Behind the plate with Baseball’s Anj Bourgeois
Eagles’ catcher shares the process of converting to a new position. | Austin Green / THE CHIMES
Squatting next to his equipment bag near a deserted Eagles Diamond on a Friday morning, junior catcher Anj Bourgeois perks his head up to greet a visitor who has come to watch him go through drills. Not only does Bourgeois welcome the distraction, but he shows genuine interest in getting to better know his guest. Moments like these are what cause teammates and coaches alike to rave about Bourgeois’ character, a huge reason why he has become the Eagles’ starting backstop despite having virtually no catching experience before this season.
“I caught like two games in little league, and I remember I threw someone out and I was like, ‘Aw, this is fun,’” Bourgeois said. “But I loved infield.”
SEEDS PLANTED FOR THE CHANGE
He grew up as a middle infielder and manager Jay Sullenger recruited him as such. Bourgeois spent the entire 2017 season as the Eagles’ starting second baseman and entrenched himself as one of the team’s best hitters. Nobody saw a reason to change his position except for now-alum Sam Thorne, then a catcher on the team.
“[Thorne] was in my ear all [last] year saying, ‘Hey, you need to learn how to catch,’” Bourgeois said. “He was like, “Dude, you’re a great leader, you’re a great communicator and you have all the tools to be a draftable catcher and hopefully play in the Major Leagues.’”
Aside from the pitcher, the catcher has the most influence on what happens on the baseball field. A catcher does not just squat, catch pitches and occasionally throw to a base. He leads on the field by calling pitches, organizing defense and constantly communicating with his pitcher. These require a selfless spirit and high baseball expertise, which Bourgeois has. Still, his teammates doubted that anyone could jump into catching at the collegiate level with so little experience.
“I was [surprised] at first,” said junior infielder Joey Magro. “I would never see him as a catcher, honestly.”
Bourgeois lacked the speed that middle infielders require to get drafted by a Major League organization, leading him to consider catching, which requires less quickness.
“I'd been thinking about [switching to catcher] a little bit, but I didn't bring it up to Coach because I was like, “Man. It's so much work,” Bourgeois said. “So I didn't really want to get it going if I wasn't fully committed to it.”
A CRUCIAL CALL
Everything changed in August 2017 when Bourgeois got a phone call from Sullenger. The Eagles had signed a transfer to play third base and planned to shift Magro to second. Bourgeois could become the odd man out in a positional logjam, relegated to spending the majority of his time as a designated hitter. Or, Sullenger asked him, would he be interested in transitioning to catcher?
“[Sullenger said], ‘Take your time, pray about it and let me know what you think,’” Bourgeois said. “I was like, ‘Okay,’ prayed about it then it was like, ‘All right, let's do it.’ So then I jumped in.”
Bourgeois showed up to the Eagles’ fall practices with catching gear and never looked back. He caught pitchers’ bullpen sessions, scoured the internet for videos and articles on catching techniques, and picked the brains of his coaches and teammates. Outside of practice, he did as many drills as he could, enlisting his friends, teammates and even family members to hit or throw baseballs to him or at least feed them into a pitching machine.
When most Biolans left for winter break, Bourgeois used the extra time to work even harder. He met twice a week with a local catching expert and did drills on the other days with whoever he could find available, once bribing Sullenger’s son to operate the pitching machine by buying the boy a candy bar. By the time spring semester started, a huge change had occurred.
“He learned so quick and worked so hard that literally every time he went behind the plate, he was getting better,” Sullenger said.
EAGLES’ CAPTAIN LEADS BY EXAMPLE
The improvement floored his teammates as well.
“It really surprised me how quickly he picked [catching] up,” said senior pitcher Micah Beyer. “I did not know somebody could do that and transition that well.”
The mental side of catching has come much easier to Bourgeois. His new position enhances his role as team co-captain and he loves deepening relationships with the Eagles’ pitching staff, especially his close friend Beyer.
“He makes me feel really comfortable and just like I know what I’m doing [on the mound],” Beyer said. “I feel like he’s reading my mind sometimes.”
Bourgeois has already become good enough to take over the Eagles’ everyday catcher role. Despite that, he still works as hard as ever to improve.
“Every day, he’s been putting 100 percent in,” Magro said.
Whatever happens to Bourgeois on and off the field, his charisma, selflessness and obvious devotion to Christ make his future extremely bright.
“I'm so excited about what the future holds for Anj,” Sullenger said. “He's such a hard worker and [has] such a desire to be the best at what he does as unto the Lord. It's fun to watch people like that have success.”