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Publisher’s Note: This column was originally published in the September 18, 2018 edition of WIN about then-Miami Marlins catcher J.T. Realmuto, who has wrestling roots and now plays for the Philadelphia Phillies, who earned a trip to the 2022 World Series against the Houston Astros this fall.
By Bryan Van Kley
Somehow, one of the best athletes to come out of Oklahoma’s famous Smith family quit the sport of wrestling to go out for basketball … and lived to tell about it.
This is the same Smith family of 10 children who most wrestling people know quite well. The family included four boys: six-time Olympic/World champion John, who coaches at Oklahoma State, four-time NCAA champ Pat, National Wrestling Hall of Fame director Lee Roy and Mark, a two-time All-American.
But this particular athlete, who “jumped ship” from wrestling for a brief time for the court, has done OK for himself.
Meet All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto.
Statistically, Realmuto ranks as one of the best catchers in Major League Baseball. And, he said he owes much of who he is as an athlete to his time as a wrestler. Growing up in Del City, Okla., Realmuto is the nephew of the four well-known Smith uncles. His mom Margaret is one of the six girls from the group of 10 kids.
Wrestling was Realmuto’s first sport. He started at the age of five or six and wrestled all the way through eighth or ninth grade on the club level.
However, it was in seventh grade when his family moved 15 minutes to the Carl Albert High School district, that Realmuto gave up junior high wrestling to play basketball since that’s what “all” his friends were doing.
“I’m about the only boy in the family who got out of the wrestling world. They shunned me away for little bit,” Realmuto said with a laugh. “I still regret not wrestling through high school.”
Making his first MLB All-Star Game in 2018, the Miami Marlins and now Phillies stand-out remembers many Christmas parties and other family get-togethers where all the young boys would be on the living room floor wrestling.
Realmuto’s family battles included tangling with current OSU assistant and two-time NCAA champ Chris Perry, as well as cousins Zach and Matt White. J.T., or Jake as his family calls him, said eventual two-time NCAA champ Mark Perry (now a coach for the Sunkist Kids) was a bit older and took it easy on them during the family tournaments.
Fast forward over 20 years and Realmuto is now leading all Major League catchers in most statistical categories. Considered by many one of the most important stats, he leads all catchers in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) at 6.5. The number compares the win-loss percentage of the team when he’s playing compared to a reserve in his spot. It takes into consideration both hitting and defense. During the regular season, he was hitting .276, with 22 homers and 84 RBIs.
Realmuto said wrestling people may be surprised by how physically and mentally demanding a 162-game MLB season is on a catcher, much more so than any other position. For example, Realmuto played in 141 games in 2017, approximately 130 of them as Miami’s starting catcher.
“You get beat to a pulp as a catcher. It’s extremely tough on your body, your knees and your hips. People can’t appreciate it unless you’ve been through it,” he said. “By the end of the season, you’re pretty mentally and physically exhausted. Throughout a season catching, you need to be strong and flexible. That’s something that wrestling helped me out on a lot as a kid. And there is the mental toughness part of it.
“I consider myself pretty tough for an athlete, especially for a baseball player. I take pride in being mentally and physically tough. For me, a lot of that comes from wrestling as a kid. Nothing in life is tougher than going through a wrestling season. Everything after wrestling just seems pretty easy.”
Named Mr. Oklahoma in both football and baseball his senior year in high school, the athletic Realmuto still loves wrestling to this day. When he and his wife Alexis are back in Oklahoma at their Choctow home in the off-season, he’ll attend some OSU practices and most of the Cowboy duals until J.T. needs to report for spring training.
“I just don’t know how those guys do it,” Realmuto said when talking about the increased toughness it takes at the college level.
The multi-sport athlete prides himself on enjoying a lot of different sports, even golf and tennis. He said every sport is an opportunity to just have fun and become a better, well-rounded athlete. He said he feels kids and high school athletes specialize too early, and encourages wrestlers to go out for other sports as well.
Growing up, he said he still was hitting all year round in a batting cage with his dad Dave, but only played in actual games once the spring high school baseball season came around.
J.T. and his wife Alexis have three children, two girls and a boy, with a fourth on the way. Growing up in wrestling-crazed Oklahoma, J.T. said his goal was to have four kids and “two boys so they can wrestle each other and grow up playing sports together.”
The Philadelphia Phillies signed Realmuto in January of 2021 to a 5-year, $115.5-million dollar deal. The contract made the former wrestler the highest paid catcher in MLB history at $23.1 million a year. When I interviewed him while he was in Miami, the team was in last place in the NL East. He was candid with me about his ultimate dream.
“Obviously making the All-Star team was a childhood dream,” he said. “But my biggest dream has been to win the World Series. That’s definitely what I’m looking forward to. I’m just waiting for my chance at that.”
Keep it up J.T., your national wrestling “family” is proud of you, despite the middle-school hiatus for basketball! We’ll be pulling for you in the World Series.
(Publisher Bryan Van Kley can be reached at email@example.com.)