Column: Protect the player, not the plate

A Centennial High School baseball player is struck in the head with a fastball at Mamaroneck High School in 2012. Although the health risks involved with playing competitive sports can never be eliminated entirely, certain moves, like MLB’s decision to ban home plate collisions, are certainly steps in the right direction, according to Sports Editor Mike Smith. File Photo

A Centennial High School baseball player is struck in the head with a fastball at Mamaroneck High School in 2012. Although the health risks involved with playing competitive sports can never be eliminated entirely, certain moves, like MLB’s decision to ban home plate collisions, are certainly steps in the right direction, according to Sports Editor Mike Smith. File Photo

Although Major League Baseball’s winter meetings failed to yield a ton of hot-stove action last week, there was some notable news that made its way out of Florida that caused something of a stir. It wasn’t about Mark Trumbo and it wasn’t about Curtis Granderson. MLB decided to make the game a little bit safer by taking its first step to eliminate collisions at home plate.

Although the rule change isn’t yet set in stone—the players union still needs to give its stamp of approval—I see this as a step in the right direction. But not everyone agrees with me.

Of course, any time changes are made—especially to a sport like baseball, which tends to romanticize its link to the past—there are going to be detractors. Some people—like my father—still don’t think the designated hitter has a place in the sport. Although I tend to disagree with these “baseball purists,” I’m at least willing to hear their arguments out when it comes to matters such as the DH.

But when it comes to safety matters, I think we’ve got to err on the side of caution.

Over the past few years, as more is learned about the effects of brain trauma, sports leagues at all levels have made some strides to limit the danger in which they put their athletes. Whether it be ImPACT testing at the high school level, penalizing helmet-to-helmet hits in the NFL, or simply having trainers equipped with better knowledge of how to define and deal with head injuries, concussions—and player safety—have become a hot-button issue.

But the push to keep players safe has been met with resistance. Be it former players, like Pete Rose—who famously ruined catcher Ray Fosse’s career by barreling him over at the 1970 All-Star game—or the fans that idolized his hard-nosed style, there is a sentiment that precautionary health measures are somehow “wimp-ifying” our nation’s athletics.

“What’s this game coming to?” Rose said. “Evidently the guys making all these rules never played the game of baseball.”

And while Rose’s sentiments are echoed by many Major Leaguers, the decision to ban collisions at the plate has been praised by former big league catchers, “old-school” guys like Mike Scioscia and Mike Matheny—proof that not everyone is worried about what this rule change might mean for the integrity of the game.

Sure, tradition is important. But does this latest rule change threaten to shake the game to its very core? Last time I checked, home plate collisions are illegal in just about every level of baseball—the NCAA banned them in 2011. Somehow, runs still score and plays at the plate still happen. Sure, watching a catcher get flattened is one of the more exciting plays in baseball, but how often does it really happen?

Although we may think of our professional athletes as super human, we’re seeing all too often that they aren’t.

At the end of the day, what is more important? Holding onto these ideals of our players’ masculinity that were established long before any connection was made between head trauma and early on-set dementia—see the 2012 suicide of former big leaguer Ryan Freel as just one example—or taking a small step to make inherently dangerous games just a little bit safer.

I choose the latter. And so should the player’s union.

 

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About Mike Smith

Mike Smith has been with Hometown Media Group since 2007, serving as the company’s Sports Editor. Mike has been commended for his work by the New York Press Association, winning awards in 2008 for “Best Sports Feature” and again in 2009 as part of a team that put together “The Game,” a breakdown of the Harrison-Rye football rivalry, which won for “Best Special Section.” His weekly column, “Live Mike,” offers his unique insights into a broad range of topics in the sports world. He resides in Eastchester, N.Y. and spends most of his free time serving as the player-manager for a competitive men’s baseball team in New York City. Reach Mike at 914-653-1000 x22 or sports@hometwn.com; follow him on Twitter @LiveMike_Sports.