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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Mariners’ Cal Raleigh chases dreams one grueling workout at a time

Seattle Mariners catcher Cal Raleigh hits a two-run home run against Toronto during Game 1 of their wild-card series Oct. 7 in Toronto.  (Mark Blinch/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

PEORIA, Ariz. – As large raindrops fell somewhere between a downpour and deluge, soaking the Phoenix valley, the early morning blackness somehow seemed darker in contrast to the handful of streetlights in the largely empty parking lot of the Seattle Mariners’ spring training complex.

A few minutes after 5 a.m., the headlights of a pickup truck become visible. A large white GMC with jet-black rims pulls into one of the many vacant spots nearest to the buildings.

With the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his cap, Cal Raleigh, the man who hit the franchise’s most memorable home run of the past 20 years to end the longest postseason drought in men’s major professional sports in North America, emerges. He unloads his 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame from the truck and quickly walks through the now-heavy rain into the sparsely populated complex.

The Mariners’ stated goal is the World Series, and as Opening Day looms, every moment of preparation matters.

There is no time clock to punch, but Raleigh’s 11-hour workday is just beginning.

Of the many jobs and roles on a baseball team, the catcher position is perhaps the most time-consuming, physically demanding, mentally draining and minimally rewarding.

Ask any player about who does the most each day in terms of work and preparation, whether it’s spring training or the regular season, they won’t hesitate to say it’s the catcher.

“Half of their day is basically helping us,” pitcher Logan Gilbert said. “If I was being honest with him, which I would never tell him, he puts in way more work than we do.”

Raleigh has a differing ratio than his former roommate, close friend and verbal sparring partner.

“I’d say it’s probably 70-30 or at times 80-20,” he said. “A lot of work goes into the pitchers, whether it’s communication, working on our defense and receiving, it’s talking over scouting reports or going over game plans. It’s a lot.”

It’s not a complaint. It’s an obligation.

The son of a college baseball coach, Raleigh learned at an early age that pitchers and their preparation were his first priority, and any personal progress remained secondary.

“Everything that it takes to be a catcher, it’s a ton of different facets,” Gilbert said. “Their hitting, which is a position player’s main focus, is probably not the top of their list. It says a lot about their selflessness and kind of putting our career ahead of their career.”

Raleigh understands it’s a responsibility that leads to success. He will never allow a pitcher to think he’s unprepared. It would be impossible to gain a pitcher’s trust or build a relationship.

“You’ve got to show them that you’ve put in the work and show them that you care about them and that you want the best for them,” he said.

It’s why during spring training, from the early days of workouts to the cactus league schedule, the catchers in Mariners camp put in the longest hours of any position group. They are the first to arrive and last to leave. It’s more than a mindset. It’s a code that is carried into the regular season.

Raleigh’s arrival hours before the sun is necessary, given all he needs to accomplish in a day.

“He’s usually there working before a lot of us wake up,” Gilbert said.

Raleigh wasn’t even the first catcher at the complex on this day, which was the first with full-squad workouts. Tom Murphy beat him by about 15 minutes.

They are usually the first two there each morning with fellow catchers Cooper Hummel, Brian O’Keefe, Jake Anchia and Matt Scheffler arriving at similar times.

In his first MLB camp, top prospect Harry Ford made the mistake of showing up around 6:45 a.m. on Day 1. He found a weight room full of his fellow catchers finishing workouts. He arrived at 5:30 a.m. on Day 2.

On this day and most days, Raleigh then strips down to workout shorts and heads to the Mariners training room.

If the rain didn’t awaken him fully, a plunge into the cold whirlpool tub jars him to life. He submerges his full body into the frigid bubbling water for 3 chilly minutes, climbs out and hops into the warm whirlpool tub next to it for 3 minutes. He repeats the contrast therapy again for 2 minutes each, then 1 minute and then one final quick splash into the cold tub before leaving the training room.

“It’s something that I do every day,” he said.

Because players were required to give a blood test on this day, Raleigh was in fasting mode. He wasn’t “hangry” yet, but he wanted that blood test done so he could have some coffee and eat before going to the gym. With the wet conditions, there would be no early individual defensive drills outside, so that was 30-plus minutes of bonus time. Still, his schedule was tight.

Before his workout, he ventures into the training room for stretches and discussions with the high-performance staff.

Raleigh enters the weight room around 7:15 a.m., later than he wanted. But this would be a core and mobility workout after lifting heavy the previous day. It starts with movement preparation. Think of it as a warm-up routine for the day. He walks backward on a treadmill and works in movements focused on his legs and hips. It’s followed by an array of stretches, displaying a frightening amount of flexibility for a man his size.

“I learned last year over 162 games how important it is,” he said. “It’s something you have to do if you want to keep your body in shape; you want to give the best performance you can. You can’t just show up and play.”

Raleigh is constantly moving, whether it’s a specific exercise or walking around and talking to people in the gym.

“The goal is to stay healthy,” he said. “The big thing for me is when I’m doing stuff and moving around, I feel healthy. When I’m sitting still or if I’m maybe not doing as much, then I don’t feel good. I feel kind of slow, sluggish and soft.”

A healthy catcher is a baseball oxymoron. No position delivers more physical punishment on a daily basis. Raleigh must maneuver a frame more suited to be a bouncer into and out of a crouch countless times in these days. Knees ache, hips get tight and quadriceps burn.

Even with a body covered in protective gear, sliders in the dirt and foul tips off 100-mph fastballs seem to find the exposed parts more often than not. For almost every ball a pitcher throws to him, Raleigh must fire the ball back along with max-effort throws in game situations.

A year ago, he jammed his left thumb while sliding head first. He suffered a torn ulnar-collateral ligament and slight fracture. He refused to go on the injured list.

When he was first called up from the minor leagues in 2021, he seemed impossibly shy, rarely speaking and content to sit in the background.

Now, he talks to everyone in an easy rhythmic cadence with a touch of drawl that speaks to his North Carolina roots.

“You’ve really seen his personality come out,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said.

Murphy’s heavy-metal music blasts throughout the gym. But Raleigh, who is one of the few players not wearing headphones, is so focused on each movement that he doesn’t notice it. He isn’t chiseled like Murphy, but Raleigh is just as powerful. He’s “country” strong, particularly in his legs.

The workout lasts for roughly 45 minutes.

Raleigh immediately heads to the clubhouse for the daily team meeting at 9 a.m., which serves as a small break from the daily grind. With its being the first full-squad workout, Servais will deliver his yearly speech about the upcoming season and expectations. Raleigh will then head to another meeting at 9:30 a.m., going over some strategy.

With the rain subsiding, the Mariners will have a workout on the field. They stretch at 10 a.m. and play catch.

The catchers take batting practice as a group from 10:30 to 10:50 on the field and in the indoor batting cages.

But then the focus returns to preparing the pitchers. Raleigh and the catchers head to a covered area of pitchers mounds in the middle of the complex. They will catch bullpen sessions for multiple pitchers over the next hour. When they aren’t catching a pitcher, they are on the side working on their receiving and blocking with former Mariners catcher Dan Wilson, who shoots baseballs out of a pitching machine at them.

“You have to do that stuff every day to really be good at it,” Raleigh said. “It’s part of your craft.”

There are few down moments. The day before Raleigh used one to talk with Ford about the grind of spring training, the long days and trying to manage it all.

“I told him to always write his schedule down and just offered some advice about what I struggled with in my first camp,” he said. “I remember the guys who were good to me and the guys that weren’t. I don’t want to be remembered as a guy that didn’t help others.”

Pitchers have also begun throwing live batting practice sessions in which they face hitters. Raleigh catches a live BP from Chris Flexen and stands in as a hitter vs. Bryce Miller.

A good catcher in this modern era is also a sports psychologist for his pitchers, a teaching assistant of modern analytics who can understand and implement the data provided in a scouting report and game plan, a conduit for the manager’s on-field strategy, a motivator providing encouragement for his teammates, a supervisor to hold them accountable to the moment while making sure opponents know that he’s the toughest damned player on the field, who will protect his teammates in any situation.

In years past, Raleigh was just another big player in a uniform moving from field to field and drill to drill amid the watching fans. Some of the prospect nerds recognized him and he’d sign a few autographs, many for kids who were just happy to get a signature from any player.

It’s different now. Now he’s the catcher who hit 27 homers last season, including the unforgettable walk-off against the A’s to clinch the Mariners’ first postseason berth since 2001.

They scream his name. They want his autograph or a picture with him. Nearly all of them mention the homer.

“When we are doing drills, I tell them I will sign after,” he said. “We still have stuff to do. But after the day, I try to really stay, especially for the kids. I know how excited they are. It’s really special when people get really emotional about that moment. They tell you it was life-changing. One person started crying. Just doing that for people, knowing they come all the way down here to see us. It’s so cool to see how many fans we have now.”

When the live batting practice sessions ends, most of the players head for the clubhouse. The workout is over … for them.

Raleigh disappears into the finally empty batting cages. He still has part of his hitting routine to finish. He didn’t accomplish what he wanted earlier. But it had to wait till the other work was done.

“I personally like doing things on my own and being kind of one-on-one and having that time alone,” he said. “It gives me time to think. It gives me time to slow it down.

“I try to make it realistic as possible. I’m serious about my craft. We don’t have the luxury as catchers to be on the same schedule as everybody or even get as many reps as everybody. So I want to find time when I can put in the right work.”

When he finally heads into the clubhouse, it’s after 2 p.m. But he’s hours from leaving. He still needs to eat a late lunch with no dessert, because it’s Ash Wednesday and he’s giving up sweets for Lent. It’s back to the cold and warm tub and maintenance work with the training staff.

By the time he finally showers and leaves the complex, it’s about 5 p.m.

There are no immediate plans following his 11-hour day. He may have some dinner with spring training roommates Matt Festa and former Mariner Donovan Walton. He might watch some television before being asleep by 10 p.m., if not earlier.

The alarm was set for 5 a.m. Just another day of work starting in darkness.