POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, May 27, 2011
If you're of a certain age you might remember when it was acceptable and often encouraged at all levels of baseball to plow into a catcher with the intent of dislodging the ball and scoring a run.
It was considered good, solid, tough play. Scoring in such a manner — or, perhaps even more so, the catcher holding on for the out in that situation — was often a huge rallying point for a team, going way beyond the one run or one out on the scoreboard. It was like a great stick in football or taking a charge in basketball. It was a way to earn your teammates' respect and change momentum in a close game.
Eventually, this was ruled illegal in youth and interscholastic versions of the game. Too dangerous.
Blocking the plate and crashing into the catcher, however, are still allowed in professional baseball. But maybe not for much longer if an overly reactionary element has its way.
It's been what ... 41 years?
There were many other major league home plate collisions after Pete Rose-Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game and before Scott Cousins-Buster Posey on Wednesday.
But why the outrage only now? Why was there never before such a significant cry to change the rules in pro baseball to better protect catchers from hard-charging baserunners? People still talk about Rose cleaning out Fosse, but it never generated a rule change.
Posey — a World Series champion and a rising young star — is probably out for the season with a fractured fibula and ligament damage in his ankle. The reaction is because of his prominence as a player coupled with the severity of the injury.
While the injury is obviously an undesirable outcome, Cousins did what he believed necessary to score a go-ahead run in extra innings. He was within the code of professional baseball to throw the full force of his body at Posey in that situation. This is true even though repeated viewings of the play make it clear Cousins had other options.
Because Posey was out in front of the plate, there was room for Cousins to hook slide or come in head first to the right and sweep the plate with his left hand.
But in the split-second he had for contemplation, Cousins determined this to be a situation where it would be better to go through than around.
Posey didn't catch the ball, but instinct still took him toward Cousins. The positioning of his legs gave his left ankle and knee nowhere to go upon impact, perhaps because of an error in technique by Posey, who converted to catcher from shortstop four years ago in college.
"Never go to your knees, unless you know the runner is sliding," said Pal Eldredge, who played catcher and coached the position for decades. "He's improved so much. But he's young as a catcher. You never want to see an injury like that, but it was a clean play."
Is baseball a contact sport? No, if by contact sport we mean bodies hitting others on every play or most of them, like in football or basketball. But it is a physically tough endeavor performed by tough athletes (especially catchers) — and sometimes that gets lost on a segment of fans mired in the romanticism of the game.
Many say the essence of baseball is the pitcher-batter confrontation. While that is true in many ways, I always felt it was the close plays at the plate in close games that truly define the game. There is only one way to score in baseball, and that's by crossing home. The close play at home is the most dramatic and significant in the sport.
As for catchers, they are the most unappreciated performers in all of sports. Never mind quarterback, catcher is the most demanding position in team athletics, but with way less glory. They are the smartest and the toughest.
Injuries are always regrettable, but unless there's a big rise in the number of collisions like the one Wednesday, catchers don't need the rules changed to protect them.
Overall, blocking the plate is still safer than going across the middle against an NFL secondary and lots of other things that happen on a football field.