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Ryan Freel ’s family told the world last week that the former major leaguer, who committed suicide a year ago, had been posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). (KATHY WILLENS/AP)
Ryan Freel ’s family told the world last week that the former major leaguer, who committed suicide a year ago, had been posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). (KATHY WILLENS/AP)

Blair: Coincidence or not, MLB confronts concussion issue following Freel’s diagnosis Add to ...

Perhaps there’s no tie-in.

Perhaps Major League Baseball would have moved to a definitive position on home-plate collisions without news leaking out at the winter meetings last week, that Ryan Freel ’s family would tell the world the former major leaguer, who committed suicide a year ago, had been posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

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Freel’s family told reporters last Sunday, at a memorial mass, that the 36-year-old infielder – who played for five major-league teams, including a nine-game stint with the Toronto Blue Jays, who selected him in the 10th round of the 1995 draft – had been diagnosed with the degenerative brain disease by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine.

The news, the family said, allowed them some closure, but for MLB, the opposite is true: Freel is the first major leaguer to be diagnosed with CTE, and so a sport where physical contact is not necessarily a routine aspect of play is now grappling with issues common to football and hockey, among other sports.

MLB owners will be given a presentation on the matter next month, and signals have been sent to the MLB Players Association that if it does not sign off on a new set of rules – which according to some sources could be as general as limiting contact between a catcher and a base runner to below the catcher’s waist – in time for the 2014 season, ownership might unilaterally impose a rules change in 2015 (as is its right under the collective agreement).

Skeptics say high-profile injuries to the likes of Buster Posey and Joe Mauer, as well as the highly-publicized public stance attacking collisions taken by St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny (a former catcher whose best player is catcher Yadier Molina), are behind the move to do away with home-plate collisions.

Others refer to the decision as something of a pre-emptive move in light of litigation faced by the NFL and NHL over the treatment of past players. Financial fear, in other words.

MLB instituted a special seven-day disabled list in March of 2011, for concussions, and put in place a detailed diagnostic protocol. Since then, it has collected evidence that player-turf collisions and foul tips to the catcher’s mask are greater contributors to concussions than the home-plate collision.

Beyond an improvement in masks – and the hockey goaltender-type favoured by many catchers are coming under increased scrutiny – there is only so much the game can do to eliminate the randomness of injury created by a batted ball or a head-first, diving catch – the latter of which was Freel’s calling card during a career highlighted by a six-year run as a member of the Cincinnati Reds, where he was a popular jack-of-all-trades.

Freel was fearless, and in an interview in 2007, suggested he’d had as many as “nine or 10 collisions.” There was anecdotal evidence of a life spiralling out of control in his final days, a narrative that is unfortunately all-too-common.

CTE is a condition brought on by repeated head trauma and leads to the degeneration of brain tissue, which can lead to symptoms such as dementia, memory loss or mood swings.

Baseball is a $9-billion (U.S.) a year industry; it is flush with cash, and for all its history of labour strife in the 1980s and ’90s, it now has an enviable record of labour peace.

In the World Baseball Classic, it has proof a formal business partnership between owners and the players’ association can not only work, but can hold itself together through financial and philosophical growing pains.

Banning home-plate collisions, better catcher’s equipment, a judicious review of concussion protocol and perhaps even some kind of revolutionary post-playing career monitoring for players with a history of concussions would seem logical steps.

Baseball has been warned, and if it needs to wonder what happens when it doesn’t pay attention to cautionary tales, it might want to revisit some lessons learned from the way it reacted to steroids.

 

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