Rock Hill assistant coach Mike Partlow explains the hardest skill in baseball
Disgusted, Nation Ford assistant baseball coach Josh Corley tromped back to the dugout prior to the Falcons' game against Rock Hill in March.
He had just finished the routine baseball pregame warmup often called "in and out", short for "infield and outfield." The pregame routine concluded with one of the most difficult skills in the entire sport: the catcher pop fly.
The perfect catcher pop fly launches off a coach's bat, flying upward and out like a sail on a boat. Backspin should bring it back to Earth where it lands in the catcher's mitt somewhere in the vicinity of the batter's box.
Of course, hitting or throwing a 100 mile per hour fastball, turning a perfectly-timed double play or a right fielder gunning down a runner at the plate are incredibly difficult skills. But for the vast majority of people playing or coaching baseball at youth or high school levels, the catcher pop fly is one of the game's most elusive details to master.
Corley's catcher pop fly before the Rock Hill game didn't lift off like a rocket, but rather shot straight back like a foul ball. Falcons' catcher Andrew Pappalardo hopped up and flipped his mask off his face. The ball was nowhere to be found. It landed near the backstop, the sound grabbing Pappalardo's attention, as Corley shook his head and jogged to the dugout.
He was annoyed, though he's not alone in struggling to hit the perfect catcher pop fly.
"I've been working on it," Corley said more recently. "It's gotten to the point where it's so bad I don't do it anymore."
About 10 minutes later that same day, Rock Hill High assistant coach Mike Partlow finished up his "in and out."
"In and out" usually consists of a series of fungo hits -- a fungo bat is lighter and longer than a normal baseball bat -- to various positions around a baseball diamond. The final swing of Partlow's fungo bat blasted a baseball high into the sky and curling back toward home plate. Catcher Allen Coye cushioned the ball in his glove as everybody loped back to the Bearcats' dugout.
Partlow grinned, knowing his perfect catcher pop fly had just been caught on video.
"It's just something that throughout the years I feel I've gotten better at," he said. "It's just like with golf. The more you do it, the more muscle memory."
Here are two reasons why the skill is so difficult:
Prior to hitting the catcher pop fly, the assistant coach has just hit probably 20 to 30 balls with a normal swing to various parts of the diamond. The final swing is completely different from the first 95 percent of the warmup.
"It definitely takes practice," said Corley. "Or just straight, natural skill."
Indian Land coach Joey Robinson no longer warms his team up, but he did when he was an assistant coach at Ardrey Kell in south Charlotte. His key to a perfect catcher pop fly was to toss the ball up so that it dropped toward his back shoulder. From there, he tried to hit the bottom half of the ball, up and through it so that the the right spin brought it back toward the plate.
Partlow agreed that the toss -- higher than the toss for the other warmup swings -- is key. The high toss enables the perfect catcher pop fly hit, one that would curve out in an arc and back to the plate.
"You want to try and make it realistic like in a game," Partlow said.
Easier said than done.
"Usually, I get too on top of it so I'm hitting it forwards, instead of backwards," said Corley.
Before Nation Ford's game at Fort Mill on April 18, Corley was out on the Falcons' field early with a bucket of baseballs attempting to perfect his technique. The returns were positive.
"Two out of every three was decent enough," he said.
You only get one shot
"You only do that once or twice a week and you hit a bunch of fly balls to your infielders and outfielders during practice," said Fort Mill coach Travis Collier, "so it's not something you get to use all that often."
If they botch the first catcher pop fly attempt, very few, if any, coaches will hit it again. Either the other team is waiting to take its warmup or player introductions are about to begin. It's a one-and-done scenario. Or in Partlow's case, two-and-done. But two is his absolute limit.
"I just pray that I get it on the first try," he said, laughing.
Coaches trying to hit the perfect catcher pop fly would do well to remember much of their own teaching to their players. One key is to relax.
"The more you think about it, the harder it is," said Robinson.
As a younger coach, Collier used to stand at home plate with a bucket full of baseballs and try over and over to land the catcher pop fly right on the plate.
"It just did not work out for me," he said. "It's such a weird angle."
He's taken a different approach since.
"I just throw it to them now," he said. "Instead of making a fool out of myself, making my guys chase balls, I just throw it up there and let them catch it."
Even Northwestern's long-time coach and "no bull" baseball guru Mitch Walters has forsaken the catcher pop fly. After hitting a full in and out against Rock Hill earlier this month, he looked at his catcher, tossed a baseball about six feet in the air and walked off the field.
But Corley, who is just 22 years old, hasn't completely given up hope. Knowing a reporter was at the Falcons' game against Fort Mill a few weeks ago he decided to try the catcher pop fly again. The first one flew forward -- he was on top of the ball too much again -- but a few Nation Ford players standing nearby urged him to try one more.
This one was a moon shot, curling out and up and finally falling back to Earth. Corley didn't see it land. He was already walking back toward the dugout, chucking the bat confidently and holding his arms aloft in triumph.