Major League baseball is making a stop this season in Arizona, where the professor of catching has a new student to tutor.
Blanco loves Arizona catcher Miguel Montero, who spent the first three weeks of the season among the National League's top 10 hitters while handling the Diamondbacks' staff flawlessly.
"Before he's through, he will be one of the best," Blanco said. "He's still learning, but once he puts it together, he will be one of the best. He's done great. Hopefully, he'll continue to improve and when he does, he will help this team to win."
And when that happens, much of the credit will belong to Blanco, the journeyman catcher, who will have 40 candles on his next birthday cake. His age notwithstanding, Blanco always manages to find a job, as much for his savvy behind the plate as anything else.
The Diamondbacks are Blanco's ninth big league team over 13 seasons. There have been previous stops in Los Angeles, Colorado, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Minnesota, Chicago, San Diego and New York. He has been at his trade since 1989 when he signed his first professional contract with the Dodgers. He was a third baseman then, and George Bush was president at the time -- the first George Bush. Blanco did not start catching full time until 1995 and except for a brief stay with Los Angeles, he drifted through the Minor Leagues until 1999, perfecting his craft, learning the ins and outs of baseball's most demanding position. Once he reached the Majors, he stayed -- a valuable player to have around.
In his first full Major League season with the Rockies, Blanco led the National League by throwing out 39 base runners. Five years later with the Twins, rookie catcher Joe Mauer was injured and Blanco stepped in, guiding Minnesota's staff to the lowest earned run average in the American League. He became a favorite of Twins ace Johan Santana, who credited Blanco with helping him win the Cy Young Award that year.
Now, in the twilight of his career, Blanco ranks third among all active Major League catchers throwing out 40.9 of would-be base stealers over his career. Since 2008, his .997 fielding percentage ranks second among all National League catchers with a minimum of 150 games played.
And he has become a trusted tutor of young catchers -- Geovany Soto with the Cubs in 2008, Nick Hundley in San Diego in 2009, Josh Thole with the Mets last season and now Montero.
"I spend time with them," Blanco said. "I try to help with their throwing and their footwork behind the plate. We talk all the time about how to handle pitching staffs."
And he would know about that, too. For two years, he was with the Braves -- the Braves of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. He was Maddux's personal catcher and says without hesitation that Atlanta staff was the best he's ever caught. "I learned a lot more from those guys than they learned from me."
Now he passes the knowledge along. "You pick up stuff over the years," he said. "One of the things I like most is to help young guys. I answer a lot of questions."
Blanco catches occasionally now, when Montero needs a day off, and spends the rest of his time tutoring the Diamondbacks' young backstop. Some day he hopes to become a coach or a manager.
"I would like that," he said. "I would enjoy the challenge."
In the meantime, he plays on. Instead of resting in the offseason, a gesture to his advancing age, Blanco continues to play winter ball in his native Venezuela. "I did pretty good," he said.
But wasn't he tired? Wouldn't he have liked some time off from the grind of the game, especially at his demanding position?
"When you like something," he said, "you never get tired of it."
Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.