Rookie catcher John Jaso could certainly hit, but he had never quite been able to impress the Rays with his defensive ability.

For a couple of years, manager Joe Maddon and bullpen coach Bobby Ramos had been working with Jaso to improve his skills -- the way he positioned his hands, feet and body, how he called a game, threw the ball, blocked pitches in the dirt and so on.

Then the situation finally came to a head in Spring Training this year.

"He told me, 'I don't like how you catch,'" Jaso said. "It hurt, but I accepted it and went from there."

The conversation resulted in an intensive 21 consecutive days working with Ramos and bullpen catcher Scott Cursi, implementing a program designed to replace bad habits with good ones through repetition.

He started the season at Triple-A Durham but was soon called up when Kelly Shoppach went down for six weeks with a sprained right knee. When he returned, the Rays carried three catchers for a while, and Jaso stayed when slumping Dioner Navarro, their primary catcher the past three seasons, was sent down.

Now, with just a couple weeks left in the regular season, Jaso has earned an important role on a club that has its sights set on the World Series. He's batting .279 with a .390 on-base average, five homers, 16 doubles and 43 RBIs for the Rays. He's also become solid, if not great, defensively, throwing out 10 of 24 would-be base stealers.

A few of Jaso's teammates call him "Nature Boy" -- although not because his good work behind the plate has become second nature to him.

"Well, yeah. I think that started when I put a recycling trash can back there," Jaso said, pointing to the rear of the Tampa Bay clubhouse. "Just trying to keep things green."

Jaso, 26, who grew up backpacking and camping in California, says he really enjoyed Into the Wild, the 2007 Sean Penn-directed film adaptation of John Krakauer's book about the late Chris McCandless, who spent spent approximately the last 112 days of his life alone in the Alaskan wilderness at age 24.

"I think the end of that movie is beautiful," he said. "Chris says [in the final entry in his diary], 'Happiness is only real when shared.' His idea was a pretty cool concept. It takes a lot of guts to do something like that. But I think the whole realization of the need for companionship in people's lives comes out.

"I had an English teacher back in high school who went up into the mountains for two months and came into human contact twice during that time. He said walking into solitude will show you your true self."

Jaso said he'd like to attempt what McCandless did -- to a lesser degree and with a happier ending, of course. But if he ever tries it he won't carry a cellphone, "not even for an emergency. You have to detach yourself from civilization."

Like his older sister, Marylou, and younger brothers, Like and Tom, Jaso said he "grew up without television, without cable, so it was like going outdoors was the only thing we really knew."

As he and his siblings graduated from eighth grade, their father would take each one on a camping trip.

He took John to Minnesota, just the two of them, where they went on a seven-day canoe camping trip. "We packed our tent, freeze-dried food and everything, and canoed all over the state," Jaso said. "It was one of my most memorable experiences."

Following his 2009 season in Triple-A, he drove home to California, stopping to camp alone in national parks, including Bryce and Zion in Utah and the Painted Desert in Arizona.

"It was a good mechanism to clear my mind of the season, which had been a long and strenuous one," he said. "It was a good escape for me."

Still, Jaso said, he'd rather go camping with someone else because sharing the experience is more enjoyable, "like when you're looking at something really cool, like Bryce Canyon, one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen."

"I just wanted to look over to a friend or my brother and be like, 'Oh, my God!' "

Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.