By Jack Loder
The magic happens in an unassuming setting. Behind a middle school parking lot, adjacent to a soccer field and weathered gravel track. Across the street from where the Orleans Firebirds play their games, the catchers have found a home to perfect their nuanced craft. A single lane batting cage, with netting suspended from a network of metal poles like the one you’d see at any local park or little league field, is where some of college baseball’s premiere catching talent set up camp for the summer.
Other position players use the spot to hit, of course. After all, it is a batting cage. While their prowess is impressive, the intoxicating sound of wood bat meeting baseball in quick succession soon gives way to a defensive masterclass that makes anyone lucky enough to be a spectator feel like they need to purchase a textbook before hurrying to the next session. The professor? Catching coach Max Fecske.
“The first thing that I notice is auditory. Precise pocket pops,” Fecske said. “I will hear you before I will see you. If you’re really good I’ll know based on how the ball sounds hitting your mitt.”
Everything that Fecske and the Orleans catchers do is calculated, with a detailed explanation as to how and why it makes them better defensively. Their precise workouts are fast paced and competitive, prioritizing quality reps and attention to detail. A trio of backstops is the beneficiary of the program in Connor Burns, Garret Guillemette and Bennett Lee. They split time behind the dish and make sure much of their time on the baseball field is spent bettering themselves and each other. In short, these guys are bought in.
“I’ve always been a bat first kind of catcher hitting wise, I think it took me getting out here to really understand how important and how deep defense is beind the plate,” Guillemette said. “Catching and being able to control a game at this level is a big deal. Just being a good catcher of strikes and making sure nothing hits the backstop is what I prioritize now.”
The fruits of their labor is already showing on the CCBL fields early on in the season. In just the second game of the summer, Guillemette showed why the Orleans catchers are the best defensive position unit on the Cape in 2022. In a single half inning, the USC product made two separate dazzling plays.
First on a pop up, he shuffled left before breaking into a sprint. Just in front of the Hyannis dugout he slid onto the warning track and made a spectacular catch. The Orleans dugout erupted, injecting life into a group that didn’t have much to cheer about in a 3-0 loss that evening. One batter later he pivoted in his crouch and fired down to first base, back-picking an overzealous Harbor Hawk runner to end the inning. Plays like those exhibit a part of his game that he can separate from his contemporaries, a valuable quality in the eventual draft process.
“As a catcher you’re never really seeking the spotlight,” Guillemette said. “We’re focused on making pitcher’s outings easier and getting strikes for our team. Sometimes, we get the chance to make plays like those, and that’s pretty fun too,” he conceded with a grin.
Fecske’s verbal exaltation of Guillemette was heard as clear as day from the Orleans dugout on both of these plays. His investment in the performance of each of his pupils was apparent before, but as he occupied the top step of the visitor’s dugout and greeted Guillemette with a bear hug following the impressive frame, the adoration was on full display.
“That just fired me up man,” Fecske said following the game. “I gave him a hug when he came off the field and he told me no coach had ever hugged him for making a play.”
While the highlight reel plays have been made largely by Guillemette, the most accomplished catcher of the bunch is Long Beach State’s Connor Burns. He was named Big West Conference Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts behind the dish for the Dirtbags in 2022, and finished second in the ABCA Rawlings Gold Glove Award voting.
That honor is given to the nation’s best defensive player at each position in the Division I ranks. Even to an untrained eye, watching Burns catch in games just has a different feel. He sucks up fastballs at the bottom of the strike zone, displaying his perfectly broken in mitt firmly at knee level for an umpire that gets more accustomed to Burns’ mastery as the game goes on. He smothers balls in the dirt, rarely letting a wild pitch trickle more than a few feet way from his dwelling. At Long Beach State in 2022, he threw out a jaw-dropping 13 of 15 potential base stealers. The 86.6% clip is astonishing, but the fact that only 15 were bold enough to attempt to swipe a bag speaks even more to Burns’s holistic defensive prowess.
“The first time I saw him catch was this past season at Long Beach. From the first inning I thought ‘wow this is really clean,’” Fecske explained before highlighting Burns’ preparation and baseball IQ. “He’s always in the game, even when he’s not in the game. As the guy who is in the game is calling the game, he’s in our back pocket with the chart. So when he comes into the game late, he’s already in rhythm.”
This group’s passion for catching is evident in any form of dialect, but perhaps none more than analogous speech.
“Catching is a lot like waiting tables,” Fecske said. “The more that you know that table, the easier it is to wait that table. You have to know your pitcher’s arsenal, what he throws and where he’s going to throw it.”
They’re on the same page too, telepathically if not verbally.
“Serving the pitcher,” Burns said when asked what he takes the most pride in behind the dish. “I’m there to make his outing that much better.”
Burns hadn’t yet heard Fecske’s waiter analogy when he answered.
The catching brigade was kind enough to not only let me observe the operation, but to explain each step in a hands on manner that made me feel like I was thumbing through a Julia Child recipe book. Suffice to say, a heavy pour here or there won’t go unnoticed with this chef.
“Nothing is an accident, as random as it might seem,” Fecske explained. “We try to do things with as much variability as possible so you’re not able to completely predict where the ball is going to be.”
The day’s work is predicated on five simple points. In a move that surprised me at the time but has made more sense the more time I spend around him, Fecske whipped out his phone and pulled up a slideshow that details the five pillars of catching. If it’s worked on by the Orleans catchers, it’s in writing somewhere.
Make Strikes Strikes
Seems simple enough. The flip side of stealing strikes on pitches that may be just outside of the zone is not losing strikes on ones that are in the zone. Perhaps less alluring to the naked eye, but equally as important.
Precise Pocket Pops
As the saying goes, “Chicks dig the long ball.” Well, Fecske digs the pocket pops. Make your pitcher’s 89 sound like 94 and you’ll make a lot of friends on the pitching staff.
Lead From The Front
While catching is largely a thankless job, representation of the team is of vital importance.
“Don’t be in the rear with the gear,” Fecske says. He’s the Robert Frost of the Cape League.
Communicate Contagious Confidence
Body language on a baseball field starts with the backstop. If a catcher sulks, so too will the eight men in front of him. On the other hand, an eccentric and confident catcher can act as kindling for a dying fire. This is something Burns excels at as well.
Make The Team Better
A culmination of the previous four pillars. Simple yet poignant. This point underscores the weight of a catcher’s duty, one the Firebirds embrace wholeheartedly.
With these points in mind, the unique procession of drills begins with a simple two man juggle. Sometimes with tennis balls, sometimes with baseballs. Waking the eyes up is the goal here, as players stand about five feet apart and softly toss the three balls between them. Their stares are unflappable, as if focused on a single point of interest hundreds of feet beyond their partner’s shoulder. The focus is striking, and it’s most impressive when its longevity is displayed.
What follows the juggling resembles more of an actual baseball exercise, as the catchers take turns fielding tosses from Fecske at various angles and intensity. He tests them with weighted balls before moving to baseballs. Burns takes his time rotating and sticking every toss in the imaginary strike zone with his bare left hand. Only after each subject has taken turns with this mesmerizing hand work do they finally dawn their catcher’s mitts.
“It takes time, a lot of time,” Burns said with a chuckle. “Focusing on the little things is so huge, because that’s what carries over to the game and you don’t have to think about it. The game is won on three to five pitches, the work we do here wins those pitches.”
By the time Fecske’s right arm (or a pitching machine) is peppering them with fastballs from about 40 feet, the catchers are in a zone. It’s rare to see this level of intense focus outside of an actual game. It’s routine for this group.
Fecske encourages a loose atmosphere, provided the ultimate focus is where it should be. The banter is free flowing, often facilitated by the ever loquacious Guillemette. In their eyes, an environment that fosters friendly competition will translate to pristine defense on the field. These guys are just that, competitors. It shows in each drill. While the collective goal is to get everyone to the same level, they reach it by competing against each other. Hard.
“We’re very competitive people,” Guillemette said. “It comes out in games obviously but we also like to compete against each other in low stakes situations.”
This sheer volume of work is a summer ball luxury for these student athletes. During their season, the stress and time commitment of attending class and completing homework inevitably cuts into time on the baseball field. When you factor in the amount of time and repetition it takes to be just a passable hitter at the Division I level, it’s amazing catchers like Burns ever have time to prioritize defense behind the dish. It’s a work-life balance that often ends up with life on the short end of the stick.
“It’s a lot easier in the summer because you can plan your time around catching,” Burns said. “During the school year it’s school, early work, team practice or game, and you always have to plan around schoolwork of course. In the summer it’s almost unlimited time to work. It becomes a lifestyle.”
Their tireless labor may go unnoticed by fans and some teammates, but head coach Kelly Nicholson knew exactly what he was bringing to the table when he hired Fecske to oversee his catchers. The stamp of approval comes from the top of the organization on down.
“I have 100% trust and faith in Max, and it’s been that way since day one,” Nicholson said. “He’s been better than advertised. I stay out of his way totally.”
The kind of work Fecske does behind the scenes is only possible with this kind of trust from the head of the staff. Nicholson has attached his sterling Cape Cod league reputation to the former Pepperdine assistant. There can be no stronger endorsement in the eyes of college baseball all over the country.
Pitchers can be divas. They love to throw to catchers that make them look better. The glove work Firebird catchers do doesn’t just win them points with the umpire, it makes them supremely attractive targets for their teammates. The praise wouldn’t be complete without testimonial from those who benefit from the catcher’s work first hand.
“These guys are awesome to throw to, it’s huge for us pitchers,” Donye Evans said. “They communicate very well with you before the game and in bullpens, they really built that relationship with all the pitchers as soon as we got here. It goes a long way.”
For seven other positions in baseball, players are judged almost entirely on what they do in the batter’s box. Defense is of course valued in the infield and outfield, but the transformative ability of an elite defensive catcher is invaluable to any team at any level.
Scouts are always looking for a reason to write up a catching prospect. If they don’t see it with the bat in this crop, they are definitely going to see it behind the plate. The refined product Firebird fans see from their catchers this year comes from hours of precise training that can be chopped up and described in any number of ways. Sometimes the easiest way is one of the simplest.
Fecske wasn’t afraid to pull out another analogy, this time accompanied by an especially wide grin.
“Catching is like being a jockey,” he said. “You have to know when to throw your pitcher a carrot and when to slap him on the behind.”
There’s not a better way to describe his coaching style.