TORRINGTON >> During every Torrington baseball game this season, you could always count on Victor Rodriguez and Ben Thompson talking with each other. Sometimes it is Rodriguez yelling tips from the dugout to Thompson behind the plate, others when Thompson comes back to the dugout and he and Rodriguez go over the plan is for the next inning.
Normal coach and player conversation, except that Rodriguez isn’t an official Red Raiders coach, he is a senior just like Thompson.
Three seasons ago, Rodriguez was the Red Raiders starting catcher as a sophomore and the catcher of the immediate future. Thompson was also a catcher, but if he was going to get on the field on the varsity level it would probably have come in the outfield, something that he wasn’t too comfortable about.
“I always thought I would be starting in the outfield and I never wanted to start in the outfield,” Thompson said. “I mean I liked playing outfield, but out there I was nervous, I was shaky all the time thinking if this ball is hit to me I am going to drop it.”
Before their junior season started, during a scrimmage, in cold weather, Rodriguez made a snap throw to first base and felt a pain in his elbow. Rather than coming out of the game, or telling a coach, he decided to throw some Icy Hot on it and play through it.
The next scrimmage, he couldn’t feel his arm.
It was a partially torn UCL, which could mean Tommy John Surgery.
On doctors’ advice, he decided to rehab to avoid surgery but it forced him to miss his entire junior season.
Enter Thompson, who was thrust into the starting catching role, right before his junior season was about to begin.
“No I didn’t even think I would start senior year, I knew I would have to work for it, because we had a lot of sophomores below me that were coming up to start in the outfield,” Thompson said. “I was always scared about my position but I was going to give it a shot anyway.”
Rodriguez, who coaches said would have played college baseball, could have left the team to concentrate on his rehab and worry about himself. Instead, he decided to stick around to help Thompson become a better catcher.
“Ben came in right at the beginning of last year, worked really hard, Victor worked with him, brought him along. He got better and better as the year went on, to the point of being one of our captains this season,” Torrington head coach Pat Richardson said.
He didn’t take it easy on Thompson either.
“All of junior year we would be by a fence and he would just throw balls in the dirt, each side and made me block them toward the plate, instead of to the side, we would do it for 45 minutes of practice and then he worked with me on my throw down to second. He taught me how to slip step and throw to second,” Thompson said. “Vic would stand there and throw balls at me.”
Thompson made huge strides last season and in the summer he continued to work on his catching, along with his bat, with the Torrington Sports Palace team of the Connie Mack league.
After finishing up rehab, Rodriguez eyed a return to the field, but he fully tore his UCL and was forced to have the surgery he had tried to avoid, Tommy John Surgery, which meant he wouldn’t play his senior season.
This season, again, Rodriguez went back to work with Thompson to help him improve on the progress they made last season.
“Ben’s blocking ability is really second to none and he can block balls just as good as anyone is the league and his arm has gotten more accurate and stronger,” Richardson said. “He has learned to work with our pitchers, our pitchers trust him.”
It’s not just Thompson’s defense that has improved, he also has come up in big spots for the Red Raiders this season with his bat. Against Naugatuck, where they need to win to have a chance to win the Copper Division of the NVL, Thompson had his best game.
After going down 2-0 in the first inning, the Red Raiders got going in bottom of the second and after they scored to cut it to one, Thompson, the nine batter, laced a long two RBI double to give the Red Raiders a 3-2 lead which they wouldn’t give back. He added another RBI double in the 11-5 win.
Then with a chance to win the Copper Division against Wilby, they had to win, Thompson called a great game helping freshman pitcher Jason Vinisko get the win and Thompson even added a stand up triple.
With all the pain and suffering Rodriguez has had to go through the past two years and the success that Thompson has gone through to become a solid catcher, they have formed a close friendship.
“They’ve had a great relationship, no rivalry, no jealousy, Ben was like I can learn from you and Victor was like I’m willing to teach you,” Richardson said. “It’s this great relationship that they’ve developed and it says a lot about their characters.”
It didn’t start out that way.
“Right when I first met Vic, as freshmen, in a meeting in old coach Rich’s room, he came up to me and is like ‘hey I’m Victor I heard you’re trying out to catch.’ I was like, ‘yeah, I’ve never seen this kid before, there is no way he is going to be better than me.’ He asked me if I know how to block and stuff because I can give you lessons,” Thompson laughed. “The second he said that, I hated him. I just couldn’t stand him, this kid is such a jerk, he thinks he’s the greatest thing to hit the earth and then he goes out and catches and I was like “uhhh” I think I know where he is coming from.”
With all the knowledge that he has shared with Thompson, Rodriguez has learned from Thompson as well.
“He knows what he’s doing, everything, already has a next step planned in his head,” Rodriguez said. “He taught me a lot, I taught him a lot. He taught me to see the game, he taught me to be smart aggressive.
“I consider him one of the best, he’s little, but he’s tough.”
Thompson is headed off to Assumption College next year and plans on trying to walk on for the Greyhounds Division-II team. Rodriguez who is 60% complete with his rehab will be going to play at the Taft School next season and should be 100% when the season begins.