May 10, 2005
After spending his first two years backing up Stanford catchers Ryan Garko and Donny Lucy, John Hester finally got his chance this year to catch full-time for the Cardinal. The junior from Roswell, Georgia has certainly made the job his by catching every single inning (and pitch) for Stanford before finally getting a day off last Tuesday at Santa Clara.
'It's been a lot of fun,' laughed Hester. 'That's my job, so I can't complain. It's been tough and I get tired, but it just comes with the territory. But I've been waiting two years to catch so I love every minute of it.'
Hester's patience has really paid off as he has developed into an excellent defensive catcher as well as an offensive threat at the plate. In 184 at-bats this season, Hester has hit .288 with 10 doubles, a triple, five homers and 33 RBI. One of his most memorable RBI of the season was the one that came on his bottom-of-the-ninth, game-winning double in Stanford's come-from-behind victory against UCLA last Friday. Hester's hitting has solidified his role in the fifth spot of the line-up behind Jed Lowrie and John Mayberry, Jr.
Hester credits his improvement offensively to being able to get regular at-bats. In his first two seasons at Stanford, he was only able to pick up 47 at-bats and hit .234 with one home run and eight RBI. His summer experience in 2004 with the Mat-Su Miners in the Alaska League helped prepare him for his breakout this year. Over the summer, he hit .293 with team co-leading 12 doubles, a home run and 20 RBI, helping lead the club to a second-place finish at the National Baseball Congress World Series.
'That was a big step for me in Alaska,' Hester said. 'Getting to play every day really helped me to get used to the repetition and the action. That helped me prepare for this season, definitely.'
Even with his offensive contributions, Hester knows his true role on the team is to handle the pitching staff.
'Coach Marquess always told me anything I do offensively is a bonus,' said Hester. 'My main job on the team is to handle the pitchers and be a catcher. It's more important that we pitch well than it is that I personally hit the ball very well, and I completely agree with Coach Marquess in that way. It's more important for me to get the pitchers to do their jobs than it is for me to hit 25 home runs.'
In fact, Hester has gotten an even bigger say in how the pitchers do their jobs since he started calling the pitches in games himself. The change came in response to Stanford's sweep at the hands of Arizona State in mid-April. In an effort to change things up, the Stanford catcher was directed to call the pitches himself and thus eliminate the relay from pitching coach, Tom Kunis.
'Nothing's really changed much,' said Hester. 'It's pretty much the same approach that we had before. Mainly, it helps the tempo of the game - it goes a lot faster.'
'I just call what I think is the right pitch,' continued Hester. 'I put some time in to try to learn the batters before the games start. By Sunday, I know the batters pretty well. I know what they can hit and what they can't. It's just a matter of execution for the pitchers.'
Without the additional signs from the bench, the time between pitches is reduced, as is the time the team spends in the field. Overall, it keeps the team more focused and, hopefully, also makes it feel like they spend more time hitting.
The change has had a definite effect on Stanford's games. The final two losses at Arizona State both clocked in at nearly four hours each - 3 hours, 44 minutes and 3 hours, 35 minutes, respectively. The Cardinal rebounded in the following games, first defeating San Jose State in 2 hours, 25 minutes, then sweeping Washington in a key Pac-10 conference match-up. All three of the games against Washington took less than three hours. They included the second-shortest game of the season for Stanford - a 2-hour, 12-minute-long, complete-game victory by Jeff Gilmore on Friday night against Washington's ace, Tim Lincecum.
Being such a big part of Stanford's pitching effort and one of the older guys on the team makes Hester a leader on the club. Hester tries to lead by example and plays as hard as he can every time he goes out on the field. For the self-described 'blue-collar' guy, it's all about getting the job done. Whether it's calling a game, playing great defense or just hitting the ball, he knows what he has to do and takes care of his business in helping the team to win.
In fact, Hester got into catching as a kid because his team needed him to fill the job.
'Basically, when I was about 8 years old in little league, the catcher for my team didn't show up,' explained Hester. 'So I got put behind the plate and I started catching, and I've never looked back since.'
The catcher that got his start as a fill-in has developed into one of the top backstops in the nation and found a full-time role here at Stanford. You could say he's gotten the job done and then some.
by Paulina Kuo