Contact at home plate is part of the game
Let’s be honest: If Eli Whiteside(notes) got destroyed by Scott Cousins(notes) and snapped his leg, the baseball world would’ve shrugged and moved on. That’s what this hand-wringing over plays at the plate is about. Not safety. Not conscientiousness. It’s using the stature of the person who really got injured – Buster Posey(notes) – and the gruesome nature of the injury to push for unnecessary rule changes.
Whiteside is the San Francisco Giants’ backup catcher. Posey is their starter, a bold name and a burgeoning star, and his mangled leg and torn ankle ligaments magnify an issue that last drew attention about a year ago – when another young hotshot, Carlos Santana(notes), suffered a horrifying knee hyperextension. Both injuries showed the limitations of the human body and came with warnings from broadcasters who replayed them ad nauseam. They were perfect fodder for those who advocate amending the game.
Out came those calls Thursday, from Giants manager Bruce Bochy, a former catcher who wants new rules, to Posey’s agent Jeff Berry, who asked Major League Baseball and the players’ union to look into the legality of baseball’s version of the one-car crash. Their arguments all sound the same. This is excessive. It is against the rules. It encourages gratuitous violence.
And they ignore one simple fact: In an extra-innings, tie game between two teams that expect to contend, a run was at stake – ultimately the winning run – and two men prepared to duel for it. There is something admirable about their bravery, no matter how gladiatorial.
Both were determined to do everything they could Wednesday to end up on the right side of that play. Cousins, a reserve outfielder for the Florida Marlins, wanted to score. Posey wanted to prevent him from scoring. Wherein almost all of baseball’s one-on-one situations involve pitcher vs. hitter, this was a test of skill, toughness, gamesmanship and hunger. A run could mean the difference between a playoff appearance and an October at home.
Baseball should live for these situations, not bemoan them. It was not Cousins’ intent to injure; that’s never the runner’s motivation. He craved the run because of what it meant to his team, and if scoring it necessitated him winding up his arms and plowing into Posey to jar the ball loose, so be it. The aesthetics were unfortunate. The fashion in which Posey’s leg dangled afterward was, too. The run certainly wasn’t.
Posey, like all catchers, understands the inherent danger of his job. Taking away that danger isn’t as much wussifying the game as it is devaluing a run. They shouldn’t be easy to score, and when a catcher can prevent one, he should.
Danger, after all, is palpable everywhere else in baseball. Outfielders crash full speed into walls. They lay out trying to make catches. Balls fly within inches of batters faces daily and, in the case of Marlon Byrd(notes), sometimes actually hit them square on it. Byrd’s face is broken today. Literally. Nobody is talking about a ban on, you know, pitching.
The greater issue is body-to-body contact, and it’s one worth debating. Surely if Cousins knew he could score without taking out Posey, he should have. But how could he? As Cousins sped toward home plate, the ball arrived in ample time for Posey to tag him. Even though Posey wasn’t blocking the path to the plate, his position allowed him to apply a sweep tag almost anywhere Cousins would have slid. While Posey missed the throw, Cousins, only feet away from the plate, couldn’t have known the ball sat between Posey’s legs. He anticipated a tag and did the thing likeliest to impede that: demolish the catcher.
The argument isn’t whether a runner should go for the plate or the person; it’s whether he should go for the run in the fashion likeliest to score. Which is the same decision a catcher must make: How can he best prevent the run from scoring? Baseball’s official rules, in an addendum under Rule 7.06(b), say: “The catcher, without the ball in his possession, has no right to block the pathway of the runner attempting to score. The base line belongs to the runner and the catcher should be there only when he is fielding a ball or when he already has the ball in his hand.”
Technically, Posey was “fielding a ball,” and the ambiguity of the law dictates nothing about runner meeting fielder head-on. To insert a clause in which the umpire must determine whether a player could or couldn’t have slid brings an unneeded level of subjectivity to a black-and-white situation.
Anyway, the number of home-plate crashes doesn’t nearly warrant the attention they get. Day-to-day life at catcher is significantly worse on the legs and body than the off-chance a runner tries to knock a ball loose. Multiple foul tips off the catcher’s mask – a hazard every game – are likelier to cause concussions. Chunks of broken bats hitting catchers are commonplace. The daily vagaries – not the crashes – are why the Washington Nationals moved Bryce Harper(notes) from behind the plate to right field and why the Minnesota Twins could consider shifting Joe Mauer(notes) to another position.
Had the victim been Eli Whiteside, the rules would be fine. He is fungible. Buster Posey isn’t. His absence for at least a couple months and likely the year devastates the Giants’ hopes to repeat as World Series champions. Anyone who saw the play – prone catcher, 200-pound freight train barreling at him, ankle turning unnaturally – feels for Posey and the team. And yet if Posey’s foot doesn’t catch in the ground and Cousins scores his run without incident, nobody fusses or musses. Everyone instead spends the day talking about Wednesday’s 19-inning game and a pitcher in the batter’s box going against a position player on the mound.
Nearly eight years ago, a playoff series ended on a play at the plate. Jeff Conine fired a pea to Pudge Rodriguez. He caught the ball and prepared to block the plate. J.T. Snow launched himself at Rodriguez, who spiraled backward, composed himself, lifted the ball out of his glove and jumped for joy. The Marlins had beaten the Giants. They would go on to win the World Series.
People celebrated the play. It was good, clean, hard-nosed – the same as Wednesday night’s. The same as baseball should be.