Laird finally has the starting job, clear direction with Rangers

Updated: February 26, 2007, 7:15 PM ET
Associated Press

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Gerald Laird finally came to spring training with the Texas Rangers knowing he was their starting catcher -- three years after he initially won the job as a rookie.

Laird also arrived this time with a clear direction from new manager Ron Washington.

An impressive spring in 2004 earned Laird the starting spot, and he was already considered one of the AL's top rookies when he tore a ligament in his left thumb on a tag play at the plate six weeks into the season.

When Laird was healthy again, the Rangers sent him back to Triple-A Oklahoma for most of 2005. Then he spent his first full major league season primarily as a backup to Rod Barajas before finally regaining the No. 1 spot.

"In years past, it's always been like, am I going to make the team? Then all of a sudden, I have a good spring," Laird said. "It's a long road, but it kept the fire burning in me, knowing what I wanted so bad and having to go after it and get it. So it just kept me working hard."

Even before Laird donned his catcher's gear for the team's full-squad workout Monday, he took a short breather at his locker, his shirt already soaked with sweat after a morning run.

Once Laird got on the field, there were drills to block pitches thrown in the dirt. He then caught pitchers, on the field and in the bullpen, before finally taking some swings in batting practice. When everybody else was done, Laird and three other catchers stayed on the field to work on making throws to each base.

Not only was BP last on the schedule for the team Monday, Washington wants offense to be the last thing on Laird's mind.

"I just want him to concentrate on making this pitching staff better and helping them to believe in him," Washington said. "So far, he's been good. ... He knows what his job is."

Laird is a popular guy in the clubhouse who doesn't have any problem getting to know people. But Washington wants him to have intimate relationships with the pitchers.

"It's just a process of listening to them, being around them, talking to them, asking them questions, catching their bullpens and just getting a feel for them as a person and as a player," Laird said.

There has already been an introductory course for Laird with some of the pitchers.

In his 65 starts last season, Laird caught several starters and relievers, including Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla and Robinson Tejeda -- three of the four starters already considered to be set in the rotation for 2007. The fourth starter is Brandon McCarthy, who came over in a trade with the Chicago White Sox this winter.

"I think Gerald's got a good idea about what's going on in a game. He's a good catcher," said Millwood, a 16-game winner last season. "It always helps a lot when you've got a guy back there that's trying to get into the flow of the game with you."

Laird hasn't been a slouch at the plate. He hit .296 in 78 games last season, and before getting hurt in 2004 was batting .307, tops among rookies.

Washington figures Laird will do plenty to help offensively, but wants him focused on catching the Rangers' pitchers instead of hitting against opposing ones.

"That means a lot because it takes a lot off of my shoulders, not having to worry about my at-bats every night. Just worry about catching games and catch winning games, and be the best I can back behind the plate," Laird said. "I'm sure if I'm doing pretty good behind the plate, it's going to affect my offense."

Game notes
After watching the first four days of practice, Washington said he has "no doubt" that Sammy Sosa will make the team as the designated hitter. Then Washington added, "if he doesn't perform, doubt will probably set in." Exhibition games start Friday. ... Instead of pitching in the Cactus League opener Friday, Millwood will start in a `B' game earlier in the day. Washington said that's what Millwood wanted to do. ... Country music singer Charley Pride, a longtime regular at Rangers camp, was in uniform for the first time Monday. "I know he can sing," said Washington, who met Pride for the first time.


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index

MORE MLB HEADLINES