COLUMBIA — Grayson Greiner remembers a time when he must have really looked strange squatting behind home plate. When he was in seventh grade, he started playing catcher, and was 6-4 and 150 pounds — a beanpole of a target.
“Much lankier than I am now,” he said.
Now, Greiner a 6-5, 210-pound freshman who will share South Carolina’s catching duties this season with junior Dante Rosenberg, a junior college transfer who debuted at USC last season but played just two games because of a back injury.
USC baseball coach Ray Tanner said he isn’t sure who will start Friday’s season opener against Virginia Military Institute, but he feels confident that people will notice Greiner this season — and not just because he is unusually tall for a catcher.
“If he’s comfortable, he’s very, very capable of becoming a freshman All-American,” Tanner said. “Is that too much for him right now? I don’t know. But he’s a good one.”
In nine preseason intra-squad scrimmages, Greiner hit .419 and drove in 10 runs. Tanner emphasized that he tries to be “conservative” in his assessments of young players, but he is more familiar with Greiner than most freshmen. Greiner attended Blythewood High, just outside of Columbia, and Tanner said he first saw Greiner play as a ninth grader.
Greiner arrived at USC as an athletic legacy, because his father, Mark, played basketball for the Gamecocks from 1973-76. Greiner also arrived needing to quickly prove himself worthy, during fall practices, of handling USC’s experienced starting pitchers: senior Michael Roth and juniors Matt Price and Colby Holmes.
“The first thing you want to do is build a relationship with each and every pitcher in the bullpen and practice,” Greiner said. “Just try to make them feel as comfortable as possible so they can just do their thing and not worry about the catcher. It’s hard being a young guy and them being so experienced and having the success they’ve had, but just be one of the guys.”
Greiner admitted feeling “kind of weird” about catching Roth during his first practice, after watching Roth on television last year as he led the Gamecocks to the national title. But Tanner didn’t notice Roth or any of the pitchers feeling odd about throwing to Greiner.
“Any time you bring in a new catcher, the pitchers are the first ones that critique your catcher,” Tanner said. “Regardless of what he does, if they’re not comfortable with him, that becomes an issue. He was outstanding in the fall.”
Greiner loves playing catcher, but his future might be at another position. When he worked out for major league teams last year, some wanted to see him play outfield, because he doesn’t look like the typical catcher. Catchers are usually short because playing the position wears on the knees and requires limberness and agility, both of which Greiner believes he has.
Greiner is six inches taller than Rosenberg. Some great catchers were on the short side: 5-7 Yogi Berra and 6-1 Johnny Bench.
Though Sandy Alomar Jr. and Joe Mauer are 6-5, tall catchers are so rare that Tanner can quickly recall the name of Jim McNamara, a 6-4 catcher and fifth-round draft pick he coached while an assistant at North Carolina State in the mid-1980s.
In major league history, just four players taller than 6-3 have appeared in more than 1,000 games at catcher, according to MLB.com.
Mauer is not yet one of them. Alomar Jr. is. The leader in that group, 6-4 Johnny Edwards, ranks 39th overall among catchers with 1,392 games played. And while the all-time leader in games played at catcher, 5-9 Ivan Rodriguez, fits the short-and-stocky norm, the second guy on the list, 6-3 Carlton Fisk, isn’t a shrimp.
“I talked to some (pro scouts) that said I might be too tall to be a catcher,” Greiner said. “But as long as I can do it, I’m going to keep doing it until someone tells me I can’t.”