By Tyler Kepner
There are many things to like about J.T. Realmuto, the catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies. He is a Gold Glove winner and perhaps the most productive hitter at baseball’s most demanding position. He hits for average and power, runs exceptionally well and has helped lead his team to the World Series.
John Middleton, who pays Realmuto more than $23 million per year, is happy to list a few more.
“He’s a good human being, a really positive presence in the locker room, works his tail off, leads by example, and he’s a guy who’s just loved,” said Middleton, principal owner of the Phillies. “And his family’s an old wrestling family — probably the greatest wrestling family in the country. So, I have to like him.”
Middleton wrestled at Amherst College before going into the family tobacco business, which he sold for nearly $3 billion in 2007. In Realmuto’s family, the business was — and is — wrestling. His mother, Margaret, is the oldest of 10 children, and her younger brother, John Smith, is among the most decorated U.S. wrestlers in history.
Smith, 57, is the only American to win six consecutive Olympic or world competitions: gold medals at the 1988 and 1992 Summer Olympics and four world championships. Realmuto, 31, was just 1 year old when Smith triumphed in Barcelona in 1992, but his family’s example made a powerful impression; two other uncles, Lee Roy and Pat Smith, were NCAA Division I champions, as were two cousins, Mark and Chris Perry.
“Being so close to them, and seeing those guys at Thanksgiving and Christmas and being around them all year long, watching them have that much success on a national stage, it just makes it kind of realistic for you as a child,” said Realmuto, who was born in Del City, Oklahoma, just like Uncle John. “And then, you set those goals and they’re not just dreams; you’re seeing somebody right in front of you actually reach those goals. It makes it a little more realistic for you.”
Invariably, the first attribute baseball people mention about Realmuto is his athleticism, which he showed off in Philadelphia’s National League Division Series against Atlanta when he hit the first inside-the-park homer by a catcher in postseason history. He led the Phillies in stolen bases, with 21 in 22 tries, and continues to excel on defense despite being drafted as a shortstop by the Miami Marlins in 2010.
“I’m not familiar with baseball, other than Jake,” John Smith said of Realmuto, whose given name is Jacob Tyler, “but it’s just amazing that he never played this position. I guess they do that sometimes, but wow, I can’t imagine. If you’re a freestyle wrestler in the Olympics, and all of a sudden they tell you to go Greco, you’ve got no chance.”
Phillies manager Rob Thomson mentioned several high-profile catchers from his time as a New York Yankees coach: Jorge Posada, Russell Martin, Ivan Rodriguez. Realmuto, he said, was probably more athletic than — and as physically talented as — any of them. He moves his feet well, Thomson said, and gets a quick release from a strong, accurate arm.
Realmuto was a three-sport star at Carl Albert High School in Midwest City, Oklahoma, winning two state titles in football (he was the quarterback) and baseball. In the winters, he played basketball but wrestled from age 4 through eighth grade — plus countless informal matches with his many cousins.
“There’s certain skills that you develop when you’re young, and you still have it, whether it’s strength in your legs and your hips,” Smith said. “Wrestling has a tendency of strengthening those hips and your legs and your torso, and I think, more importantly, you also develop a level of competitiveness that’s more important than all of it.”
Realmuto gave up wrestling because his friends played basketball, he said, and also so he could maintain his weight for football and baseball. But he said that his earlier wrestling experiences prepared him well for other sports.
“It’s probably the hardest sport to do, in my opinion, mentally as far as going through a wrestling season, cutting weight all year long, not getting to eat. It’s just hard on your body and hard on your mind,” Realmuto said. “Once you can get through a wrestling season, I feel like you can pretty much do anything in sports.”
Realmuto rose quickly through Miami’s farm system and reached the majors in 2014. He broke out as a star two years later, when he hit a career-high .303, but never experienced a winning season with the Marlins, who eventually traded him and other core players such as Giancarlo Stanton and Christian Yelich. Former catcher A.J. Ellis, a teammate in 2017, could tell that Realmuto yearned to win.
“I had many fun conversations with him and Yelich, particularly those two, where they would just ask me so many questions about playing for the Dodgers, what it was like to play in the playoffs. You could just tell they were just so hungry for an experience different than what they were getting at the time,” said Ellis, who played in three postseasons for the Dodgers. “I knew that at some point in their career — whether via trade or free agency — they wanted to experience October baseball. And that’s what happens when you kind of dedicate yourself towards team goals and team experiences: A lot of the individual stuff gets taken care of.”
The Marlins traded Realmuto in February 2019 for a three-player package headlined by the Phillies’ top prospect, pitcher Sixto Sánchez, who has missed the past two seasons with shoulder injuries. Middleton and Dave Dombrowski, the Phillies’ president of baseball operations, then risked losing Realmuto in free agency after the 2020 season, especially with the New York Mets lurking as a suitor.
Philadelphia’s fans, it is safe to say, would not have reacted well to their catcher signing with their most bitter rival.
Realmuto helped guide the Phillies through the National League playoffs, proving himself as an indispensable player who picked the right sport — and the right team.
“I can’t imagine this team without him,” Middleton said. “And I really don’t want to think about the Mets with him.”