Born to lead

Grant Richards was the fourth-string bullpen catcher for the Citadel at one point.

On the career ladder of baseball, bullpen catcher ranks right down there with bat boy and radar-gun holder.

But fourth-string bullpen catcher?

That’s the lowly rank held by Grant Richards when he was a freshman at The Citadel.

“Things were not looking too good,” said Richards, now a fifth-year senior for the Bulldogs. “There were four or five bullpen catchers ahead of me. I was pretty far down on the totem pole. But fortunately for me, a couple of the guys ahead of me quit.”

There was no danger of Richards quitting, and the 6-0, 180-pounder from Morrisville, N.C., has turned his shot at being a bullpen catcher into a remarkable career. He was a vital cog in The Citadel’s 2010 run to Southern Conference regular-season and tournament titles and has been a solid contributor since then.

It’s safe to say that coach Fred Jordan recruited Richards a lot harder last summer, to convince him to return for a fifth season, than he did when the catcher was coming out of Cardinal Gibbons High School.

“In my tenure here, we’ve never had a better leader,” said Jordan, in his 21st season. “We’ve had some on par with Grant, but none better. He leads by action, the first guy on the field and the last guy off.”

Richards and fellow seniors Nick Orvin, Damon Ardis, Justin Mackert and T.J. Clarkson play their final homes in this weekend’s SoCon series against Furman at Riley Park. None of their careers was more unlikely than Richards’.

“Coming up, everyone told me I’d never be good enough to play Division I baseball,” Richards said. “And that was my dream.”

Ronnie Powell, father of former South Carolina star catcher Landon Powell, was one of Richards’ coaches. Ronnie knew Stuart Lake, then a Citadel assistant who had coached Landon at USC, and asked him to take a look. The Citadel’s only promise? A shot at bullpen catcher.

Richards took that and ran with it, putting in extra time in the batting cages at Vandiver Hall while redshirting as a freshman and playing in just six games in 2009. In 2010, a talented Citadel team found itself in midseason doldrums, losing six of nine games at one stretch due mostly to middle-infield issues.

Jordan made a bold move, switching catcher Bryan Altman to second base and installing Richards behind the plate. The Bulldogs won 17 of 22 down the stretch, including 13 straight, to sweep the SoCon regular season and tournament titles, and opened the NCAA Regional with a 7-2 win over Virginia Tech in Columbia.

Richards batted a smooth .400 with 10 RBIs during that 13-game win streak, hit his first home run at Georgia Southern, drove in two runs against the Hokies and handled star pitchers Asher Wojciechowski and Matt Talley with aplomb.

“That club will tell you, they couldn’t have done it without Grant,” Jordan said.

The last two years, Richards uncomplainingly shared time with talented young catcher Joe Jackson. This season, despite playing in just 32 of 49 games, Richards leads the club with a .299 batting average and .382 on-base percentage.

Richards’ playing days will be over as soon as the Bulldogs are done this season, but not his future in baseball. He’s got an internship with the Charleston RiverDogs and an opportunity with the Atlanta Braves lined up, should he choose to go that way.

“I expect him to be a general manager in the major leagues one day,” Jordan said.

Said Richards, “Mr. Powell always told me baseball was a vehicle, not a destination. The ride’s not over yet, but it has opened so many doors for me.”