One of the fresh young faces in A’s camp this spring already has a major-league job sewn up and comes with Hall of Fame credentials.
That would be Phil Pohl, who’s embarking on his first season as the A’s new bullpen catcher. Pohl was born in Bakersfield but grew up in Cooperstown, N.Y., and he caught for several seasons in Oakland’s minor-league system before being named over the winter to replace former bullpen catcher Casey Chavez, who retired to become a minister.
"He’s awesome,” A’s closer Sean Doolittle said of Pohl. “He’s going to fit right in.”
Among the jobs in major-league baseball that involve wearing a uniform, bullpen catcher rates high in anonymity. His duties include catching pitchers when they need to warm up, of course, but also throwing batting practice and taking care of equipment.
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“All the baseballs that we throw with, he rubs them up,” Doolittle said. “It’s a pretty thankless job. If (pitchers) want to get work on flat ground, he’ll catch those. You’re constantly on call to jump in there and make sure guys have a catcher to throw to. Bullpen catcher is just kind of the tip of the iceberg.”
This spring, Pohl said his responsibilities have included making sure equipment is set up and rotated for morning drills. That means getting to the A’s facility at Hohokam Stadium early. Pohl said if he wants to lift weights first, he’s usually there by 5 a.m.
“He’s kind of behind the scenes,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said.
Yet every minute Pohl spends this spring working with the A’s pitchers and around their coaching staff also reaffirms a truth: At 25 years old, he’s in the big leagues.
“I know,” Pohl said, “that it’s going to be a great season.”
A 28th-round draft pick by the A’s in 2012, Pohl appeared in a handful of games above Class A before being traded to the Colorado Rockies in the middle of last season and later released. Then he learned Oakland needed a bullpen catcher. He said he interviewed once with A’s general manager David Forst and director of player development Keith Lieppman before accepting.
“The decision to pretty much retire as a player initially was kind of tough,” Pohl said. “I’m only 25. I’ve been healthy my whole career. As a competitor, you always think you can hang in there and outlast everybody.
“But the more I thought about it, this was an opportunity to work with one of the best staffs in baseball at the big-league level for at least a year — hopefully this turns into a longer-term thing — and the more it turned into a no-brainer decision."
A’s reliever Ryan Doolittle, Sean’s younger brother and a teammate of Pohl’s last year at Double-A Midland, raves about Pohl, calling him “hands-down the nicest kid I know” and “probably my favorite target to throw to.” Midland manager Ryan Christenson called Pohl “one of the glues of the clubhouse” and a “fantastic” fundamental catcher.
“Even last year, even though he was a player, he was literally almost the catching coach,” Christenson said. “He was the first guy to point out something to another catcher or work on drills with me with the catchers.
“You knew he’d be a good coach when he got done playing. I think the playing ended a little sooner than he ideally would’ve liked, but I think he’s embraced it and understands he still has the opportunity to stay around the game in an organization that values him.”
Pohl was 9 when his parents moved the family from California to Cooperstown, where they opened a bed-and-breakfast. That meant a steady stream of baseball fans — and opera fans visiting the town’s summer festival passing through the Pohl residence.
“It was cool,” Pohl said. “You met a lot of interesting people.”
He also met a few Hall of Famers during induction weekends, when Cooperstown swells from its typical population of about 2,000 people. One of Pohl’s favorite inductions was in 2007, when Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr., were enshrined. Pohl’s high school used the occasion for a fundraiser. He sold hot dogs and sodas on the street.
“Tons of people, beautiful weather,” he said. “That was a blast.”
At Cooperstown Central High School, Pohl’s graduating class numbered roughly 90 students and the baseball team played its home games at historic Doubleday Field. In a land of hard winters, it helped playing on a field with a dedicated grounds crew.
“Being a baseball fan and being able to grow up in that environment was a really neat thing as a kid,” Pohl said. “It kind of fueled the fire, is what I say.”
Of course, Pohl said, he has been inside the Hall of Fame “a gazillion times.” He enjoys studying past World Series rings, the way they’ve evolved from the earliest models to “all the big gaudy stuff.”
But he says the coolest part is walking into the plaque room.
“It’s kind of like hallowed ground,” Pohl said. “It’s just beautifully done, well lit. And it’s the best guys that have ever played the game.”
Experience already varied
No longer playing the game this spring, Pohl is separated in some ways from players he previously considered peers. He throws batting practice now instead of taking it. When the A’s held an intrasquad game early in camp, they made Pohl the plate umpire.
That led to a funny moment when Pohl called veteran outfielder Coco Crisp out looking on a borderline third strike, prompting Crisp to shoot him a meaningful look before turning back to the dugout.
“Yeah, I rung him up on a low changeup,” Pohl said, grinning. “I never went back and saw the video. I don’t think there was any video. We may never know.”
Still, Pohl said his familiarity with many A’s players and coaches has made his transition easier. He’s catching both newcomers like Rich Hill (“He’ll drop it down a little”) and Henderson Alvarez, and established A’s like Sonny Gray (“The movement is a little bit different every time”).
Pohl aspires to a job in coaching or development one day. But he’ll be busy this summer rubbing up baseballs, warming up pitchers, listening to their conversations with pitching coach Curt Young and soaking up knowledge in his first taste of the major leagues.
“As a kid and player, this is kind of what you dream of,” Pohl said. “I have an opportunity to do it, just as a staff guy. But every day I’m still going to be putting on a uniform. I’m still putting on the catcher’s equipment.
“At the end of the day, I’m still catching bullpens.”