Knowing what we now know about concussions, it is understandable Major League Baseball would move to ban the home-plate collision. And, given that knowledge, it is remarkable so much of the immediate reaction has been so negative.
Nobody disputes the close play at the plate – base runner, ball, catcher exploding in pile of dust – is riveting; after the triple, it is arguably the most exciting offensive play in the game. And it is true baseball has already undergone a change in philosophy about how catchers handle the play at the plate, in part spurred by the acknowledgment that, far too often, it is the catcher’s bat that sets the timeline for his arrival in the majors as opposed to his understanding of defensive intricacies.
Yet, in a sport that does not depend on physical confrontation – there isn’t a player on the field, except for the catcher, with equipment meant to handle a collision – the home-plate collision stands as an outlier; its risk-versus-reward balance now seen in a different light.
St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, a former major-league catcher and outspoken proponent of the rules change, summed it up succinctly: “I don’t think it’s completely sparked by anything that’s happened in baseball as much as what’s happening outside of baseball and how it’s impacting the welfare of people and each sport.”
It’s tough to argue with that.
Sandy Alderson, the New York Mets general manager and chairman of the rules committee, said the change will go into effect in time for 2014, if it is approved by the MLB Players Association. Under the collective agreement, the change could be unilaterally implemented in 2015, if the players’ association does not ratify it.
“Ultimately, what we want to do is change the culture of acceptance that these plays are ordinary and routine and an accepted part of the game,” Alderson told The Associated Press, noting baseball had taken note of lawsuits brought forth by former NFL and NHL players and the awareness of concussions and their long-term impacts. “The costs associated in terms of health and injury just no longer warrant the status quo.”
Toronto Blue Jays broadcaster Buck Martinez, a former catcher who famously broke his leg and suffered a dislocated ankle in a 9-2-7-2 double play while he was with the Jays, called the rules change a “knee-jerk reaction.”
Jays infielder Brett Lawrie and another former Jays catcher-turned-broadcaster, Gregg Zaun, also came down hard on the proposed change.
Zaun believes the impetus for it goes back to a gruesome broken leg suffered by Buster Posey, the San Francisco Giants catcher and one of the faces of the game, in 2011. Scott Cousins of the then-Florida Marlins bowled over Posey at the plate, bending his leg. The replay became a TV staple and, suddenly, a generation of players who were getting bigger and bigger and had grown up relying on a hazy, grey set of unwritten rules were forced to confront a kind of mortality their peers never imagined.
The U.S. NCAA has had a rule in place for three years banning contact above the catcher’s waist, for example.
Will the MLB base runner be required to slide? What boundaries will decide what the catcher does to protect the plate? Is there an “instigator” element? Will it be subject to video replay and if that happens what does it mean for, say, the take-out slide at second base?
Alderson expects franchise owners to receive a formal proposal at their annual meetings in January. In the meantime, expect former catcher/first baseman Joe Torre, the executive vice-president and director of baseball operations for the commissioner’s office, to play a role in the rewriting of the rules and the institution of a system of fines or penalties.
Every sport has had to reassess how it deals with head shots and concussions. Some of them have twisted themselves inside out to find an answer. When it comes to ease of remedy, frankly, baseball should consider itself lucky.
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