Just before opening day, major league baseball and the players association announced several policies designed to better diagnosis and treat concussions. Despite the progressive measures adopted, however, there are many more steps that can be taken, not the least of which involves enforcing the current rules as they pertain to plays at the plate.
Baseball is not supposed be a collision sport, but that’s sure how it looked yesterday in Colorado when Justin Upton tried to score on Melvin Mora’s weak groundball to short stop. On the play, which occurred with the score tied in the top of the 10th, Troy Tulowitzki fielded the slow roller and fired home to Chris Iannetta, who was immediately blind sided by the forearm of Upton. Incredibly, Iannetta held onto the ball and escaped injury (at least one that we know of), but it’s easy to see how a different outcome could have resulted. After all, even the NFL, which sells violence, has rules against slamming into a defenseless receiver, so it seems ridiculous that baseball would tolerate such a play.
The catcher, without the ball in his possession, has no right to block the pathway of the runner attempting to score. The base line belongs to the runner and the catcher should be there only when he is fielding a ball or when he already has the ball in his hand.” – MLB rule 7.06(b)
As mentioned, baseball doesn’t need to make any rule changes to eliminate this needlessly dangerous play from the game. All it has to do is enforce ones that already exist. For starters, catchers, like all other fielders, ARE NOT allowed to block the plate. According to Rule 7.06b, “The catcher, without the ball in his possession, has no right to block the pathway of the runner attempting to score. The base line belongs to the runner and the catcher should be there only when he is fielding a ball or when he already has the ball in his hand.”
What we see instead are catchers who set up squarely in front of home while they await the incoming throw, even though the rule only permits access to the baseline when absolutely necessary. On most plays at the plate today, catchers are usually guilty of obstruction, but tacit acceptance of blocking the plate has nullified enforcement of this rule.
Rules governing the runner’s role in a collision at home plate aren’t as clear. There are several rules that cover base runner interference, but deliberate, violent contact is not addressed. However, there is plenty of precedent to suggest that it is impermissible to forcefully try to dislodge the ball from a fielder at every other base but home plate. The most high profile example occurred in game six of the 2004 ALCS, when Alex Rodriguez tried to dislodge the ball from Bronson Arroyo’s glove by using a tomahawk chop. On that play, the umpires declared Arod out on interference, although the action would probably have been permitted if the play occurred at home plate.
The incongruent interpretation of the interference rule makes no sense. If a runner can’t plow into a second baseman awaiting a tag, why is the catcher fair game? Some will argue that a catcher is better protected, but on some plays at the plate, the mask and helmet have been discarded, leaving the backstop with only shin guards and a chest protector. In other words, a catcher’s head is sometimes just as exposed as any other fielder’s.
If baseball is really serious about curtailing concussions, or any type of injury for that matter, it would immediately instruct umpires to start enforcing existing obstruction rules and provide better guidance on how to interpret interference calls on runners attempting to score. There is probably a segment of the fan base that enjoys when baseball makes a foray into pro football, but an occasional cheap thrill isn’t worth the risk of injury. I know I’d much rather watch Joe Mauer take 600 at bats in a season than see him carried off the field on a stretcher.