Kapler: Banning home-plate collisions is a mistake
You can grow old without growing up. So, it only figured that like in my adolescence, I would still be fantasizing after I got to second base.
As a base runner myself, the moment I reached second base I began to fantasize about the potential contact at the plate. Every time I met a catcher in front of the plate throughout my career, the response I received from my teammates when returning to the dugout was a true hero’s welcome. I loved having a fan appreciate my style of play, but nothing in the world is more gratifying than having 24 guys gaze at you adoringly for quite assertively scoring a run at the expense of a member of the other team. Chills.
Though, it wasn’t all glory.
I came out on the losing end of a home-plate collision enough times that I truly had to consider the risk.
On one play at Fenway Park, John Buck blocked the plate as I made my way toward him and the play wasn’t going to be close. I prepared myself and launched my shoulder at him. There was little solid contact as he had plenty of time to adjust. I basically bounced off of his 6-3, 240 frame of steel. He had nearly 40 pounds on me at the time and his facemask left a giant gash in my right clavicle. I don’t even think he felt it. Needless to say, I was out.
On other occasions I made bigger, more relevant impacts, sometimes dislodging the ball, other times not.
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Baseball needs more contact, not less. It’s perfectly reasonable for our game to embrace its masculinity, particularly if the fans and players love it and we can find a way to do so safely.
MLB has made a mistake in judgment in trying to ban collisions at home plate. The proper course would have been to alter the rules to protect the heads of catchers and the runners attempting to blow them up.
If a runner was permitted to hit the catcher below the shoulders, perhaps this would go a long way toward shielding the man behind the dish from sustaining concussions while still allowing for one of the most exciting plays in baseball.
The catcher could then make a conscious decision to risk injury by setting up in front of the plate giving the runner two options; he can attack the midsection of the barricade or slide hard at the feet.
I fully acknowledge the trickiness implied because the catcher gets into a pretty low, protective stance when he’s blocking the plate. The runner would have to dip lower to strike the defensive player around the waist or ribs. This would encourage an aggressive slide decreasing the amount of times clean collisions occur, thereby affecting the amount of head injuries suffered.
If, for instance, the blocking of the dish occurred at the last second, (e.g. a catcher fakes like the ball isn’t coming, then steps out in front of the plate at the last second) the runner can try to separate him from the ball underneath the shoulders.
From the catcher’s perspective, I call this “The Varitek Play.” Jason was famous for sticking that left shin guard in front of the plate at the last second when the runner was certain that he had at least a sliver of the dish to work with. The other guy always limped back to the dugout with his tail dragging heavily between his legs.
By simply describing the options, the strategy feels exciting. I sense that it would be enticing to the fans as well.
Ryan Freel, who was my friend and someone I respected greatly, will undoubtedly be at the core of this discussion. He should not be. He sustained concussions throughout his career from running into walls, diving into bases, getting hit by pitches and getting into fights.
I played against Freel for the first time in the Southern League in 1998. I remember him as small in stature — all heart with just a smidge of talent relative to the other players in the league at the time. I never thought he’d step foot in an MLB stadium.
I caught up with Freel’s teammate, Ryan Stromsborg, the shortstop for the ’98 Knoxville Blue Jays.
“He was a knucklehead kid who definitely was a scrapper. Ryan and I were buddies,” Stromsborg told me. “He had many demons that were not the result of any collisions or fights.”
It’s important to recognize that these two guys played together long before all of the concussions that Freel sustained while competing at the MLB level. Of course, we don’t know the extent of injuries occurred in the minor leagues.
The blow that put Freel in a hospital while he was an outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds in 2007 came from running into teammate Norris Hopper, not a catcher.
Hopper’s elbow struck Freel’s dome in right-centerfield and left him unconscious.
Because the timing of baseball’s decision to implement the rule change about collisions at the plate conveniently coincided with the news about Freel’s CTE diagnosis, the events will be forever linked.
I think it’s worth considering that they are independent entities and shouldn’t be lumped together haphazardly.
Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and co-founder and executive director at Sports Legacy Institute, told the Florida Times-Union that the findings of Freel’s posthumous examination should remind baseball officials to keep a close eye on potential brain trauma in athletes.
I completely agree with Nowinski. CTE and brain injuries are of paramount importance and should be studied with ferocity.
I’m in full support of doing homework and rationally protecting players from concussions. I believe we can do so without affecting the integrity of our stunningly beautiful sport. Every nuance is a meaningful part of our dance and shouldn’t be removed in haste.
I trust that if you asked Freel today, he’d include aggressive, fearless base running as one of his favorite parts of the game and what allowed him to don a big league jersey at all. I think I speak for the baseball world that we deeply wish that conversation were possible.