Take it like a man?

Everybody loves it when people get whacked.

There is something primeval, something deeply satisfying, something pupil-wideningly marvellous about the sight of another human being sustaining a hit so hard you wonder how they could ever get up.

In the NHL and the NFL, the absence of massive collisions would make the sports relatively pedestrian affairs that would draw few spectators – no-one’s going to pay to watch 300 pound linemen indulging in glorified man hugs for three hours. The fact that those hits are putting retired (and even high school) athletes into an early grave remains of only marginal concern to both the public at large and the governing bodies themselves, though things are beginning to improve. Locker room cultures had long dictated that anything short of amputation or a spouting artery is frowned on as a reason for holding yourself out of a game, that a “real man” will play through the pain, be that the pain of a damaged ligament or of a concussion.

Baseball is almost entirely free of collision-dependency for its popularity, with one glaring exception. When a runner is coming in to score and tries to knock the ball out of the hand of the catcher, who may be waiting for him, or more commonly just receives the ball a split-second before the runner gets there. If the catcher is out of position the runner will usually try to slide around the tag, but if the catcher is over the plate then the runner will try to knock the ball loose. This usually means a head or shoulder-first charge by a full speed runner into a stationary catcher.

Last week, the San Francisco Giants’ best hitter and starting catcher, Buster Posey, sustained a season ending mangling of his left leg when the Florida Marlins’ Scott Cousins took him out on a play at the plate. On the play, Posey was over the plate waiting to receive the ball, which he received a split-second before the arrival of Cousins, who dived straight at the catcher, knocking him backwards as his ankle did physiologically impossible things underneath him. The result was a broken leg, torn ligaments and the end of Posey’s season. Opinion is unanimous that the play was “legal”, but divided as to whether it was fair.

Some people have said that Posey should have avoided the collision by not blocking the plate, that all catchers have the option of not getting injured by not blocking the plate. Well guess what, every catcher in the minor leagues who declines to block the plate will either fail to make it to the majors, or if they get there it won’t be as a catcher. Take it like a man is the mantra here – you owe it to your team to risk your body, except that with plays like this it’s less of a risk and more of a deliberate sacrifice. The injuries aren’t usually as bad as Posey’s, but they’re frequently enough to put the catcher (the stationary person getting ploughed into) out of action for a while.

You could change the law to say that deliberately knocking the ball out of the catcher’s glove would result in the runner being given out, although that would be difficult to judge. You could say that catchers are not allowed to deliberately block the plate, though that would hand a massive advantage back to runners. You could say that runners are only allowed to go in feet first, and low, which again would be difficult to police, ascertaining whether “low” was “low” enough on any given play.

Something has to change though. Blindsiding or just running over another person who’s standing still isn’t manly or combative or daring, it’s assault. In the NFL when Linebackers and Safeties preen themselves after levelling a (typically smaller) Wide Receiver I want to slap them (from the blind side, of course) and tell them they’re as brave as a sniper in a chicken farm.

Given the long-standing nature of this problem there is no obvious solution, but I have a suggestion: give catchers the right to charge a runner. i.e. instead of place more restrictions on the players, take all the restrictions off. Rather than risk serious injury they would then be risking serious…death. The deterrent against players charging each other would be almost absolute, but only almost.

What could be more exciting?

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