I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but real life got in the way (no complaints here, I like real life). This actually has a lot to do with real life, however, so maybe a bit of perspective wasn’t a bad thing after all.
You may have heard that as soon as they iron out the kinks and the MLBPA approves it, Major League Baseball is about to ban catcher collisions at home plate. This has met with a lot of resistance as certain fans and players alike have decried the potential move as cowardly and an affront to baseball history and true grit. Personally, I am very much in favor of this move because I’d prefer to see good players stay healthy and productive on the field than be incapacitated, even to the point of ending their careers.
The play at the plate is probably one of the most exciting plays in all of baseball, but as I’ve grown up, I realized that it just doesn’t make sense to keep it in the game. For one thing, the players are a lot bigger and stronger than they used to be, even with the improvement in protective equipment. The equipment, by the way, is designed to protect against foul balls, not large projectiles (read: major league baseball players) weighing over 170 pounds (and those are the small models!). Keeping the best players on the field is a good thing in my opinion, and therefore reducing unnecessary avenues of injury (where reasonable, which I believe this to be) is a benefit to the game of baseball.
Secondly, with baseball revenues rising and the best catchers (and the players who run into them!) getting lucrative contracts, it makes sense to protect the team’s investment. Teams have continually worked on reducing pitcher injury by spacing out starts, monitoring pitch counts, increasing strength and conditioning exercises, etc. Teams eventually think about moving their best players away from tougher defensive positions to first base to protect the player (and his bat, like the Twins are doing with Joe Mauer), but sometimes it is best for the team to just leave the player at catcher. However, you get what you pay for, and the best catchers (like Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, etc) get the most money, and losing them for any amount of time means paying big money for no production. So it makes sense from an economic standpoint to remove a major source of injury from the equation.
Sports fans like the gladiatorial nature of certain sports. Fans enjoy a good fight in hockey, a vicious hit in football, a defender bravely taking a charge in basketball, etc. But those plays take a toll on the player. The body is resilient, but it has a limit, only so many hits it can take before the mechanisms fail. And it’s not just the joints and core of the body, but the brain itself. Consider in football, where a series of concussions ended Steve Young’s career; there are numerous examples of careers that were terminated prematurely because a guy took too many blows to the head, even with the proper head protection. Mike Matheny, for example, had to retire because he took one too many foul balls to the facemask. Imagine the damage a baseball player, an object far more massive than a baseball, could do. These are the lucky examples; Ryan Freel committed suicide due in large part to concussion-related symptoms, so any blow to the head is a serious matter that even the NFL has to address these days.
In professional sports, we may scoff at rights and benefits for players when they are making such large salaries (even league minimum salaries can set up a guy for life if he’s careful with the money), but their health determines their longevity and earning power. It seems fair to me that ensuring reasonable safeguards to health is not too much to ask, and is not a suggestion that a player isn’t macho.
I would go so far to say that the sign of a player’s manhood is his drive for self-preservation such that he can continue to provide for himself, his family, and his team and organization. Ensuring productivity for the people most important to him is the true mark of a man, and I’m glad that MLB is working towards supporting this.