In the inventory of potentially injurious hits in professional sports, somehow the home-plate collision has flown under the radar of injury reformers thus far.
Maybe it’s just been an allowable concession, one rare incident of action, excitement and canned brutality that awakens an otherwise docile game.
Perhaps that’s why so many people (including over 70 percent of respondents to an ESPN poll) have rushed to the defense of impacts like the one between Florida’s Scott Cousins and San Francisco catcher Buster Posey that may consign the reigning rookie of the year the sidelines for the rest of 2011.
Saying it’s in the rules rings pretty hollow as Posey’s leg is in pieces and his angle ligaments resemble hamburger meat. It may be “just baseball”, but that doesn’t mean what could be a permanent derailment of an otherwise bright career shouldn’t be used to help future players avoid the same danger.
It may be that this baseball crusade is the outlet for the frustration of all those NFL fans who think anti-hitting regulation, including harsher measures handed down this week, is turning it into a sport for wusses. If we can’t have hitting in football, at least let the savagery play out in baseball.
In truth, the Posey incident is the perfect time for baseball to intervene and put a moratorium on such violent collisions. It’s about as amiable a disaster as you’ll find. All parties involved agree it was a clean, legal play under the current conception of the rules (though had Cousins leveled Posey on the NFL gridiron, he would have gotten a 15-yard penalty for leaving his feet and leading with his head). Cousins, a native of San Francisco, was distraught when he learned of the extent of Posey’s injuries and clearly harbored no malicious intent. Posey’s manager Bruce Bochy, himself a long-time major league catcher, acknowledged the legality of the play while in his usually soft-spoken manner urging that the league, “consider changing the rules there a little bit.” The teams wrapped up their series Thursday without any residual hostilities.
Bochy’s arguments echo so much of what is heard in the NFL these days. He cites catchers in such situations as “vulnerable”, not unlike the now untouchable wide receivers who have yet to establish themselves as a runner. Posey, who’s built like a tight end, was a defenseless receiver in the Cousins collision: He failed to receive the throw from rightfielder Nate Schierholtz, establish himself as the plate defender and prepare himself fully for the impact.
Who he is shouldn’t matter, though it might actually hurt because people believe a big deal is being made only about an emerging star (I’ve heard my fair share of, “This wouldn’t happen if it was Dane Sardinha”s already). The situation shouldn’t matter either. Whether the injury was sustained in the first inning of a scoreless game or the 12th inning of a tie game, it’s still devastating to a team’s chances this season and to a bright young athlete’s career. The fact that collisions at the plate occur rarely shouldn’t factor in. Yeah, it’s a game changing play that can be the difference between winning and losing. So is a botched fair-or-foul call by an umpire on a potential base hit or home run, but that’s been eliminated from the game recently. The collisions have the added impact of possibly negatively impacting the entire trajectory of a career in a matter of an instant (ask Ray Fosse).
The fact remains that catching equipment is not designed to manage the massive impacts incurred in such collisions. It is designed to mitigate the effects of a little white ball weighing no more than five ounces being thrown at high speeds. As shown by the concept of momentum, the forces involved in a player that’s at least 600 times heavier traveling at around 1/6 the speed are off the charts for what catchers’ gear is rated for. In an instance like Posey’s injury, the lack of flexibility under the burden of the heavy padding may be a hindrance to injury avoidance.
The majors have the benefit in this instance of a well-defined rule in the youth system. The mantra “slide or evade” is ubiquitous in manuals for Little League and scholastic ball; failure to comply with that edict at many levels results not only in an automatic out, but also ejection for the offending player and his manager. It also provides prohibitions on fielders blocking bases without possession of the ball, another wrinkle to which catchers would have to adhere for their safety.
In the end, a moratorium on home-plate collisions would go unnoticed in 98 percent of games. If that’s the only cost to prevent catastrophic injuries like Posey’s, I’d say that’s worth it.