Dec 15, 2013, 6:00 AM EST
One of my absolute favorite moments in baseball history was the final play of the 2003 NLDS between the Marlins and Giants, the one where Jeff Conine fires a one-hopper from shallow left field to Ivan Rodriguez, who braces for impact with J.T. Snow and manages to hold onto the ball as he goes head-over-heels and clinch the series for Florida.
It’s a moment that, if Major League Baseball has its way, will never happen again.
MLB’s rules committee voted on Wednesday to ban all home plate collisions, and if both the league’s owners and players sign off, it will take effect for the start of the 2014 season. And significantly alter the way the game is played.
My initial reaction upon hearing the announcement in the media workroom at the Winter Meetings was one of unease. I consider myself something of a baseball traditionalist, and the home plate collision has become a staple of the sport, one of the most exciting plays the game has to offer.
But the more I thought about it, and the more I listened to people in the game who support this change, I came to the following conclusion: This is the right move.
First and foremost, this is about player safety. Every day we learn more about the devastating long-term effects of concussions and other head injuries sustained in sports, and there’s simply no excuse anymore for ignoring this issue.
No, baseball doesn’t have nearly the same concussion problem as football and hockey, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem at all in this sport. Eighteen ballplayers were placed on MLB’s recently created 7-day concussion disabled list this season, 10 of them catchers.
Who knows how many others should have gone on the DL over the years but kept playing through major head injuries because they didn’t know any better?
Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a former catcher, was asked at the Winter Meetings about the worst collision he ever experienced. His answer was simultaneously humorous and unnerving.
“I don’t remember the worst one,” Scioscia said as reporters laughed. “I got knocked out at home plate. I’ve been dizzy. Chili Davis absolutely hit me the hardest, no doubt. And I managed to find a way to our dugout. Jack Clark helped me at home plate. I needed some help being taken off the field. I don’t remember those, to be honest with you.”
Yeah, it’s a great story, but it also should send chills down your spine. Memory loss as a result of head trauma is no laughing matter.
And the ban on collisions isn’t only about preventing head injuries. Buster Posey’s gruesome ankle injury came on a collision at the plate. It’s easy to say that was a fluke play, but it’s not the only time a catcher has suffered a significant leg injury on such a play. I remember Jesus Flores being carted off the field at Nationals Park on Sept. 2, 2008 after the Phillies’ Chase Utley barreled over him and left him with a badly sprained ankle. Flores didn’t return to play that season.
This isn’t only about injuries, though. It’s also about playing the game the right way. You aren’t allowed to run over infielders at first base, second base or third base. Why should you be allowed to run over a catcher at the plate, especially when many of these collisions aren’t about scoring runs but trying to inflict as much pain on the catcher (or vice versa) as possible because the sport allows guys a free shot.
There’s no other play in baseball in which you’re allowed to try to knock over an opposing player. What makes the play at the plate different? Nothing. The problem is that the collision has become an accepted part of the game, which is going to make the transition to the new rule difficult for some.
“Ultimately what we want to do is change the culture of acceptance that these plays are ordinary and routine and an accepted part of the game,” Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, head of the rules committee, said Wednesday. “That the risks and individual risks, the costs associated in terms of health and injury, just no longer warrant the status quo.”
Details of the new rule haven’t been established yet. Will all collisions be banned, or only those in which the runner goes in high? Will catchers be penalized for blocking the plate without having possession of the ball? What will the punishment be for violators?
There is plenty still to discuss and debate. But changes are coming. Even “old school” guys like Scioscia and Johnny Bench (who has endorsed the ban) have come to recognize the need to rid baseball of collisions. So have I.
I’ll always love that dramatic play from a decade ago, with Pudge Rodriguez letting out a primal scream as he held the ball high in his bare hand. But that doesn’t mean I think we should ever see the same play happen again.
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