DUNEDIN, Fla. — Henry Blanco remembers the first time he tried to catch a knuckleball. It was back in 1997 and a young Blanco was working with Tom Candiotti in the Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen.
“The first knuckleball that he threw just hit me right on my mask,” the Venezuelan catcher recalled.
Now a weathered 41, with tattoos that would do a mixed martial arts fighter proud, Blanco is bidding to back up Blue Jays incumbent J.P. Arencibia and perhaps use his experience to handle R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball.
Blanco caught Dickey for seven games with the Mets in 2010.
“You get used to it, but it’s still hard,” said Blanco, who has been with nine teams since those Dodgers days. “Sometimes you don’t know where that thing’s going to go.”
Because of that, Toronto brought in two other catchers — Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas — who also have experience catching the 38-year-old Dickey.
As a result, on a team that has few roster questions left to resolve, the role of backup catcher is getting plenty of attention these days.
Does Dickey gets his own personal catcher? Or does Arencibia get his wish to handle last year’s National League Cy Young Award-winner?
Arencibia has added to the drama by insisting that he can catch Dickey, pointing to their winter workouts together in their off-season home of Nashville.
“I’m comfortable and I’m ready to be able to do it in a game,” he said earlier in camp.
When Dickey took the practice mound for the first time here, Arencibia practically bowled over the other catchers to get to handle Dickey. And he made a point of telling watching reporters afterwards how well it went.
It’s clear he does not want to be in the dugout when Dickey starts opening day — April 2 against Cleveland.
Arencibia told reporters that general manager Alex Anthopoulos and manager John Gibbons have told him “from Day 1 … I’m going to have the opportunity to catch him.”
Gibbons has been the very definition of laid-back at spring training, perhaps not surprising given the nature of the stacked roster he has inherited upon his return to the club.
But ongoing questions about the catching logistics seem to be forming a burr under the former catcher’s saddle.
His ever-present smile slipped a bit when asked Thursday whether he was worried that Arencibia’s desire to catch Dickey might become an issue.
“I’m sure he does (want to catch Dickey) and he may. But he’s not making out the lineup. We’re going to put the best team out there, what works and what we think is going to work,” Gibbons said. “If it’s not J.P., I don’t think he’ll have one bit of problem with that, I’d be surprised if he did.”
Thole caught Dickey 66 times over the last three seasons with the Mets. Nickeas combined with Dickey 12 times in 2010 and 2011 while Blanco handled him seven times in 2010.
Blanco is seen as the favourite to be Arencibia’s backup.
“We’ll just look at it and see what’s the best fit,” Gibbons said to another catching question. “If one of those other guys is better off catching (Dickey), that’s the way we’ll go. If he (Arencibia) proves that hey, we want him, the other guy will get the backup role and catch one of the other guys possibly. That will all play out. We haven’t played a game yet.”
Arencibia will catch Dickey in his spring debut Monday. The two will also work together with the U.S. team at the World Baseball Classic.
Thole will start as catcher for Brandon Morrow in the Grapefruit League opener Saturday against Detroit, with Arencibia playing designated hitter — to give him some extra at-bats ahead of the WBC, according to Gibbons.
Arencibia will catch Mark Buehrle in a split-squad game Sunday, while Blanco handles J.A. Happ in the other outing that day.
The bottom line for Gibbons is that no catcher can play 162 games. The manager sees 125-130 as a heavy load for Arencibia.
If Dickey had a personal catcher, Arencibia would sit out every fifth game — some 32.
“It almost lines up just right,” Gibbons said of the numbers, before adding “Not that we’re going to do that.”
The players involved in the catching web are all saying the right things.
Dickey says Arencibia’s enthusiasm to catch him is “a window into J.P. as a human.”
Blanco, whose locker stall is next to Arencibia’s, says he has no idea of the manager’s plans but he’s there to support Arencibia.
“I know J.P.’s working really hard with him (Dickey) and hopefully he’ll get the rhythm. He’s the No 1 guy and hopefully he’ll be able to catch him.”
For his part, Thole says all is good among Toronto’s brotherhood of catchers.
“Everybody’s got everybody’s back. At the end of the day, that’s what’s important. Whatever happens, happens.”
Nickeas says he has no idea what the future holds but clearly isn’t stressing about it.
“I’m looking forward to just going out there and kind of showing a new organization what I’m capable of and seeing where that lands me.”
All three agree the knuckleball is a handful.
“The knuckleball, it’s like it’s bouncing in mid-air,” Nickeas said. “It’s like one of those balls that take funny hops on you. It’s just not hitting the ground, it’s just doing it in the air. It gets very challenging at times. You really try to relax until the last second then make a snatch at it.”
Added Blanco: “It’s a crazy thing.”
Experience helps, says the 26-year-old Thole.
“That’s my opinion about it. I’m not saying it gets any easier but I can tell you that you get a little more confident.”
But the 30-year-old Nickeas says experience doesn’t mean you know where it’s going to go.