Note: The following post will appear in the June 1, 2011 issue of The Post and Courier.
“Some things are part of the game.”
Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek’s words echoed the sentiments of present and former baseball catchers. Hours earlier, San Francisco Giants star catcher Buster Posey lay in agony at home plate. Last year’s National League Rookie of the Year was injured when Florida Marlins’ Scott Cousins tried to score on a fly ball in the 12th inning of a tied game. Cousins drove his shoulder into Posey before the catcher could control the ball. Posey’s leg caught under him, injuring his left ankle. The stunned crowd later chanted “Posey!” as trainers carried him off the field.
Cousins reacted tearfully, telling reporters, “The last thing I wanted to do was break a guy’s leg.” But that is in fact what he did. Posey was diagnosed with a broken fibula (the bone on the outside of the leg and ankle) and “severely sprained ligaments.” He underwent surgery Sunday, where reportedly the surgeon repaired three torn ligaments. He will have a second operation in 8-10 weeks to remove hardware.
In a pre-game media session before the team’s next game, Giants manager Bruce Bochy, a former catcher himself, recommended changes to protect players. “It’s part of baseball. I understand that. Guys running into catchers…Being a catcher, I’ve been in a few of them. You’re in harm’s way there. I do think we need to consider changing the rules there a little bit, because the catcher’s so vulnerable and there’s so many that have gotten hurt. And not just a little bit. I mean, careers ended or shortened. And here’s a guy that’s very popular in baseball. Fans want to see him play, and now he’s out for a while.”
Is a rule change a logical next step to protect catchers and base runners? Possible changes include a rule banning catchers from blocking the plate, even if they have the ball. Another idea would be to force base runners to slide into home plate instead of barreling into the catcher. Surprisingly, there has been a good deal of support among catchers and fans for keeping the status quo.
One argument for continuing to allow home plate collisions involves the basic concept of preventing the opponent from scoring. One run can make the difference between a win and a loss and might affect the outcome of a season. Critics of this argument might suggest that while the Giants still lost this game, the loss of one of the best catchers in baseball and their best hitter for all of 2011 might be a greater loss.
Another argument made by fans and players centers on the protective gear catchers wear, noting that the pads should protect them from injury. However, this equipment is designed to protect catchers from being hit with pitches and foul balls, not charging base runners. That is the reason home plate umpires wear similar protective gear.
Proponents of a rule change point out that base runners can’t or don’t crash into shortstops or second basemen trying to turn double plays. And if colliding with these players was considered acceptable, should MLB require players at those positions wear protective pads?
Also, changing rules about trying to score on fly balls would not fundamentally change the game. It would eliminate the collision, not the ability to score on fly balls. It would affect a small component of baseball to make it safer. Eliminating fighting in hockey or tackling in football are not equal comparisons, as some have argued. Eliminating chop blocks in football or body checking from behind in hockey are much better comparisons. They are evolutions of the rules in these sports to protect their players while still maintaining the integrity and nature of the sports.
Supposedly MLB has never considered changing the rule proactively, so it will be interesting to see if Posey’s injury will cause it to possibly make changes after it occurred. And if baseball elects to stick with current rules, will any injury change its stance? Suppose a catcher is knocked backward, causing him to land on his neck, leading to a catastrophic cervical spine injury and paralysis. Would that tragedy be enough to change the rule?
As sports medicine surgeons, we can only try to encourage changes to make sports and the athletes who play them as safe as possible. The NFL banning blows to the head is a good example. But even if Major League Baseball does not change the rule in this case, coaches and parents at all levels can discourage catchers and base runners from engaging in this practice. Home plate collisions might be part of the game, but that is no consolation to an athlete too hurt to play it.
What do you think? Does baseball need to change the rules to protect its players? Is this a freak occurrence, and the rules should stay the same? Let me hear your opinion!