Plays at the Plate
Mike Matheny, former National League Gold Glove winner and now manager of the St Louis Cardinals recently spoke out about his desire to see hard contact at home plate be removed from Big League baseball. His comments were sure to spark much debate and has divided many within baseball. Obviously there are those within the game, the traditionalist who cringe at the thought of a rule change, while others aim to protect the safety and well-being of the players on the field.
I’ve heard it before, that contact at home plate is simply a part of the game. It comes with the territory of being a catcher I’ve been told many times during my own career. As many of you may know, I have spent my entire baseball career behind home plate. I have certainly experienced my share of hard knocks, sleepless nights with back pain, headaches, and aching for days and weeks on end. It often amuses me how the decisions infielders and outfielders make during the game are often forgotten or at least agreed up as ‘not that much of a big deal’. Here are some examples:
- A tied ballgame, late, 2 outs, runner on 1st base. The batter hits a ball to the warning track. The outfielder pulls up short of the wall, saving himself from colliding with the fence. Plays the ball off the wall, runner scores. Had the outfielder gone hard in to the wall, he possibly makes the catch; the inning is over, and the game remains tied. Was it not important enough for the outfielder to attempt to make the catch?
- Runner on 1st, ball hit to the 3rd baseman who bobbles the ball then makes the throw to 2nd in an attempt to get the force-out. The 2nd baseman jumps off the bag to avoid the sliding base-runner and thus savings his legs in a collision at the bag. The runner is safe and on the next pitch the batter singles up the middle to score the runner from 2nd. Was the ‘out’ that was not made at 2nd base important?
- A bunt is laid down, the third baseman makes the play though the throw to first base tails in to the base-runner. To avoid a possible broken arm or sprained wrist, the first baseman jumps out of the way. As a result, the throw sails down the line toward the bullpen, while the base-runner heads to 2nd or 3rd. Was that not and important ‘out’ at 1st base?
“We’re talking about the brain,” Matheny said. “It’s just been so shoved under the rug. I didn’t want to be the poster boy for this gig, but I was able to witness in ways I can’t even explain to people how that altered my life for a short period of time and changed the person that I was. It’s scary. So that being said, you look at this game; can this game survive without this play? And I say absolutely. You’re putting people at risk.”
I mentioned these scenarios to illustrate my point. And that is there are many variables in our game. Yet we have become accustomed to focusing our attention on home plate and the importance to prevent runs from scoring. Why should a catcher put his body on the line when the base-runner inflicting the pain has been allowed to advance around the bases by infielders and outfielders who routinely choose to avoid contact?
Just a few years ago, instant replay had no part in a Major League baseball game. It has today, and potentially becoming even more widely used. Batting helmets have increased player performance and reduced the risk of head injuries. The game is changing and taking a hard look at how we can protect our catchers is just another important step for the game.
Catchers are no different to anyone else. They all have jobs to do and families to feed. To hit a catcher at home plate, causing him to miss work, just because it is ‘part of the game’ is prehistoric thinking. Reducing unwarranted hard hits on catchers at the plate doesn’t make them any less tough. The position is already tough enough. The constant foul tips, long hitters back swings, blocked balls, and the constant backing up of first base, among other things, is plenty to worry about.
But for as much talk as there is about outlawing the reckless collisions at home plate, a lot must be said for the coaches out there who fail to instruct their young players on how to safely collide with infielders and catchers. Baseball and Softball are essentially contact sports. Contact cannot be avoided at times. But by failing to prepare players to make safe contact is only perpetuating the problem.
Everyone is going to have a slightly different opinion, but the fact of the matter is, we need to look out for our catchers. Clean, hard contact is part of our game. Reckless hard contact is not.