It’s partly out of coincidence and partly by design that a starting sophomore catcher has been a feature of Bishop McGann-Mercy Diocesan High School baseball teams during the Ed Meier era. Starting with Meier’s first year as the team’s coach in 2004, there was Ryan Hautsch. In succeeding years, Chris De Gennaro and Rocco Pascale were positioned behind the plate as sophomores.
And now, enter Tony Mercuri. You guessed it, he’s another sophomore who shows promise as a catcher for the present and the future.
Meier said he likes to groom young catchers because the position is so important. “The more reps you get back there, the more comfortable you are,” he said after the Monarchs completed their first preseason practice on Monday.
So far, Meier has liked what he has seen from Mercuri. Mercuri, who can also play third base, bounced back and forth between the varsity and junior varsity teams last year. Because of academic issues, however, he missed out on the playoffs and McGann-Mercy’s run to its second Suffolk County Class C championship in four years and a 14-7 record.
Mercuri is a committed player. He plays for the Long Island Cyclones along with two other Monarchs, Connor Galvin and Owen Gilphen. In addition, Mercuri has been receiving lessons from a former major league catcher and Shoreham-Wading River High School great, Keith Osik, for about six years. All that work has made a difference.
“He looks good,” Meier said. “He looks very solid. He looks very fundamental. He plays a lot. He plays a lot in the summer, he plays a lot in the fall, so he looks very comfortable back there. It looks like it’s going to work out.”
Having Mercuri behind the plate would fill an opening left by the graduation of last year’s starting catcher, Iain Traynor. Pascale, who played first base last year, can catch, of course, but it sounds as if the Monarchs want to use him at third base, which became available with the graduation of Chris Sachalk, a three-year starter. Middle infielder Tom Kretz could catch in a pinch.
So, what type of a player is Mercuri?
Although Mercuri doesn’t consider himself a good defensive catcher, he said he is improving. His bat could be a big help. Last year Mercuri was arguably the best hitter on the JV team, batting third in the order.
“I’m a good hitter,” he said after a practice in which he did a lot of running, caught for a couple of pitchers in the bullpen and did some fielding work. “I don’t really hit for power, I hit more for contact. I’m a good clutch player.”
If anyone is a good judge of the catching position, it’s Pascale, who finished last season with a .400-plus batting average. Speaking of Mercuri, Pascale said: “He wants to take that position. He’s looking good. He has good fundamentals. I kind of jumped into that position late. He’s been doing it all his life, so it looks good. It gives us a lot of extra room to work with, having him there.”
It wasn’t as if Meier had never seen Mercuri play before, but the way the sophomore handled himself during Monday’s practice was encouraging to the coach.
“The thing that any guy has to learn, especially at his age, is to be a leader,” Meier said. “As a catcher, he’s the guy who sees the field, so he’s calling all our relays. He’s really moving our defense around, telling our infielders where to throw the ball, and that can be intimidating when you’re a sophomore and some of our guys are older and more experienced. He’s going to have to be more vocal and have confidence in himself when he makes calls behind the plate.”
One thing Mercuri would have to wait for, though, is the freedom to call pitches. Until further notice, those calls will come from the dugout. Meier joked that he isn’t quite ready to give the sophomore that much responsibility just yet. He said, “We showed him the car, but I don’t think we’ll give him the keys yet.”