Playing by the (changing) rules

212

A baseball screamed toward home plate from the hand of San Francisco Giants right fielder Nate Schierholtz. At the same time, Florida Marlins base runner Scott Cousins sprinted full force from third base toward home plate.

Poised at the crossroads was Giants’ catcher Buster Posey, focused on catching the flaming do-or-die throw and holding on for dear life to prevent Cousins from reaching home plate to score in a close game.

Brock Whitney slides into home against Utah earlier this season. Photo by Ari Davis
Brock Whitney slides into home against Utah earlier this season. Photo by Ari Davis

When the ball and base runner converged on Posey, a season ended, playoff hopes were damaged and a rule change considered.

“There is nothing more sacred in the game than home plate, and base runners want to do all they can to score a run, while catchers want to do their best to defend the plate — in many cases, at all costs,” said Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, in an MLB.com interview.

Rule changes have occurred, such as the new Major League Baseball season to limit “egregious collisions” at home plate involving the catcher and a base runner vying for control of precious home plate. Though baseball is not a contact sport, these confrontations frequently yield a severe collision at home plate that can cause injuries and end careers.

Brigham Young University baseball is no stranger to home-plate wrecks. In the 2013 BYU baseball season, catcher Jarrett Jarvis suffered a season-ending injury as a sophomore as a result of a home-plate collision.

“You have to block the plate because that’s a momentum changer every time,” said Jarvis, whose resolute protection of the plate helped preserve a 7-6 Cougar win over Portland in 2013.

Jarvis’s injury, which occurred on April 13, 2013, kept him out of the BYU lineup for the rest of his sophomore year; he still is only about 85–90 percent recovered. Now playing as BYU’s everyday catcher, Jarvis still feels the effects of a home-plate showdown.

Two years prior to Jarvis, Major League catcher for the San Francisco Giants, Buster Posey, was railroaded by Florida Marlins base runner Scott Cousins in a home-plate incident. This incident — highlighted by a concerned Cousins reaching out to Posey writhing on the ground in pain — was a major contributing factor to the MLB rule change.

“Catchers are just so vulnerable, and I don’t think you should ever be able to just take a guy out, especially after he has the ball,” said BYU baseball head coach Mike Littlewood, whose son is a professional catcher.

Already adopted by college and lower-level baseball programs, the new MLB rule stipulates that if a catcher does not have possession of the ball, he must leave space for a sliding runner to be able to reach home plate. Violations of this rule result in a runner being called out or safe, depending on the umpire’s call of who violated the rule.

Historical incidents also lend to the claims of the new rule’s necessity. In the 1970 MLB All-Star Game, Peter Rose separated the shoulder of catcher Fay Fosse in what is called baseball’s worst home-plate collision. Fosse’s career declined after the injury.

Rule changes in the MLB happen throughout the lifetime of baseball. A staff of umpires was not introduced to the game until 1879; pitches like the spitball were outlawed in 1920; the designated hitter rule replacing pitchers with dedicated hitters was introduced in the American League in 1973, changing dramatically the way the game is played.

“I think changes that protect players are always good,” said Littlewood, who supports the new collision rule but is less enthusiastic about replay changes.

In 2008, Major League Baseball first allowed limited instant replay for home run and fair or foul calls. Instant replay was expanded to the 2014 season to give coaches the opportunity to call for a review of close plays on the bases.

Changes like the 1973 designated hitter rule have huge implications for players, and college athletes are similarly impacted by MLB rule changes like that of the recent home-plate collision restriction.

Catchers, who have arguably the most intensive range of responsibilities of any position in baseball, stand to benefit from the new collision rule. Not having to worry as much about collisions helps reduce the workload of catchers, considered leaders on the field.

“You’re the captain of the field,” Jarvis said. “You have to direct where the ball should go because you can see everything.”

BYU baseball assistant coach Trent Pratt, a former professional catcher who played in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, is torn between the catcher culture he experienced in the pros and wanting to support player safety. He believes the new collision rule, however, will benefit both catchers and base runners.

“It should make catchers feel more comfortable,” Pratt said. “I would feel more comfortable knowing that if I give them a place to slide, they can’t come at me.”

Baseball rule changes, as with most any change, are not without extensive criticism.

Baseball purists and old-timers often staunchly oppose rule changes to the game they see as sacred. Former BYU pitcher Bob Noel, who pitched a perfect game for the Cougars in 1961, remembers back to a different time of college baseball.

“We had wooden bats in those days, not like the aluminum ones used in college now,” Noel said. “The players are bigger and stronger too.”

More hotly contested than the new collision rule is the extended use of instant replay, which, many complain, slows the already unhurried pace of baseball.

“I think in some cases it’s good, but overall I think it’s just going to slow the game down even more,” Jarvis said. “I know they’re trying to speed it up, but I think over the year they will find it really slows things down.”

The designated hitter rule is often criticized during interleague play because it requires American League pitchers who are not in shape for hitting, and are more likely injured in the attempt, to go up to the plate. This criticism intensified after the Houston Astros were moved to the American League, leaving both leagues with 15 teams and necessitating more regular interleague play.

A popular maxim holds that change is the only consistent thing in life; this could be applied to baseball as well. Coach Littlewood agrees.

“I just think whether we agree or not with rule changes, we just need to adapt because we have very little say in what goes on,” Littlewood said.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email