Column: MLB Must Protect CatchersAugust 19, 2013
MLB’s goal to get all calls right, laudable as it may be, is nonetheless controversial. Purists believe baseball is eliminating the “human element” by imitating the NFL. But that may not be such a bad thing, given that football is the most popular sport and the NFL is the highest grossing professional league in the country.
Erroneous calls by umpires are an infrequent – albeit much publicized – occurrence and have little overall impact on the outcome of games. The biggest influence on the outcome of a game is not whether a ball is caught or trapped, fair or foul, but the home plate umpire. Every umpire has a different strike zone and until baseball is prepared to use robots to call balls and strikes the home plate umpire will continue to have more to do with which team wins and which one loses than anything else that takes place on a baseball diamond.
Another example of how MLB channels the NFL is by allowing what can only be described as legal mayhem: Home plate collisions. It’s way past time for the league to adopt a rule that prohibits runners from hurling their bodies at full speed into defenseless catchers.
Anyone who has seen the 2011 video of the home plate collision between the Marlins’ Scott Cousins and Giants’ catcher Buster Posey has to be sickened by the sight of the twisted ankle that put an end to Posey’s season and could have prematurely ended his career. More than two years have passed since that gruesome injury and although a number of teams, including the Giants, have instructed their catchers not to block the plate, the league has yet to adopt a rule to prevent a similar – or worse – outcome.
The primary reason for the inaction is the amorphous concept known as “tradition.” Home plate collisions have always been a part of baseball and a number of self-proclaimed traditionalists believe it would “sissify” the game if they were eliminated. There are multiple reasons why such thinking is clearly misguided, the most obvious being that tradition isn’t necessarily the best justification for continuing to do something, especially when the activity is clearly dangerous. Tradition once meant batters didn’t wear helmets and now they do. Tradition once meant base coaches didn’t wear helmets and now they do. Tradition also meant catchers didn’t wear face masks and now they do. History confirms that none of those rule changes led to the ruination of baseball.
Another justification to discard tradition is that the game is better off with the Buster Poseys in uniform than it is with them on the DL or out of the game entirely. If a home plate collision ends up costing a star his career – all in the name of saving one run – the game is doing a disservice to the fans and players alike. Furthermore, Posey’s injury crippled his team. The Giants were World Series winners with Posey in the lineup in 2010 and 2012, but also-rans without him in 2011. The Giants signed Posey to an eight-year, $167 million contract extension this year, further evidence of his value to the team. Even if insurance reimburses the team for a career ending injury, money can hardly replace Posey’s talent.
The easy fix is simply to count a run if the runner touches home plate prior to the arrival of the ball, and call the runner out if the ball reaches home plate before he does. Some fans would find the new rule objectionable, but it isn’t like we’re proposing something the game doesn’t already condone. If the ball beats a runner to first base, he’s automatically out, no tag necessary. “Phantom” tags at second base, under the guise of preventing injury to middle infielders, are another of the game’s longstanding traditions.
When Pete Rose barreled into Cleveland catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 All Start Game everyone save Indians fans celebrated the hard-nosed play. But Fosse was never the same player after the collision. Baseball needs to guarantee such incidents never happen again. If it fails to do so, at least we’ll have replay to remind us of why such action is necessary.