DURHAM, N.C. - Former Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Miller Huggins once said, "A good catcher is the quarterback, the carburetor, the lead dog, the pulse taker, the traffic cop and sometimes a lot of unprintable things, but no team gets very far without one."
The impact a catcher has on a game is often overlooked and seldom appreciated. Hidden behind a mask and a wealth of protective gear, most aren't recognized until they let a stray fastball slip by or sail a throw to second base into center field. In reality, they are the generals of the infield and a team's last line of defense in protecting home plate.
"That's the most important position on the field besides the guy on the mound," said Duke head coach Sean McNally. "They have to be able to catch, block and throw, and ours does all three really well."
This year, Duke has found its quarterback, its carburetor, lead dog, and so on, in sophomore backstop Mike Rosenfeld. A 5-11, 185-pound native of Mamaroneck, N.Y., Rosenfeld has emerged as one of the top backstops in the ACC and is a legitimate candidate for All-ACC honors after a breakout sophomore season. Before heading to play in the renowned Cape Cod Baseball League this summer, Rosenfeld and the Blue Devils play their season finale today against Boston College at 1 p.m. with a chance to sweep the series after posting a 7-4 win on Thursday and a 4-1 win on Friday.
Rosenfeld has emerged as Duke's top hitter and one of the most well-rounded catchers in the powerhouse ACC. Through Friday, Rosenfeld led Duke with a .327 batting average and 57 hits, numbers that only one Duke catcher -- Matt Williams in 2008 and 2009 -- has bettered since 2000. He has effectively held opponents in check on the base paths, limiting teams to a 64 percent stolen base success rate which ranks as the second lowest among all ACC starting catchers.
But as valuable as Rosenfeld has been to Duke this season, his college career nearly ended before it even began. After committing to Duke as a highly-touted junior at Mamaroneck High School, Rosenfeld injured his elbow before his senior season. While throwing in a gym during practice - weather conditions in New York often force teams indoors during the winter - Rosenfeld felt something pop. He tried to throw again but knew immediately that he was severely injured. After a visit to his doctor, he learned that he needed Tommy John surgery and would have to miss his entire senior season.
"Tommy John is supposed to be one of the worst injuries to get," Rosenfeld said. "No baseball player wants it; it's awful to hear. When I heard, I was really scared about it, but I knew I was in good hands. My doctor in New York deals with the Yankees and the Mets, so I wasn't really worried about it in terms of the actual surgery. I knew it was going to be a struggle, but I had great support from my family and friends, and Coach Mac [Duke head coach Sean McNally] was great when I had to tell him about it."
The injury terminated what was shaping up to be a magnificent senior season for Rosenfeld, who garnered Preseason All-America honors and had already broken Mamaroneck's all-time RBI record the previous year. Mamaroneck had captured back-to-back Class AA New York State Championships behind Rosenfeld's bat and glove and was a favorite to repeat that year. Instead of trying for a third championship, however, Rosenfeld would spend the next year rehabbing his elbow.
"[McNally] was completely understanding," said Rosenfeld. "He totally understood that it was obviously the worst for me. Going into my senior year, it was supposed to be the most fun year of my high school career and I had big things coming, but he understood that as long as I was going to be back for Duke, he was happy about that."
The rehabilitation process was physically and mentally grueling and lasted well into Rosenfeld's freshman season at Duke. He battled elbow soreness throughout the year while still trying to adjust to the speed of the college game after missing a full season of high school ball. He hit just .205 in 19 games as a freshman, a far cry from the .467 batting average and 32 RBI he had during his junior year at Mamaroneck.
"The most optimal outcome that I'd heard was one year and I would be full go. It ended up being two years, pretty much," he said. "I had tendinitis, and I guess there was still scar tissue that needed to be broken up. And there's always a mental hurdle with injuries, so getting over that took a while. Finally, I was ready to let it go and really just gave it my all, and my arm just started to feel like it was before surgery. Now it's a thing of the past."
Now more than two years removed from the surgery, Rosenfeld has zero limitations. After a slow start in which he had just seven hits over his first 14 games, he has provided Duke with a consistent offensive force in the cleanup spot. He has been just as good against the top-tier pitching in the ACC, sporting a .326 batting average in league games. He is even 7-of-8 stealing bases, showcasing an aspect of his game that is typically uncommon among catchers.
"We're starting to see the player we recruited," McNally said. "Mike's a very confident player, so last year was tough for him. He didn't play a whole lot, and he just really struggled physically. But he had a good summer, built some confidence and, as we've seen more time and distance from the injury, his confidence has grown and the results have gotten better. He's made the biggest jump in our program this year, and it's exciting to watch."
Over the summer, Rosenfeld hit .270 for the Westhampton Aviators in the wood bat Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League and helped the Aviators reach the ACBL Championship game alongside Duke teammate Aaron Cohn. He came back to Duke with renewed vigor in the fall and won the starting job behind the plate outright. He has taken the opportunity and run with it, starting 40 of his 48 games behind the plate at the most physically grueling position on the field.
"It's a grind, it's really tough and a lot of responsibility for a sophomore, but he's handled it really well," McNally said. "It's certainly a huge asset for our lineup."
McNally notes that it's rare to find a catcher who can defend well and hit well, but the Blue Devils seems to have found both in Rosenfeld. The collective batting average of the ACC's 12 starting catchers is .278, the lowest of any position, but Rosenfeld is hitting nearly 50 points higher than that. He is one of only four ACC catchers hitting over .300 this season.
And as well as he can swing the bat, Rosenfeld is a wall behind the plate. He has allowed just seven passed balls all year, which is no small feat considering he's caught 98 innings from projected first-round pick Marcus Stroman, who was hailed by one American League scouting director as having the "filthiest stuff in the country."
While catching, blocking and throwing are all part of the job description for Rosenfeld, he is also charged with handling the diverse pitching arsenals and personalities of Duke's 15 pitchers. While he may catch Stroman's 97 mile per hour heat and sharp slider on Fridays, he has to make significant adjustments the next day when freshman Trent Swart drops the velocity to the mid-80's with a devastating changeup. It's the personal relationships he develops with the pitchers, Rosenfeld says, that make his job back there easier.
"On and off the field, I have a really good relationship with all our pitchers," Rosenfeld said. "It's just a part of catching. You have to get to know your pitchers. If they feel comfortable with you and you feel comfortable with them, everything's going to work well on the field."