The Mets’ otherwise perfect road trip to Philadelphia earlier this week was marred by Josh Thole’s concussion on Monday night. With the score tied 2-2 in the bottom of the 8th, Thole blocked the plate and stopped Ty Wigginton from scoring. In the process, however, he took Wigginton’s left shoulder to his head, sending him down for several moments. Thole would leave the game and end up on the 7-day concussion specific DL.
Something notable about the replay of the incident was how SNY’s Keith Hernandez kept commenting, “It was a clean play.” By what stretch of the imagination is a catcher writhing on the ground and struggling to spit out “I’m real dizzy” the result of a clean play? Yes, Wigginton did not come to the plate with the intent of smashing in Josh’s skull, and it certainly wasn’t violent as the typical example of a “play at the plate,” but it doesn’t change the fact that Thole suffered a jarring blow to the head that resulted in his brain rattling around in his skull. We are learning more and more every day how dangerous concussions can be, and the NFL is in near crisis mode over the long-term effects they are having on its former employees. The Josh Thole injury begs the question: “What could have been done to prevent it?”
It is time Major League Baseball reconsider its most violent and antithetical tradition: the collision at the plate. The justification for the occurrence is understandable: you score a run if you can knock the ball out of the catcher’s glove. But the means of doing anything you can to jar it loose, even if it means decking a guy like he’s a running back in the open field, do not justify the ends. Baseball would punish this sort of physical violence in the flight of a Henry Rowengartner fastball in any other context, but since it happened at the home plate when a run was on the line, it is excused as “just part of the game.”
Recently, two other aspiring, young catchers missed significant playing time after a play at the plate gone wrong. Giants’ backstop Buster Posey lost more than 100 games of his sophomore season last May after his leg was destroyed by Marlin Scott Cousins. The Indians’ Carlos Santana was knocked out by a similar play against the Red Sox in August 2010, cutting short his rookie season. The effects from the injuries linger, if not physically than psychologically: the Giants have even gone so far as to ban Posey from blocking the plate in hopes of avoiding another incident.
Still, baseball purists will defend the collision the way they will defend anything that is “just part of the game.” The counterarguments include all the examples of great collisions in history, and aside from the final game between Rockford and Racine in A League of Their Own, the most famous and indelible image of the phenomenon is Pete Rose barreling over Ray Fosse to win the 1970 All Star Game at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium. Ask Ray Fosse if he thinks the collision is a great part of the game and you may get a different answer; while not the direct cause of his downfall, the separated shoulder Fosse would suffer was the first of a flood of injury that would drown a once-promising career.
The practice is a barbaric one, but one that does not have a simple fix. Here’s one possible solution: if that run is worth so much as to deck the catcher over for it, why not raise the stakes and sacrifice more? Perhaps the way to go is to throw the offending player out of the game for an attempted collision. The run would still count if he scored, but the base runner would not be allowed to return to the game. On one hand, it decreases the likelihood of excessively violent collisions by making players reconsider whether this run is worth leaving the game over. On the other hand, in the heat of the moment it may be too much to ask for a base runner to stop and think about whether to collide or not, and it still wouldn’t entirely protect catchers either.
The question of how to protect catchers while keeping the competitive spirit of the play at the plate alive may never be answered, but the dialogue must take place in order to prevent the catchers of tomorrow from ending up like Ray Fosse, Buster Posey, and most recently, Josh Thole.
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