DUBUQUE, Iowa — It’s Pizza Friday, a Moller family tradition, and after months of FaceTiming in from college, Alexis drove home for the occasion. Tomorrow morning, on a frigid spring day on a baseball field an hour to the southwest, her younger brother will, for the first time in months, be playing in an actual baseball game.
Ian Moller will step into the batter’s box, face live pitching, crouch behind home plate. He’s a power hitter with lightning-quick hands and instincts. If all goes right, his ability at a premium position could make him a top pick in the MLB draft. Pizza Fridays, at least as the family knows them, are fleeting. Tomorrow Alexis and their mother, Shannon, will watch from behind a fence and hope for the best.
But Ian’s father is afraid his son, surrounded by big league scouts, will step into some invisible trap.
“You might hear some cuss words,” Steven Moller says, and most everyone laughs. Ian doesn’t.
“Just sit back and enjoy it,” he suggests.
“Even if you strike out?”
Steven isn’t worried because his 18-year-old son may have forgotten how to hit. It’s actually because two parts of his son seem in conflict. Ian Moller is a catcher. And he is Black. Steven wants to avoid drawing further attention to the confluence of those facts.
“I don’t worry about it,” Ian says.
“Sometimes I see the bigger picture,” Steven says.
For the past three decades, baseball has tried, and mostly failed, to draw Black Americans back into a sport whose brightest stars and most important figures have included Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson, Reggie Jackson and Rickey Henderson, Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. In 2020, only one in 12 players on major league rosters was African American.
At no position is the decline starker than catcher, baseball’s quarterback and timekeeper. In the past two decades, only one African American player, Charles Johnson, has suited up as a big league team’s everyday catcher. Johnson, who retired in 2005, has since watched his kids gravitate to football and basketball, drawn to charismatic players such as Chad Johnson and LeBron James. Charles Johnson blames towering equipment costs and the position’s inglorious grind for pushing some athletes away.
Those aren’t the only reasons, he says.
“The stereotype that African Americans don’t have that kind of leadership capabilities,” says Johnson, a four-time Gold Glover. “Some of those issues have always been disturbing to me in a sense, because it’s not that they can’t do it. It’s that they haven’t been given a chance.”
Ian Moller has played no other position since he was 13. His goal is to become the first Black catcher since Johnson to be drafted in the first round. But his talent hasn’t stopped coaches and scouts from attempting to move him to third base or the outfield.
Ian has refused, though it’s perhaps the only part of his identity the young man is unwilling to trade for a chance at the big leagues.
Sunglasses during batting practice? Wristbands with Ian’s jersey number? His hair? All modified or hidden, in part because Steven is almost constantly reminding Ian that certain behaviors “paint a picture” that doesn’t sit well with some baseball traditionalists.
“I remember when you had some fancy shoes or something,” Steven says, “and somebody — ‘What is he trying to do? Who is he, Deion Sanders?’ Stupid me, the next day I went out and got him some plain white shoes.”
Ian doesn’t reply and instead offers Jeter, the family dog, pizza sauce from his thumb. Steven’s phone buzzes; he reads a text. A coach is asking if Ian can pitch tomorrow.
Steven laughs and shows Ian the display, and the young man sighs.
“I’m a catcher,” Ian says.
The first games start at 9 a.m., and coaches told Steven it would look bad if the family arrived after 8:15. He pulls his SUV into Prospect Meadows, a sprawling sports complex near Cedar Rapids, at 7:30.
“You’re on,” he tells Ian. Steven reminds him that scouts will evaluate him on no less than how he steps out of the vehicle.
Ian exits and unloads his equipment silently, hoisting a bag onto a shoulder and keeping his eyes forward as the gravel crunches under his cleats. It’s late March in eastern Iowa, snow still in the shadows five days after a storm. But Steven grumbles that Ian’s hoodie is cinched around his head and expresses relief that it’s too cold for his son to wear shorts or sandals.
As Ian walks toward Cunningham Field, Steven shakes his head. He says this is the price of making it, or at least one of them.
A decade ago, the family dedicated itself to pushing Ian toward a baseball career. They put 237,000 miles on their old Escalade, driving it to fields in Orlando and Atlanta and Chicago. Vacations were baseball showcases; meals were peanut butter sandwiches and cereal mixed with popcorn. Steven and Shannon loaded their credit cards with expenses related to travel baseball.
Ian was in seventh grade when he gave up basketball and football. A year later he further specialized, giving up other positions to play catcher.
“I was the only kid on my team,” he says, “who really wasn’t scared of the ball.”
Steven, who had played the same position years earlier, always heard the quickest path to being drafted starts behind the plate. But it’s hell on the knees and an assault on the mind. Catchers call pitches, counsel pitchers and help align the defense. It’s no wonder, then, that in 2018, nearly half of all big league managers were former catchers. This season, only the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros have Black managers; no team’s general manager is Black.
Ian Moller was 11 when he asked his dad, who coached his youth baseball team, to stop calling pitches. By then Ian had learned to watch hitters in the cage before games, study them in the on-deck circle and examine their plate appearances to determine their vulnerability to certain pitch locations.
“After the first at-bat,” Ian says now, “I would always know what their approach is and what they’re trying to do.”
He fell in love with the position’s nuances, its strains, its intellectual rigor. Sometimes he would fire a warmup throw to second base to strike fear into base runners; other times he would sling it into the outfield on purpose, daring them to steal. And because father and son had a plan, Steven had no intention of putting him anywhere else.
Ian transferred out of his public middle school after a classmate called him the n-word, Steven says, and enrolled at private Wahlert Catholic. As a senior, he was one of five Black students, Ian says. He did an independent study on Black culture, presenting to a classroom of White kids who asked about his hair, why certain language is deemed inappropriate for one race but not another and why an athletic kid like Ian played baseball, of all things, and not one of the cool sports.
He skipped school dances because they shared space on the calendar with baseball tournaments. He was usually the only Black player in his Iowa league, and he counted none of his teammates as friends. He played pickup basketball and listened to music with Black friends, but he never invited them to his baseball games.
“I wish he would embrace them coming. But they’re going to cheer. And they’re going to yell,” Steven says. In the hyper-professional baseball culture as Steven sees it, neither is acceptable. “It’d be, ‘Who are those guys?’ “
Ian committed to LSU as a freshman and, a few years ago, scouts began showing up to watch and critique him. When Ian crushed a home run and circled the bases, Steven says, one of the scouts scolded Ian and said he had trotted too slowly. The next time, he sprinted.
If one of them asked him to fix his hat or tuck in his shirt, he did. Steven reminded him that every game was a job interview, every at-bat an evaluation, every reaction a possible hint not just into his game but his character.
As nine scouts watch Ian warm up, Steven sighs. Yes, he has regrets. And because he cannot travel back in time, he says, he tells the other baseball dads what he wishes he could tell his younger self.
“I wouldn’t let this get as serious as it did,” he says. “Not so soon.”
In his first at-bat in six months, Ian strikes out. The next inning, the ball slips out of his hand as a runner steals second. It’s clear he’s rusty, but that’s not why his father is pacing.
“He’s got to put his shirt in his pants,” Steven mutters. The back of Ian’s jersey is spilling out from the bottom of his sweatshirt.
Shannon scowls. Alexis tells him to look at the other players, most of whom are wearing untucked jerseys.
“I know he’s got a sweatshirt on, but . . .” Steven continues. The other players, he says, don’t have a future in pro baseball. Stealing a glance at the scouts, Steven whispers that it makes his son look unprofessional.
“I’m not going to say anything now,” he says.
Though playing catcher has indeed put Ian on the major league path, staying at catcher could actually delay his arrival. The position requires specific skills that take years to refine.
Steven says scouts have suggested Ian will spend at least four years in the minor leagues if he remains at catcher. His climb potentially would be more rapid if he would move to a less taxing position and focus on his bat, Steven says. Refusing could scare off some organizations, push him lower on draft boards and cut that bonus in half.
Baseball teams are assigned a pool of money to spend on draft picks, and players selected in the first round were expected to receive bonuses between $2.4 million and $8.4 million. That makes drafting a catcher a particularly risky investment, especially for players who haven’t played college baseball. But Ian suspects there’s more to it.
“People automatically think I’m not smart enough to handle the position — that I need to have more developing time,” he says. “Even now, like, they have assumptions about the type of person I am. They’ll come in and be like, ‘You’re nothing like what I thought you were.’ “
Ian says he has met with representatives from 20 major league franchises. He claims one said he “articulated well,” and another said Ian wasn’t the “thug” the individual initially thought he was. He says scouts routinely express surprise that he carried a 3.5 grade-point average.
Steven suggests teams are just looking for any reason to justify passing on him or paying him less. If he celebrates a home run or argues a close play, is he being passionate or angry? If he doesn’t react, is he being professional or apathetic?
“I’m not worried about him,” Steven says. “I’m worried about what people’s perception of him is.”
His body language must be neutral. He must raise no red flags and generate no new entries in the scouts’ notebooks. It’s why Ian, who often wears necklaces and earrings at home, removes any jewelry before he arrives at the field. He takes out his hair twists. He straightens his cap.
If he has any hope of remaining at catcher and dismantling a modern template, then Ian believes he must otherwise project an image of what major league teams want him to be — even if that’s not exactly what he is.
Steven paces as Ian works the count to 2-2 before watching a curveball dip into the strike zone. When the umpire calls him out, Ian stands for a beat and blows out a skeptical sigh.
“Come on,” Steven whispers. “You can’t react.”
He keeps saying it, again and again, as the scouts take notes.
“You cannot react.”