The story of Caleb Joseph, an invitation to the new fan

Caleb Joseph, catching for the AA Bowie Baysox in 2013 - Rich Renomeron

If you are a fan of baseball you have been told, more than once, by fans of some other sport that baseball is boring. If you choose to engage these poor, unfortunate souls, you might start talking about how much is happening when it looks like nothing is happening, or how hard it is to hit a round ball with a round bat, but that is probably not how you started to love baseball, and it’s not how you invite a friend to love baseball.You get started with stories, good and true stories about underdogs and destiny. I suggest you start with Caleb Joseph. This is the story I would tell.

A year ago, Caleb Joseph was stuck in the minor leagues. After four seasons with the AA Bowie Baysox, he was up a level at AAA Norfolk, making almost no money, not as much money as a man with a new wife and hopes for a family would need. He’d planned to give it up, to go find a real job and be a guy who had once played professional baseball but that you’d probably never heard of. Maybe he would tell stories, and maybe he’d be a coach somewhere in his spare time. He didn’t want to quit, of course, but four years in AA ball is not how you get to the Major Leagues. I’m sure he thought it was time to grow up and stop dreaming about baseball.

It was Caleb Joseph’s wife who convinced him to give it one more shot, one more season of minor league ball, one more season of watching hotshot prospects get called up, of playing with big leaguers when they came to the minor leagues to rehab after an injury, one more season of trying to take everything the coaches said to heart and making his body perform the way they needed it to. One more season of subsistence income, bus rides, cheap motels, carrying his own gear.

In May of last year, Matt Wieters, the Orioles’ regular starting catcher, went on the disabled list. It was an elbow problem. We were told it was minor and he’d be back lickety-split. The team had no shortage of catchers in the minor league system, someone would be called up to be a back-up to the back-up catcher for a week or so. And so it was that Caleb Joseph got a call for what was only meant to be a cup of coffee in the Major Leagues.

The fans I hang out with were all happy for Joseph. I’d watched him year after year at Baysox games, and seen the string of not terribly impressive back-up catchers that the big club had put on the roster. He seemed like a good guy with a good sense of humor and no more ego than necessary. Sure, he was probably going to go back to the minors after a couple of weeks, but in the meantime he’d get his reward for grinding it out season after season: a couple of weeks of nice hotels, a much better salary, and the roar of a major league crowd. He was just going to be a backup, of course. The team already had a major-league catcher, Wieter’s backup, Steve Clevenger. It was just a cup of coffee for Joseph, not a whole meal.

Three weeks later it became clear that Wieters wasn’t coming back that season, and the team, not happy with Clevenger and Joseph as their catchers, traded for Nick Hundley, another major league catcher. It looked, from the outside at least, like the cup of coffee was over. Hundley would surely displace Joseph, and might even push Clevenger back down to the backup spot.

I’m a story fan, not a stats fan, and I was sad to see the story that was Caleb Joseph go away. But the beat writers and I were wrong. Caleb stayed, and caught his share of games, and occasionally put bat to ball and got on base. Sometime in July I stopped saying that he was making the most of his cup of coffee, because it was clear he’d stretched it into a full brunch with an omelet bar. In one highly improbable week in August, the 28 year old rookie hit home runs in five consecutive games. It was a magical part of a magical season for Caleb Joseph and for the Orioles, who won their first Division championship in fifteen years. In the movie version, we see Joseph on the field celebrating with his teammates, and maybe we fade to "Ten Years Later" when he’s out having a catch with his kid in front of a summer sunset. Or maybe not, maybe there’s some other ending to the story, because Joseph is still with the big club this year, as the starting catcher. On Tuesday night he hit a stand-up triple, and then scored on a shallow fly ball. These are things that require a decent amount of speed. Joseph is what is known as "fast for a catcher," which is to say not very, but enough. At the time he crossed the plate to score the run it was just another run on top of lead that seemed more than enough, an insurance run. But by the time nine innings had been played that run was the difference in the ball game. He also caught the game, which requires directing the pitcher. Major League pitchers generally know what they’re doing, and need as much direction as an established actor, which is to say not much, but enough.

Wieters, the injured catcher, is still injured, but is working his way back, and one day this summer Caleb Joseph will have to give up being the starter again, maybe. But there is still a whole summer for that story to play out, and there are other stories to be told: Steve Clevenger, the local boy, started this season in the minor leagues, Nick Hundley, the replacement, is with a new team on the other side of the country. We have a long summer to watch those stories, to pick our favorites, to have our hearts broken or dreams fulfilled one pitch at a time. That’s how you get started with baseball. Come sit by me sometime, I’ll point to the guy on the field you can’t help but root for. The first round is on me.

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