Hector Ortiz caught the catching bug when he was 10.
“I was a first baseman when I started playing in Puerto Rico,” the Texas Rangers first base coach says. “Then, they tried me at third. But one day, the coach said ‘We need a catcher on our team. Any volunteers?’ I told him I would give it a try. I fell in love with that position so much it’s the only I’ve played ever since.”
Ortiz, 46, played in the majors from 1998-2002 with the Kansas City Royals and the Texas Rangers, hitting .288 over 93 games. When his playing career ended, he served in the Rangers’ organization as a minor-league coach, manager and catching instructor before moving up to major-league first base coach in 2015. The Rangers won the American League West and fell to the Toronto Blue Jays in a memorable playoff series.
It was just before Ortiz’s promotion that he was introduced to Valle training gloves. His good friend, Juan Lopez, became the Rangers’ assistant minor-league catching coordinator. Lopez had been a bullpen catcher for the San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs and the bullpen coach for the Cincinnati Reds.
“He came up to me and said, ‘I have the glove,’” Ortiz recounts. “It was a Valle training glove. He brought it to spring training and gave me John Valle’s number. I used the glove and fell in love with it. Exchanges, blocking, receiving . . . it helped me with a lot of drills.”
Back in his playing days, Ortiz used “an old school pancake glove” for exchanges drills.
“It was the kind of glove that Yogi Berra and Johnny Roseboro used in real games,” he said. “The Valle gloves are so much better. They are so realistic that the Valle training glove is my real glove. I use it to play catch. I always have it with me.”
Ortiz grew up in Puerto Rico, and his idol was Tony Pena, the longtime major-league catcher with the unorthodox squat – extending his left leg straight out when there were no runners on base.
“For a while, I imitated him,” Ortiz says with a laugh.
“Pena was my idol growing up, but to any Puerto Rican player, the real idol is Roberto Clemente. He means so much to my country.”
He says coaching minor-leaguers is a little different than coaching big-leaguers.
“In the minors, you’re coaching a lot more about mechanics,” he says. “In the majors, it’s more about the mental approach. What gets them there and then back on track.”
Ortiz says aspiring catchers should be using training gloves “all of the time.” – in season and out of season.
“It’s going to make you have that feel,” he says. “When you play baseball, you don’t see yourself. But you can feel yourself. It’s all about feel, receiving, the exchange. If you catch it wrong, you’re going to get hurt. Learn with the training glove. Repeat with the regular glove. Next thing you know, you’re doing things completely right.”
The priorities are different, he says, depending on who is learning.
“We have to be realistic about how it works for young kids,” he says. “I’d say the priority is pop time, receiving and blocking the ball for young kids. But as soon as he gets to pro ball, it’s more about catching first, blocking it second and throwing it third.”
Ortiz is credited with turning Rangers catcher Robinson Chirinos into a solid defensive player.
“I started working with him in 2013, when we got him from the Rays,” Ortiz says. “I saw potential. I worked with him at Triple-A, and he made a commitment to be the best he could be. It made my job that much easier to coach him.”
Chirinos is Exhibit A for young players who dream of a pro career.
“It’s all about hard work and determination,” Ortiz says. “If you really want it, dedicate yourself. No matter how many critics you have. It’s about commitment – and playing as often as you can.”