Skip to main content

Unsafe at home plate

By Mike Downey
updated 10:17 PM EST, Sun December 15, 2013
Cincinnati Reds' Pete Rose slams into Cleveland Indians' catcher Ray Fosse to score a controversial game-winning run for the National League team in the 12th inning of the 1970 All-Star game in Cincinnati. Fosse suffered a fractured shoulder in the collision. Cincinnati Reds' Pete Rose slams into Cleveland Indians' catcher Ray Fosse to score a controversial game-winning run for the National League team in the 12th inning of the 1970 All-Star game in Cincinnati. Fosse suffered a fractured shoulder in the collision.
HIDE CAPTION
Collisions at home plate
Collisions at home plate
Collisions at home plate
Collisions at home plate
<<
<
1
2
3
4
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Baseball becomes contact sport when catcher blocks plate to keep runner from scoring
  • Mike Downey says the collisions at home plate are thrilling and often memorable
  • But, he asks, is it worth the possible damage to the catcher's body?
  • Downey: Ray Fosse still feels pain from a collision 43 years ago

Editor's note: Mike Downey is a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune.

(CNN) -- Baseball's not a contact sport.

It is not football, where rock-abbed men brutalize each other to get the ball. It is not hockey, where a guy on ice skates gets "checked" (aka whacked) if he's got the puck.

It isn't even basketball, where 7-foot mastodons give each other a shove on the spine and a thump in the rump, jostling for a few precious feet of space by the hoop.

Mike Downey
Mike Downey

No, baseball is not played that way.

With one exception.

"Collisions at home plate." That is what they are called, in the lingo of the game. "A collision at the plate."

It occurs principally when a man is running at full speed, attempting to score a run for his side. If the ball gets there ahead of him, a catcher, shielded by equipment that includes a mask, shin guards and a Kevlar-like protective vest, like a cop from a SWAT squad, blocks the plate. Wham. Runner smashes into catcher, who must "tag" him with the ball (and not drop it) before that runner can step on home plate.

A-Rod blows cool, storms out of hearing
Decoding the perfect baseball swing
MLB Commissioner to retire after 2014

Savannah Guthrie, co-host of NBC's "Today" morning show, innocently professed her ignorance of baseball on Thursday, saying: "I never thought that was a play. ... I thought it was an accident."

No, it is quite deliberate. A runner runs as hard as he can into a catcher, becoming a human crash-test dummy.

Very exciting.

Unfortunately, there is a side effect. Somebody stands a chance of getting seriously hurt. Broken bones. Cartilage damage. Brain trauma.

Is this necessary? Is the "collision at home plate" such a key element of a centuries-old sport that the show must go on? Are we a bunch of wusses now, no longer willing or able to play this game in the way that our daddies and granddaddies did?

Or are we finally coming to our senses?

Major League Baseball believes the latter to be true. A proposal is being made, to be formally presented to team owners in January, to forever eliminate the "collision" from the baseball vernacular and rulebook.

No more bowling over the catcher. No more trying to "knock the ball out of his hands." No more trying to "knock him into the middle of next week," to quote some lame 20th century slang.

From now on, if agreed upon by all, a runner must slide into home plate -- or at the very least try to dodge the catcher and the ball -- rather than plow into him like a steer into a matador.

Concussions are becoming much too commonplace. Up-to-date medical knowledge is demonstrating how many ex-athletes suffer everlasting degeneration from the impacts of violent incidents on the field of play.

No matter how much you love the great game of baseball, you couldn't possibly believe that it would be less great a game if we no longer make a catcher "stand his ground" and await a blunt-force crash with a fellow human being.

Or could you?

People who follow baseball get their noses out of joint whenever somebody tries to change a rule. Instant replay would be a big help? No, it wouldn't. A time clock on the batter or pitcher would speed things up? Nuts to that. Warnings to both benches and mandatory ejections if a pitcher throws a ball at a batter on purpose? Namby-pamby nonsense. Don't fix what ain't broke! (Some people say.)

But come on, this is a good thing, right? Keeping a catcher from getting killed? Or a runner from breaking his neck?

This is a good thing, right? Keeping a catcher from getting killed? Or a runner from breaking his neck?
Mike Downey

Because that's what "collisions" cause, yes? Serious injury and potentially even death?

How did ex-catcher Bruce Bochy, now the manager of the San Francisco Giants, put it in a New York Times piece this week? "I think it's better to be proactive before we carry a guy off the field paralyzed and think, 'Why didn't we change this rule?' "

Amen to that.

Ballplayers current and past understand the danger. Bochy saw his star catcher, Buster Posey, severely injured in May 2011 when he was smashed into by Scott Cousins of the Florida (now Miami) Marlins, breaking a fibula and being lost for the rest of the year. Brian Sabean, the Giants' general manager, described Cousins' actions that day with the word "malicious."

But rules are rules, until we change them.

Managers galore are former catchers: Bochy, Mike Scioscia (Angels), Joe Girardi (Yankees), Joe Maddon (Rays), Mike Matheny (Cardinals), Ned Yost (Royals), Bob Melvin (A's), Fredi Gonzalez (Braves), John Gibbons (Blue Jays), Mike Redmond (Marlins). Each of them wore that backstop gear in their playing days. Each could tell you a story of a violent man-on-man crash.

Many are old enough to have a memory of the most famous baseball collision of all.

It happened at the 1970 All-Star Game. (Yes, a game that didn't even count.) Pete Rose on second base. Jim Hickman singles. From center field. Amos Otis throws the ball to Ray Fosse, his catcher. Rose barrels toward home plate. He slams into Fosse like a whale into a fishing boat. Fosse goes flying. So does the ball. Rose's team wins the game. Fosse, however, is never the same. He is seriously injured and supposedly can still feel a twinge of pain from that experience, 43 years later.

Occupational hazard?

OK, maybe. No one ever promised a catcher that baseball was going to be a waltz in the park, with nothing but love taps.

But maybe enough is enough. What would it hurt, trying to prevent someone being hurt?

MLB rule committee votes to impose rule eliminating home plate collisions

I went to a Detroit vs. Boston game on a June night in 1983. Kirk Gibson was at bat. Lou Whitaker was on first base. A fly ball sailed over Red Sox outfielder Tony Armas' head. Whitaker had to wait to make sure it wasn't caught. He then ran full speed, with Gibson right on his heels. Whitaker was tagged out by Rich Gedman, the catcher. Gibson kept coming. The umpire, Larry Barnett, got in his way, while calling Whitaker out. Gibson smashed into both the catcher and umpire. The ball ended up on the ground. The ump ended up in the hospital. "I was going to run over whoever was in my way," Gibson said afterward. "I was out if I don't."

The crowd, as they say, went wild. It was thrilling.

It also was scary. Runner, catcher AND umpire could have been hurt, even paralyzed, from a single play.

The score at that moment was 6 to 1. It wasn't a World Series, wasn't a walk-off game-winning run, wasn't a big deal. But that's the way guys like Gibson were taught to play, giving everything they've got, risk be damned. He was playing to win, period, and by the rules.

Nobody's fault.

But time for those rules to change.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mike Downey.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT