There may be more challenging transitions in the game of baseball, but right now, it's hard to come up with one.
You begin as a catcher — by definition, a player directly involved with every single pitch his team will throw. Not just in choosing that pitch, but also in the execution that follows it. And knowing exactly when and how to consult with whomever is throwing it.
Then you show up one day to discover that you've been named designated hitter. So now you've got to find a way to stay mentally focused and physically ready over three-plus hours … for those three or four moments when you're asked to swing a bat with purpose.
But Luke Trainer knows all about it, and how to make it work. Which makes him one reason why Millersville University is heading for another victory-filled season on the diamond.
“He's a service-oriented leader,” Marauders coach Jon Shehan said of Trainer, the Conestoga Valley grad who is taking over behind the plate this spring. “He'll do anything for this pitching staff, and it's been a lot of fun to see that evolution.”
Trainer, a junior, has indeed gone through some changes at MU. He caught 22 of the Marauders' 57 games as a freshman. He hit just .210, but was disciplined enough at the plate to post a .350 on-base percentage, and his team went 15-7 in his starts.
Last year, with a healthy Ben Snyder backed up by Penn State transfer Nick Graham, Shehan had veteran depth at catcher. So Trainer became the everyday DH … and all he did was hit .326 with four homers and 42 RBIs. His .440 on-base rate led the club.
“It didn't matter a whole lot with me, not being in the field,” he said last week. “What did matter for me was being able to keep my body warm and stay focused throughout the game.”
That's not as easy as it may sound, especially given the weather in a typical MU season.
“I learned the hard way,” Trainer admitted.
Now he's expected to help lead a deep pitching staff, one bolstered by local transfers like Penn Manor's Jeff Taylor (Penn State) and Ephrata's Gavilan Fogarty-Harnish (Kutztown). They will help replace talented arms like Eli Nabholz and Tyler Yancosky from last year's 38-16 team, which earned a No. 1 seed in regionals but suffered an early exit.
Shehan, a catcher in his playing days, is enthused about the growth he sees in Trainer after two productive seasons of summer ball.
“Catcher is a position we lean on as coaches, because they're going to handle those 18 arms for us all year long and that's a big job,” Shehan said. “You really have two teams that you've got to mesh together as one.
“Until they get robotic umpires, catchers can change a game by the way they receive. Keeping strikes as strikes, getting a call on a marginal strike is crucial. … It really takes just one pitch to change a game.”
It's ultimately about earning the pitchers' trust, Trainer says. Trust that he's calling the right pitch. And if that pitch is a two-strike curve in the dirt, trust that he'll block it and throw the guy out at first.
“At this point,” he said, “the ball's in my court for leadership behind the plate.”
One thing about being in the heat of battle; you don't need any extra effort to stay warm, not even on a 35-degree day in March.
• Connect with Jeff Young, a former LNP sports editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.