Behind the plate, Tony Wolters lives by the golden rule of catching, passed down from one generation of human backstop to the next.
“The thing I learned from [longtime major league catcher and coach] Mike Redmond is rule No. 1: Be ready for everything,” Wolters said recently from the St. Paul Saints clubhouse during the final days of the Triple-A season. “I go into games with that mindset.”
Wolters, a native of Vista and a Rancho Buena Vista alum — class of 2010 — spent this past season with the minor league affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, following five seasons at the big league level with the Colorado Rockies and two seasons split between the minors and majors with the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers organizations.
“I’ve played at the highest level,” Wolters said. “Baseball is a hard sport because you are playing on a team, but it gets individualized. The whole team doesn’t get called up; it’s one guy at a time. It’s a grind when you are in the minors trying to work your way back. My mindset has been, ‘Hey, be OK with where my two feet are because that’s how you are going to get the best from me; that’s how I am going get to the big leagues.’”
Wolters appeared in 57 games this season as part of the Saints catching platoon.
“I work hard every day so I can go to sleep at night,” he said. “I was in the moment this year, and I didn’t take it for granted. I am only trying to control the things I can control.”
The 5-foot-10 Wolters isn’t the prototypical catcher. The Cleveland Guardians selected him as a shortstop in the 2010 draft, but during spring training in 2013, manager Terry Francona proposed a position change on a whim.
In 2016, without ever catching a game at the Triple-A level, Wolters was thrown into the fire with the Rockies.
“It’s a selfless position, and you are always going to sacrifice being a catcher,” Wolters said. “Managing staffs, talking with different personalities, figuring out what gives guys an itch to do well — it’s a servant mentality. Being back there can cost pitchers their career — I have their careers in my hands. I don’t take that lightly. Catchers, more so than not, are winning or losing games, and at the big league level, it’s enhanced.”
Adjusting to a new position is hard enough in the minors, but on-the-job training with big-league arms throwing their best stuff at you is another dimension of difficult.
Rockies teammates Tyler Chatwood and Germán Márquez were the hardest pitchers to catch for in the majors, Wolters said. “Both have unbelievable, all-star stuff. They throw the curveball 10 feet in front of you; they throw really hard, and you can have a ball in the dirt anytime. They kept me on my toes.”
This past season, Wolters, 31, leaned heavily on lessons learned in the early days of his professional career.
“I was with the Rockies at spring training [in 2016], and I had a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I just got designated for assignment by the Guardians, and I was determined to show people how I was going to play. After that, I made the big leagues.”
According to Wolters, he viewed this season as an opportunity to continue improving behind the plate.
“The one place I was very focused was the catching side,” Wolters said. “It’s more mental than physical. I’ve dominated by trying to learn and grow with pitchers. The other catchers all learned from each other. We have conversations going a million miles to where you can learn about other people, and how they do things and experiment with what works.
“I went every day focused, like I’m ripping every pitch in the zone for a strike,” he added. “It’s the same way you need to approach life off the field.”
Wolters has never had a big bat, but it’s his versatility and his ability to play multiple positions that he sees as his biggest asset to a major league team next season.
“Where the game is going, having guys who can play multiple positions helps the team,” Wolters said. “It helps managers make and mix up a lineup. They can bring up extra pitchers. It is a big benefit and is another way I can show my selflessness.”
Life in the minors is less glamorous than Major League Baseball.
“In the big leagues, you travel better, have more comfortable seats, experience bigger cities,” Wolters said. “The big league schedule is easier to manage, especially if you have a family. Finding food can be a challenge.”
Even so, Wolters said he is at peace, even if he never plays another game in the majors.
“I am very stuck on trying to be in the moment,” he said. “I think when you get too caught up in the future or the past, that’s when things start to unravel. I am truly satisfied with where I am at day to day. That’s what I want my whole life.”