Matheny, a former catcher, knows the price players can face because of the heavy hits that sometimes come when a baseball and a base runner reach home plate at about the same time. One of the most durable catchers in the history of the game, he was forced to retire in 2006 after a series of concussions left him in danger of permanent damage to his health.
But the big question is: How can baseball outlaw plays at the plate without fundamentally changing the game and eliminating one of the most exciting parts of the America's pastime -- when a runner takes off from second base on contact, an outfielder gets to the ball quickly, and he makes a perfect peg to the plate as the entire crowd stands on its feet at once in hushed anticipation of the call on whether the runner is safe or out?
This isn't elimination of the fake-to-third, throw-to-first play. It deals directly with the fundamental objective of the game: trying to reach home plate to score a run. You can't turn that into the equivalent of a gimme putt in a golf scramble. The reason there is a collision in the first place is because a single run is so important to both the offense and the defense that players on both sides are willing to sacrifice their bodies to get it -- or to stop the other guy from getting it.
Would Major League Baseball deem that runners have to give themselves up on close plays? I don't see any compromise solution short of that. If you try to force the base runner to slide, the defense gains a tremendous tactical advantage because the catcher could block the plate without any fear of paying a price for the move. If the rules were changed to dictate that any contact had to take place below the head, it would be impractical because a hunkered-down catcher fielding a throw is going to put his head in a place where it can't be missed.
In an Aug. 28 game last season, St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina was knocked on the head and had to leave the game after a collision with Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Joel Harrison. After watching the video from several angles, it is apparent that Harrison wasn't aiming for Molina's head. But the Cardinals backstop was so low when he caught the ball and braced for the blow that there was no way Harrison, already committed to throwing his shoulder, could have avoided hitting Molina in the face. For the record, Molina hung on to the ball for the out, and he received a standing ovation from Pittsburgh fans as he was helped from the field.
With the adoption of such a rule, suddenly Major League Baseball would open the can of worms the National Football League has dealt with since a ban on blows to the head of quarterbacks was put in place a few years ago. Flags fly all the time for phantom hits to the head of the signal caller.
Do we really want to see umpires -- who are trying to watch for the tag with the ball while simultaneously keeping an eye on when the foot or hand of the runner reaches the plate -- try to determine at the same time if the base runner touches the catcher's head?
A ban on blows to the head wouldn't have helped San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey, who had his leg broken in a gruesome home-plate collision in a 2011 with Scott Cousins of the then-Florida Marlins. Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann injured his knee in a collision in 2006 with Josh Burns of the Arizona Diamondbacks. In the most famous home-plate collision of them all, Pete Rose avoided Ray Fosse's head in the 1970 All-Star game but broke the catcher's shoulder with a crushing blow.
Those plays stick out in baseball fans' memories. But serious injuries to catchers in home-plate collisions are actually pretty rare.
Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench blamed Posey's positioning for his injury in an NBC report shortly after it happened. He said most catchers who get hurt put themselves in a spot where they're not in position to absorb the blow. He had an interesting, commonsense recommendation at the time. And it's probably the only thing that could really work without adversely impacting the integrity of the game. Bench said catchers need to be coached better to not only get into proper position to defend themselves, but they also need to be taught to effectively estimate if they have the time to properly position themselves, catch the ball and make the tag. They should be coached to decide, if the answer is no, to clear the home-plate area to avoid any unnecessary contact.
It's impossible to ask players not to give their best when the game is on the line. But it is entirely reasonable to advise them to get out of the way when it's not.
I just don't see how you can legislate out a play at the plate without taking a big bite of the life out of baseball. Even if commissioner Bud Selig outlawed collisions at the plate today, it wouldn't stop concussions for catchers. Where would you stop?
When a guy like Matheny -- who was so tough that in May of 1998 when he was hit in the face by a pitch that knocked out a couple of teeth he still insisted on playing the next day -- says he's concerned about concussions in baseball, the powers that be are well-advised to listen. But we need to remember that the bulk of Matheny's concussions, by his own admission, came from foul balls bouncing off his mask at 100 mph, not collisions with another player in a tag play at the plate. Baseball executives simply can't protect players from every possible injury. Would they outlaw foul balls next? How about the elimination of pitches in excess of 50 mph?
Baseball is beautiful because the rules are intuitive and consistent. There are no judgement calls where the umpire needs to decide the players' intent. There's really no room for conjecture or interpretation. Either the balls is fair or it is foul. The pitch is a ball or it is a strike, and base runners are safe or they are out.
Former Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog has often said that he's glad umpires only had two choices to make: safe or out. Let's not give them the additional variables that take the game out of players' hands and put it on the shoulders of guys who can't grasp that a pitch at the belt is supposed to be a strike.
Scott Wuerz has been a reporter and columnist at the Belleville News-Democrat, located in suburban St. Louis, since 1998. During that time he has covered three St. Louis Cardinals World Series appearances, the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star game and Mark McGwire's chase to break Roger Maris' home run record. He has penned the View From the Cheap Seats Cardinals fan blog for the News-Democrat since 2007.
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