The dress-up aspect of sports is rarely discussed, but impossible to ignore. Anybody who watches a football player put on eye black or a basketball player wear a shooting sleeve knows athletes like to look the part.
James Madison catcher Jake Lowery won't argue. Playing his position is a grind and often under-appreciated. Many youngsters avoid it. The chance to wear the mask and the shin guards and roll up to the park with all of it in a big bag is one of the things that attracted Lowery.
"I really liked all the equipment," he said. "Anytime you're a catcher, you get to get more gear. It's pretty neat."
Lowery is much more than a kid dressed in a chest protector. Lowery, Wichita State's Chris O'Brien and Florida's Mike Zunino are the three finalists for the Johnny Bench Award, given to the nation's top college catcher. The award, voted on by a national committee of college coaches, is presented at Thursday's Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission banquet at the Hyatt Regency.
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Lowery, now playing for the Class-A Mahoning Valley Scrappers, earned All-America honors from Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball. The Cleveland Indians drafted him in the fourth round after he hit .359 with 24 home runs and 91 RBIs as a junior.
"He didn't go through a slump, and almost everybody goes through a slump," James Madison coach Spanky McFarland said.
Lowery, from Midlothian, Va., came to James Madison as a raw talent with plenty of physical skills, including a strong arm. McFarland said some scouts see him as Craig Biggio-type who might move to second or third.
Lowery needed to learn how to deal with failure to take advantage of his gifts. Early in his career, a few strikeouts ruined his day.
"He would be a helmet slammer," McFarland said. "He had some growing up to do as far as his emotion."
Lowery, with help from McFarland and his assistants, worked on cooling down. McFarland noticed that Lowery clenches his jaw when he gets tense. So when the coach noticed an onset of tight jaw, he would open wide and wiggle his chin as a cue for Lowery to loosen up.
"This year, I left it all in the dugout," Lowery said. "I would close my eyes for a second. Then go back out there."
Baseball didn't dominate all of his time as a youngster. Lowery played the cello for seven years after starting with the orchestra in middle school. It's possible the bowed string instrument helps his baseball by exercising his arm and helping his sense of rhythm and balance.
"I still have the cello," he said. "I could bust it out if I needed to."
Zunino is the only finalist still playing in college. Florida lost to South Carolina on Tuesday in the second game of the College World Series best-of-3 championship. For the Gators and Zunino, the stay in Omaha was much more satisfying than last season's 0-2 disappointment.
"With this second team, we've taken more of a business approach," he said. "I think we were a little bit satisfied and overwhelmed last year."
Zunino, a sophomore from Cape Coral, Fla., led the Gators with a .371 batting average and a .674 slugging percentage. He had 19 home runs and 67 RBIs. As a freshman, he hit .267 with nine home runs. Injuries slowed him, yet Baseball America put him on its freshman All-America team. As a sophomore, Zunino cut down on his strikeouts and walked more to get his offense rolling.
He views that as secondary to his defense. Zunino committed his third error in Monday's 2-1 loss to South Carolina.
"Everything I can do offensively is a bonus," he said. "I want to help our pitching staff as much as I can. You try not to get noticed back there."