If I were a tobacconist or an entrepreneur in America, I’d be doubling down on cigarette cases. Smokers won’t want to look at those gruesome new warnings. When the EU rolled out their big Helvetica warnings in 2003, sales of cigarette cases soared.
Why Baseball Needs to Eliminate Collisions at the Plate
When it comes to team sports, baseball (and similar games, like cricket) involves the least amount of contact between players, and the sport should do everything to preserve that distinction.
The NFL is currently in the midst of a player health and safety crisis as it tries to find a way to keep the sport enjoyable for fans while not submitting its players to horrific brain defects in retirement. The NHL seems to be sitting on the fence between tolerance for an enjoyable amount of on-ice fighting and all out hooliganism. Other sports like basketball and soccer aren’t known for their contact, but when you get two teams of strong athletes battling over one ball, things happen.
For baseball, the beauty of the sport has never stemmed from high-velocity action and bone-crushing hits; it’s in precision pitching, clutch hits and electrifying defensive plays. The only time players ever need to come in contact with each other is when one tags the other out with the ball.
Even this seemingly fundamental element of baseball only occurs in a few situations: stolen base attempts, attempts to stretch out extra-base hits, pick-off attempts, broken plays or run downs, and - of course - the play at the plate. In reality, the majority of outs are strike-outs, fly balls and force-outs.
But the last on that list, the play at the plate, is different. In baseball, it is expected of a runner to divert from normal sliding technique and body check the catcher if they are unlikely to safely reach the plate. And catchers are expected to place themselves in the base path to block the runner from reaching the plate, and to take the full force of the runner without dropping the ball.
ESPN’s Sports Science found that the force exuded on a stationary catcher by a runner at full speed is much higher than that placed on an NFL quarterback being blindsided by a blitzing linebacker. It sounds funny, but makes sense when you consider the amount of padding football players wear compared to baseball players.
Those thick pads actually reduce the amount of force transfered to the body of the quarterback. Catchers have a minimal amount of padding to help protect them from foul balls - not from a runner crashing into them.
Earlier this week, San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey, last season’s Rookie of the Year, broke a bone in his ankle when his foot was caught beneath him as he was drilled by an opposing runner in a play at the plate. Following the game, Posey’s agent raised the issue of plate collisions and called for a rule change from Major League Baseball.
Coming from an agent, it sounds a little incredulous, but the agent has a good point. It got me thinking about why these collisions occur and if they are necessary and if steps should be taken to reduce or eliminate them. I stewed over the ideas but didn’t commit them to writing.
Then, two days after Posey’s injury, Colorado Rockies catcher Humberto Quintero was injured in a similar fashion during a play at the plate, and now here I am writing this essay advocating for a rule change.
Two injuries in three days is, indeed, coincidental, and this type of injury is far from epidemic proportions, but there is no reason why the MLB shouldn’t get out in front of this before it becomes a larger issue and someone is seriously injured.
So what should they do? It seems simple to me. A play at the plate should be no different than a play at second or third. Forbid catchers from placing themselves infront of the plate, and require them to straddle it as if covering a stolen base attempt. To score, runners should have to slide and beat the tag where the base path meets the plate. Scoring should not result from a frightening full speed collision.
Baseball is the ultimate family sport. One of the points raised when a Giants fan was beaten into a coma by Dodgers fans following a game in Los Angeles was that families shouldn’t ever be afraid to bring their children to a baseball game. And kids shouldn’t have to watch their favorite players writhing in pain after a play at the plate.
And isn’t it really all about the children? Forget the steroid era causing some high-schoolers start doping up - plays at the plate are a far more dangerous influence for little leaguers.
There’s actually a memory from my own little league past that involves this very play. For some reason of cruel coincidence, the smallest member of my team (we couldn’t have been older than 9) was behind the plate when the largest member of the opposing team came barreling down the third base line. The resulting collision injured the small catcher behind the plate and bruised the pride of his father who leapt from his seat in the bleachers to berate the baserunner who had plowed over his son.
Kids at that age can be at widely varying states of growth, hence the unfortunate juxtaposition of catcher and runner in the aforementioned home plate incident. Kids watch TV and see it happen and it becomes “just another part of the game” to them. It simply doesn’t need to be that way.
I also remember later in my youth baseball career when I was running down the third-base line approaching a catcher of equal size who was likely to tag me out. For whatever reason, I was running home and knew the throw was coming in, but I wasn’t about to run through the catcher - that just wasn’t me. I wasn’t a big strong kid, and honestly, I feared more for my own safety in that moment than his.
He caught the ball and got low, expecting to either receive my impact or tag out a sliding leg or arm. But something in my brain said, “Jump!” and I did. I hopped at a slight angle towards the backstop (which was probably against the rules) and slapped the plate with my left hand as I landed. I remember that exciting my team mates more than running over the catcher ever would have.
Some argue that plays at the plate are some of the more exciting plays in a sport that is lacking in the thrill department. I argue that it is not the collision of two bodies that makes the moment exciting.
In football, when we see a linebacker peel around the outside of the offensive line and zero in on an unknowing quarterback, we get excited as spectators. The conflict in need of resolution in our minds centers on whether the QB will avoid being sacked, and that makes it exciting, because football is a full contact sport.
In baseball, as a runner rounds third base headed for home and an outfielder crow hops and fires the ball toward the plate, the question in our minds does not focus on the imminent collision. We wonder who will win the race, the ball or the runner? Will a run be scored or will an out be recorded? That is the question.
If, as a true fan of baseball, you lean forward in your chair and lick your chops waiting for the collision, then you aren’t a true fan of the game. It makes me cringe when I see a catcher send hurdling toward the backstop.
The fluidity and artistry that is required from catching the ball and tagging the runner just inches from his goal is what excites me. And none of that would be lost with this simple rule change that would protect the health of catchers.
And while we’re at it, get base runners to stop running out the base path to slide into the legs of middle infielders attempting a double play. Crap like that doesn’t belong in baseball for all of the same reasons.
So what do you say, MLB? Why not take a stand for player safety and get in front of an issue and change the rule? How many injured catchers will it take? There haven’t been overwhelming numbers yet, but why not be a proactive league at least in one front? You’ve slacked on instant replay for long enough, so this could be a big step forward for you.