Should college baseball historians get the urge to retroactively hand out Johnny Bench Awards, Wichita State might end up with a few.
Charlie O'Brien, Eric Wedge and Doug Mirabelli, first- or second-team All-Americans, own worthy resumes, had the award existed in the 1980s and 1990s.
While WSU has produced good catchers since, it took Chris O'Brien, Charlie's son, to get the catching tradition back in the national spotlight. O'Brien is the first to earn All-America honors since Mirabelli in 1991 and the first to be a Bench Award finalist in its 12-year history. O'Brien is joined by James Madison's Jake Lowery and Florida's Mike Zunino as finalists. The award, voted on by a national committee of college coaches, is presented at tonight's Greater Wichita Sports Banquet at the Hyatt Regency.
"He has made such vast strides as a hitter, he's got a good chance in pro ball," WSU coach Gene Stephenson said. "He really had great discipline and pitch selection. That will go a long way."
O'Brien, who signed last week with the Los Angeles Dodgers after his junior season, is with the organization's Rookie League team in Arizona. The Dodgers drafted him in the 18th round.
"I've always wanted to do nothing but play baseball," O'Brien said. "Now I'm working to take it a step higher."
O'Brien, from Tulsa, led WSU with a .410 batting average, a .643 slugging percentage and a .495 on-base percentage. He drove in 70 runs, homering 10 times. He made quite a jump from his previous season, when he hit .291 in 26 starts, 21 at catcher.
His rise started in the fall, after a disappointing summer in the Cape Cod League.
"Maybe I didn't take it as seriously as I should have," he said. "It was an eye-opening experience. You've got to take everything as seriously as possible or you're going to get left behind."
O'Brien isn't just an offensive weapon. Stephenson loved the way he worked with pitchers and called the game. He thinks O'Brien's future in pro baseball will be determined by his conditioning. After playing at around 220, he started 2010 about 15 pounds lighter. At that weight, Stephenson believes he can move quickly and stay healthy.
"He really tried to get his body in shape," Stephenson said. "Everybody noticed that he was in much better shape. He'll have to be physically in as good a condition as he can be."
Unlike Zunino and Lowery, it took O'Brien three seasons before he became a starting catcher. He played third base as a freshman and shared the job as a sophomore.
He was glad to be at WSU for that learning experience. Pro baseball would have been less forgiving.
"It's better to fail in college than fail where I am now," he said. "You learn to deal with it a lot better."
Roster moves — Without O'Brien, WSU's depth at catcher looked thin. Sophomore Bob Arens played eight games, starting one, last season.
WSU added to that position with the transfer of Kale Gaden, a junior from Seminole (Okla.) State College. Ryan Hege, who quit the team near the end of the season, is returning. WSU also has freshman Tyler Baker, who caught for Shawnee Heights and can play other positions.
Gaden, from Stillwater, Okla., is playing for the Valley Center Diamond Dawgs this summer. He spent his freshman season at Missouri. He can also play second base and the outfield, which is where he starts for Valley Center.
"He's a gamer," Valley Center coach Pat Hon said. "The kid plays really hard."
Gaden (5-foot-11, 185 pounds) is a left-handed hitter who throws with his right hand. He is hitting .400 with five doubles and four triples for Valley Center.
"He goes up there expecting and knowing he's going to have a good at-bat," Hon said.
Gaden hit .305 with nine doubles and four home runs for Seminole State. He walked 23 times and was hit by a pitch 12 times in 177 at-bats, producing a .399 on-base percentage. In 2010, he started 17 games at Missouri and hit .200.
Hege, a junior-to-be, quit the team before the May 17 game against Kansas State. He hit .237 in 24 starts, 23 in right field.
Hege and coaches met in early June and worked out their differences. Before the Kansas State game, Hege argued with pitching coach Brent Kemnitz when he found out Arens would start in place of the injured O'Brien. Hege left the locker room and didn't practice or play again.
"We talked, and he thought that he had made a big mistake and he wanted to try it again," Stephenson said. "I'm not a guy who holds grudges."
* Stephenson said volunteer assistant coach Jeff Christy is joining the Nebraska baseball staff. Christy, a native of Lincoln, Neb., played two seasons with the Huskers after transferring from Barton County Community College.
Christy worked one season at WSU.