MLB shouldn't rush rule on home-plate collisions
FEB 11, 2014 10:49p ET
You may have noticed that spring training is about to begin, yet baseball still has not banned home-plate collisions.
Both the players and owners want to enact such a rule to protect catchers, but the issue -- somewhat like expanded replay -- is more complicated than it appears.
As Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre, a member of the Playing Rules Committee, said last month, "We are writing a rule. It's not finished being written because it's not easy."
An agreement is still possible, perhaps even probable, considering the desire of both sides to make a deal. But the first spring-training games are two weeks away. As camps open, coaches should be teaching the new rules, and players should be practicing new techniques. But nothing has been decided.
The idea sounds simple: Eliminate malicious hits on defenseless catchers. But baseball, by requiring base-runners and catchers to stop reacting instinctively, might expose those players to a different risk of injury -- and also change the way game is fundamentally played.
If a catcher reverts to past behavior, blocks the plate and collides with a runner who is out by 10 feet, should the run be allowed to score? Under the strictest interpretation of a collision ban, the answer would be yes.
Players, in short, will need to be retrained – catchers in the way they receive throws, base-runners in the way they approach home plate. Baseball, rather than go too far with a new blanket policy, actually might want to consider some type of phase-in, banning vicious collisions immediately while allowing players to learn how to position themselves on less extreme plays.
Frankly, it's difficult to imagine how such a plan might work. But better to crawl before you walk, especially when too rapid a rollout could result in unintended consequences, creating new problems.
The issue, especially for the base-runner, is ambiguity; he needs to know how to approach the plate. Maybe the best path for baseball is to follow the NCAA, which enforces rules that encourage players to avoid collisions at all bases whenever possible.
The NCAA rule states, "If the defensive player blocks the base (plate) or base line with clear possession of the ball, the runner may make contact, slide into or make contract with a fielder as long as the runner is making a legitimate attempt to reach the base (plate). Contact above the waist that was initiated by the base-runner shall not be judged as an attempt to reach the base or plate."
Sounds reasonable enough. But even now, some players are mixed on whether home-plate collisions should be banned at all, expressing concern that such a rule would affect the outcomes of games.
As an example, go back to the 10th inning of Game 1 of last year's National League Championship Series. The Cardinals and Dodgers were tied, 2-2, with one out, the Dodgers' Mark Ellis on third and Michael Young at the plate.
Young hit a fly ball to medium right-center. Cardinals right fielder Carlos Beltran called off center fielder Jon Jay to make the catch. Ellis tagged. Beltran fired. And Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina moved slightly up the third-base line to handle the throw on one hop.
As one player noted Tuesday, "there was no chance that Yadi wasn't blocking the dish." The game and moment were too important. Molina acted like many catchers would, taking a hit to help -- and perhaps even inspire -- his team.
Sure enough, Ellis bowled over Molina; he would have been out under the NCAA rule for hitting the catcher above the waist. Some questioned whether Molina actually applied a tag, but the throw beat the runner and plate umpire Gerry Davis made the proper decision, calling Ellis out.
Molina pumped both fists, then one fist twice, then slapped the dirt in jubilation. The Cardinals won in the 13th on a single by Beltran. They won the series, 4 games to 2. The Ellis-Molina collision was a turning point, a moment that fans and players will remember, a highlight that baseball should think twice about legislating out of the game.
The counter-argument, of course, is that we would view the play differently if Molina had suffered a major injury. Without question, a fine line exists between hard-nosed play and unnecessarily dangerous play. But baseball must walk that line carefully, and an outright ban on collisions might be too drastic a step.
Torre, speaking last month at the owners' meetings, acknowledged that some contact is inevitable while maintaining that base-runners need to stop targeting catchers.
"There's not going to be a lack of contact. There's going to be some inadvertent contact that you're not going to be able to avoid because the catcher has to catch the ball," Torre said. "But the whole mentality is going to have to change for that runner around third. When you're rounding third, in your mind, you're going to get home one way or the other. That's going to have to change."
OK, but as Ellis' tag from third showed, such plays do not always involve rounding the bag. As with replay, not every answer is black and white. And baseball must consider every shade of gray.
Writing a new rule is difficult, even when the rule is well-intentioned. Baseball need not rush into a short-sighted decision. If Opening Day is too soon to implement this ban, then all options must be considered, from phasing it in to an outright delay.