While many seem to be coming out in favour of the new, experimental rule regarding collisions at home plate, others, mainly “old school” players and coaches, have been somewhat critical.
The rule and its explanation can be found here but, to distill it down to its essence, basically, runners can’t go out of their way to knock the ball loose and catchers can’t block the plate without the ball. Fundamentally, this has always been the rule but it’s getting a little bit more clarity thanks to Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association.
Listening to Shi Davidi and Buck Martinez (in separate interviews on Sportsnet Radio 590AM) talk about this rule, I got the feeling that people were saying that it was a bad idea just because it was different. In Martinez’s interview, the idea that the game was changing and he didn’t want to see it change anymore was certainly a theme. Martinez grudgingly admitted that he would have liked to be a catcher while this rule was in effect because, in his view, it gives the advantage to the catcher.
Alan Ashby, another catcher-turned-broadcaster, admitted that he hadn’t had a chance to read the rule since it had been announced but told Jeff Blair “I just don’t know, it strikes me as so different than the game has been played for so long.” Once again, there is a resistance to change amongst old players who think that something is part of the game when it really is an unnecessary act. It’s a very similar stance to those who advocate fighting in hockey.
What bothers me is that anti-collision rules are not new to baseball or fast-pitch softball and yet these major leaguers are treating this rule as something that completely changes the game. In the high-level fast-pitch that I’ve worked, you still have contact at the plate and you still have close plays. What you don’t have are runners lowering their shoulders and running at a catcher with the sole intent of hitting him so hard that he drops the ball. The rule for those leagues is clear and the players (for the most part) understand that they will be called out automatically and will likely be ejected from the game for running the catcher. I think I’ve made that call once in my almost-20 year umpiring career. The ability to eject a player for flagrant and deliberate collisions also keeps the game under control and minimizes retaliation by the other team and/or bench-clearing brawls.
The fact that old school players are so resistant to change, even when it doesn’t fundamentally change anything about the game, really bothers me. There will still be contact and there will still be close and exciting plays. The catcher doesn’t have to vacate his position if a runner is coming nor does the runner have to avoid the catcher like Victor Martinez does below.
Martinez knew that he was toast at the plate. Sure, he could have slid or dived or jumped to try to get around the catcher but obviously, Martinez didn’t feel that he could do that. More so than catchers getting hurt because of collisions, we can tell that it’s the right time to implement this rule because of plays like the one in the video. Victor Martinez’s only other choice would have been to run over the catcher so why didn’t he? It was probably because he didn’t see the point of potentially injuring another player on the off chance that he was able to jar the ball loose. While millions of dollars are at stake for wins and losses, is it worthwhile to physically assault another player in a sport that isn’t built on physical contact and collision in the same way that football and hockey are?
In my opinion, this is the right thing to do although the rule has one glaring weakness. It doesn’t address what should happen if the catcher is about to receive the ball. In that split second between the time that the catcher is about to receive the ball, especially coming from right field, and turning to tag the runner, he is at his most vulnerable. According to this rule, he can’t block the plate but if the throw takes him into the path of the runner and the runner doesn’t deviate from his path,* there will be at least some contact. Which, for me, is fine.
This rule is not going to change the game dramatically and anyone who objects to it is looking for a reason to dispute any change because “change is bad.” I think those who are open-minded to will be able to see it for what it is, a slight tweak that will actually enable umpires to treat home plate as if it were like any other base. After all, you can’t bodycheck the second baseman when you’re trying to steal second so why can you do it at home plate? No, the rule isn’t perfect, but to protest even before it’s tested in action and we can see how the umpires are going to interpret it is just resistance to change for its own sake.
*Note: Baseball rules explicitly state that the basepath is not the chalk line that is marked. It is the path that the runner is running on once the fielder is preparing to tag him. In other words, the baseline only becomes established when a play is being made on a runner and in the new rule, the runner cannot leave his established baseline (a direct line from the runner to home plate) in order to make contact with the fielder.
Don’t forget about The 2014 Toronto Blue Jays Minor League Handbook, available March 31 as an ebook at Smashwords.com, Amazon, Apple iBooks, Kobo and other fine retailers for $7.99. Come back in early March for pre-order information.