PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – Baseball was the only sport Travis d'Arnaud's mother would let him play. The reason was simple: baseball was safe.
"She's really protective," said the Mets' prized catching prospect at his locker Wednesday.
Marta d'Arnaud was right. Baseball is considered a safe sport. Except perhaps for one position: catcher. Home plate is where most of the sport's brutal collisions take place. And catcher happened to be the position where d'Arnaud became a star prospect.
Now, the California native is becoming a test case in an era of developing concussion awareness. He's never played a big-league game, yet he's a crucial piece of the Mets' future plans. And because of both his promising future and a recent past filled with injuries and a concussion, d'Arnaud is suddenly at the center of a sport-wide debate: Should home-plate collisions be banned?
Mike Matheny, the Cardinals manager and a former catcher himself, came out in favor of a rule change earlier this week, stating a runner should be tagged rather than blocked as is the case at the other bases. That triggered a league-wide discussion about one of baseball's most thrilling plays. The home-plate collision brings to mind exciting moments like Pete Rose ramming Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game, but also frightening incidents like Buster Posey suffering a season-ending broken ankle in a play at the plate in 2011.
It's the Mets' preference that d'Arnaud avoid that kind of impact altogether.
The Mets have been careful not only with d'Arnaud, but also in their comments about this issue. On Wednesday morning, when d'Arnaud was asked about any instruction to avoid collisions, d'Arnaud said, "I haven't been told anything." A short time later, Mets GM Sandy Alderson said there had been no edict for d'Arnaud. "We don't have a firm position," he said. "It's something we're looking at." After that afternoon's game, d'Arnaud's position coach, Bob Geren, said any decision to tell d'Arnaud not to block the plate is "an ongoing discussion." Then, manager Terry Collins told reporters he had instructed d'Arnaud not to block the plate.
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"I said, 'Trav, I know you're a tough guy and I know it's baseball,' " Collins told reporters Wednesday. "'But if you want to play for the next 15 years, the last thing we need is to have you reinjure your knee.'"
In a conference call Wednesday, Alderson addressed the issue further: "Terry has said, ‘Look, get out of the way.' Whether that will be permanent with him or permanent with all of our catching prospects or something [fellow Mets catcher] John Buck will adopt … I don't know. But I think it's an issue we have to address globally, rather than just in the case of Travis d'Arnaud. And to some extent we have an obligation to treat everyone the same way. ‘Travis, you're really valuable to us, don't do this, don't do that, everybody else take the risk, because you're not that good.' I don't think that's an organizational approach we want to take."
Then there's the question of what exactly avoiding collisions means in a practical sense. It's clear the Mets don't want their young star seeking contact in the minors, especially considering he's never played a big-league game, but that doesn't mean let the runner score. Geren is teaching d'Arnaud and all of his catchers to allow a pathway – specifically, let the runner see the plate – but remain in position to make a tag. Geren believes that when a runner can see the plate, he's more likely to slide rather than bowl over a catcher and risk an injury. "The days of standing in front of the plate," Geren says, "are close to over."
That, however, assumes a run-of-the-mill play at the plate. Which rarely happens. The runner might make a huge turn. The catcher might have to rush to get into position. The throw might be up the third-base line, directly in the path of the oncoming runner. There's a lot to think about already in a situation like that, especially if you're an up-and-coming catcher. Then there's perhaps the most dangerous instance: when the catcher is simply standing at the plate, waiting for the ball to arrive with a runner bearing down on him.
And although everyone's frightened of what happened to Posey in 2011, there's also another safety issue to consider. What if someone like d'Arnaud is the one trying to score? If a collision is banned, he (or any other base runner) may avoid the impact and get injured. It might be safer to lower a shoulder than to dive at a catcher's shin pads or spikes.
"Sometimes it's the only way to get to the plate," says Mets third-baseman David Wright. "I'd prefer to run him over as a way to save myself from getting hurt." That sentiment is echoed by Indians manager Terry Francona, who is not in favor of a ban. "I don't think people have thought it through enough," he told reporters recently. "You're going to get more base runners injured."
All of this puts Alderson in a funny spot. He's not only the one who made the trade for d'Arnaud, he's also the chairman of Major League Baseball's rules committee. So he has a vested interest not only in the integrity of the game but the integrity of a team that needs d'Arnaud to live up to his potential. He said he traded for the 24-year-old because he looked at the Blue Jays roster and "saw him as their best prospect at a position we needed." The only con? "His injury history."
That history is unfortunately long. In 2010, it was a bad back, which his father, Lance, says Travis first tweaked doing a deadlift. In 2011, it was a concussion and a torn thumb ligament sustained receiving a pitch. In 2012, it was a torn knee ligament that ended his season. And that was suffered, ironically, when he tried to break up a double play. In fact, d'Arnaud was first put behind the plate as a boy because the catcher on his father's team got hurt. There was even talk in the Blue Jays organization about moving d'Arnaud to third to protect his longevity, though that's not an option in New York because of Wright.
It's not as if d'Arnaud doesn't already have pressure on him. He was traded for a Cy Young Award winner not once (for Dickey) but twice, as he left the Phillies in a deal that included Roy Halladay. He's in baseball's biggest media market, on a team that has a history of beloved catchers including the late Gary Carter and d'Arnaud's childhood hero, Mike Piazza. He said the feeling of getting his first hit as a Met this spring was "indescribable," and only to be topped by the first hit he gets in New York. (He's not expected to start the season in the majors.) He also admits he's been trying "not to overthink it" at the plate.
"Maybe at first I was a little too rushed," he said Wednesday. "I'm no longer trying to hit the ball 600 feet."
The Mets aren't expecting him to win them a World Series this year. They just want him to get them into a position to win a World Series over the next few years. And that might require rethinking what position he's in when there's a play at the plate.
"It's almost like he's getting used to the injuries," Travis' father, Lance, said Thursday morning. "But that better be the last one."
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