The University of Miami has had a strong history of baseball success since “The Wizard” Ron Fraser took over a sleepy program in 1963 and made it one of College Baseball’s premier program by the late 70’s. Fraser introduced Hurricanes fans to the Miami Maniac, and made Omaha and the College World Series an ESPN event.
The ‘Canes won the CWS in 1982 and 1985 under Fraser and in 1999 and 2001 under Jim Morris. The Hurricanes have been part of two of the CWS most famous plays. One being “The Grand Illusion” (above) and the other being Warren Morris’ home run giving LSU the win in 1996 (below).
I’ve covered the ‘Canes baseball team before. Once with an homage to Mark Light Stadium, another time to honor the retiring of Jim Morris, and a third to talk about The U’s history with “submarine” or “sidearm” style relief pitchers. Today’s topic is on how the University of Miami has become “Catcher U.”
With Adrian Del Castillo working the plate for Miami in ‘21, there’s no better topic. Del Castillo is top-10 prospect for the 2021 MLB Draft. In 2019, Del Castillo hit .331 with 12 HR’s and 72 RBI’s. He was hitting .358 in ‘20 before COVID canceled the season. You can enjoy an indepth, fantastic write up of him from the Seattle Mariners SBNation site here. He’s currently struggling a in the batter’s box but will get a chance to break out against Virginia Tech this weekend.
OK so back to the historical legends. There’s no better place to start than Mike Piazza, nah, I’m joking, Charles Johnson is first up to bat!
Charles Johnson came to the Hurricanes and Ron Fraser after being drafted in the 1st round of the 1989 MLB Draft. Johnson, affectionately known as “CJ,” immediately started launching home runs out of Mark Light Stadium and making a name for himself in the orange and green. CJ hit 38 home runs in three seasons while batting .324, .339, and .311 at Miami. Johnson even hit nine triples, a single season record tie to this day with Mike Metcalf.
After being drafted in the 1st round once again, this time in 1992, Johnson made a name for himself in the MLB as one of the best defensive catchers in the world. Johnson made the short list of rookie catchers to win a Gold Glove alongside legends like Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk. CJ also caught three no-hitters over his career. Johnson caught a no-no for Al Leiter, Kevin Brown and AJ Burnett and won four consecutive Gold Gloves from 95-98.
Johnson mostly struggled at the plate in the majors, but did lead the Marlins in hits for the 1997 World Series with 10, while hitting .357, and set a record for catchers by working 123 straight games behind the plate without an error. CJ’s #23 jersey was retired by Miami and he is of course in the Miami Sports Hall of Fame.
Grandal was an instant success behind the plate at The U but his stick took some time. Grandal hit .234 with seven HR’s in 2008, but ripped a .299 average in 2009 adding 16 HR’s and 45 RBI’s. His junior season was truly sensational as Grandal hit .401 in 2010 (good for 10th all-time at Miami). Grandal also made Miami’s top-10 career and single season slugging%. He was the 2010 ACC Player of the Year, too.
Zack Collins had a ton of hype both upon signing with and his departure from the University of Miami. Collins became the 10th overall pick of the 2016 MLB Draft but hasn’t necessarily lived up to the billing in the pros.
At Miami, however, he came on strong and didn’t disappoint. Collins hit .298 as a freshman with 11 HR’s and 54 RBI’s. His sophomore season saw him only improve, as he hit .302 with 15 HR’s and 70 RBI’s. His junior season was how Collins became a wealthy man. In 2016, Collins hit .363 with 16 HR’s and 59 RBI’s. Collins left Miami with 42 home runs over his three year career.
Collins has spent the past four seasons between the majors and minors unable to find his swing in the big leagues.
Jorge Fabregas: Always a fun name to bring up. Fabregas hit .369 and .315 for the Hurricanes in 1990 and 1991. Fabregas was a back up MLB catcher from 1994-2002 playing on eight different ball clubs, and for the Angels twice (as California and Anaheim).
Russ Jacobson: Jacobson hit .380 for the 1999 season, finished top 10 slugging% for UM all-time, too. Jacobson was part of the 1999 Miami Hurricanes national championship team. Russ played six seasons in the minors and independents after being a 23rd round draft pick.
Peter O’Brien: O’Brien came to Miami from Bethune-Cookman. O’Brien hit .340 with 10 HR’s for the ‘Canes in 2012. Since his season at The U he’s bounced between the majors and minors over eight seasons.
Some other memorable catchers were Garrett Kennedy, Chris Hirsch, and the next man...
Of course you can’t mention catchers without bringing up Greg Lovelady. Lovelady was a walk-on bullpen catcher who outlasted his competition and wound up the starting catcher in two CWS trips for the ‘99 and ‘01 championship teams. Lovelady lasted only one season in the minors before starting his coaching career at Miami. While he was never going to wind up in the MLB Hall of Fame, the shot of Lovelady hoisting Mike Neu in the air after beating FSU to win the CWS is a thing of beauty.