As vice president of on-field operations, Joe Torre is Major League Baseball’s point man on rule changes. If Torre doesn’t think a rule change is warranted, a proposed change isn’t going to get very far. He’s not the final arbiter — rule changes are made only by a vote of the owners and the players’ union — but he is the gatekeeper of rule-change ideas.
In the past several years, Torre’s been fending off requests to consider rule changes on home-plate collisions. Those requests reached a fever pitch in May 2011 after Scott Cousins voilently collided with Buster Posey, knocking the Giants’ catcher out for the season. Just days later, Astros’ catcher Humberto Quintero and Pirates’ catcher Ryan Doumit suffered serious injuries after home-plate collisions. Torre is a former catcher, and many hoped his experiences behind the plate would make him receptive to protecting catchers from head-on collisions. But, in fact, the opposite has been true.
Posey’s manager, Bruce Bochy, spent much of 2011 lobbying other managers. Many agreed with him, but Torre did not. Bochy and others would like to see a neutral zone around the catcher, particularly when he’s receiving a ball from right field. In such cases, the runner couldn’t simply put his shoulder down and barrel into the catcher at full-speed — as Cousins did to Posey. Torre wasn’t convinced. In late 2011, he spoke to Giants beat writer Andrew Baggarly
“Well, listen, I knew it was more emotional than anything else. None of us like to see that. But I really haven’t heard anything that would encourage me to change anything or recommend a change. Being a catcher for a lot of years, I knew what the consequences were.”
In other words: It’s always been done this way, so why change?
Bochy has continued to press the issue and has an active ally in Cardinals manager Mike Matheny — another former catcher — whose career was cut short after repeated concussions caused partly by home-plate collisions. And a few weeks ago, it looked like some progress was in the offing:
Bochy’s still trying to lobby managers to back a rule change to protect catchers on plays at plate. Said Joe Torre’s stance may be softening
— Andrew Baggarly (@CSNBaggs) February 9, 2013
But no. Torre hasn’t softened his stance. Not one bit, according to this story in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle.
“My stance has really never changed. I’ve always said I’m willing to listen and I’m willing to talk. If something makes sense, we’ll certainly take it seriously.
“If something is going to make the game safer and not affect the way the game is played, I’m certainly all for it. Up until now, I really haven’t heard that thing that would make us change.”
“And not affect the way the game is played.”
That’s the key point from Torre’s recent comments and it mirrors what he said back in 2011. Even if a rule change would make the game safer, it shouldn’t be pursued because it would “affect the way the game is played.”
Hmm. Seems we’ve heard a variation of this argument before. “Baseball is a game of history and tradition. You mess with that, and you mess with the very fabric, the very core of the game.”
“That’s why we can’t have black players in the game.”
“That’s why we can’t have instant replay.”
“That’s why we can’t have female umpires.”
“That’s why we must have a ban on PEDs and HGH.”
The integrity of the game. Or, rather, an idealized version of the integrity of the game, that must be preserved at all costs.
Baseball is a sport steeped in tradition but shouldn’t allow itself to be suffocated by it. Times change. Knowledge evolves. Batters wear helmets. Catchers wear masks. Runners on first can’t leave the baseline for the sole purpose of taking out the second baseman or shortstop on a slide. The league is investigating protective headgear for pitchers, after Brandon McCarthy took a line-drive off his head last season and needed emergency brain surgery to save his life.
Instant replay is here for foul ball/home run calls and much more is coming soon (although not soon enough). Will it change how the game is played when an off-the-field umpire quickly reviews a close play at first base and overrules the on-field umpire? Of course it will. Will it make the game better? I think so. It certainly will make the game more fair and more accurate.
Last season, I wrote about the spate of lawsuits against the NFL by former players who have developed, or fear developing, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from repeated blows to the head. I wondered if similar lawsuits were likely against MLB for life-threatening injuries suffered by players hit in the head by pitches. I concluded then that MLB was likely safe from liability because it hadn’t withheld information from players, as the NFL is accused of doing. Now I wonder what will happen if MLB takes no action to protect catchers from head-on collisions in the face of mounting evidence that repeated blows to head could cause long-term brain damage.
But it shouldn’t come to that.
Change the rule, MLB. Change it because doing so makes the game safer. And if that means the game isn’t played in the future exactly as it was played in the past, so be it.