Monday, May 30, 2011

For the health of a catcher

By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*

Baseball is not a contact sport -- except for catchers, that is. San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey guarded home plate in the traditional fashion earlier this month, standing over home plate as the throw came from outfield. The runner also responded in traditional fashion, smashing into Posey to score the winning run. Posey never caught the ball. The video shows Posey took a frightening hit. And he's now out for the season with a broken leg and torn ligaments.

Some have suggested that if Posey were a third-string catcher, no one would care. But Posey is a star player for the World Champions and one of the top hitters in baseball. The team has a huge investment in his performance. Many are now asking whether regulations to prevent -- or at least reduce - contact at home plate.

In light over rising concerns about concussions in football and hockey, baseball's attention to home plate collisions seems warranted. Baseball already has rules against blocking runners in the base paths. But the home plate collision is perhaps the most exciting play in the game and fans like it. The movie A League of Their Own climaxed when the base runner smashed into the catcher to score the winning run in the World Series.

The proposed rules include forbidding the catcher from blocking the plate -- unless he has full control of the ball. An alternative is to prohibit the runner from having any contact with the catcher if the catcher has control of the ball. Both alternatives have a downside. Catchers are often forced up the third base line to catch the call. And runners may have difficulty making split second decisions about whether the catcher has control of the ball.

However, in other sports we expect players to make those split second decisions. Pass rushers have to avoid hitting the quarterback if he has already thrown the ball, for instance.

And some catchers are opposed to changes. They think the home plate collision is just one of the risks of playing the game. Players can get hurt, and not just a home plate. The can be hurt sliding into third, leaning into a slider or catching a pop fly.

But it seems that if you have a game like baseball, a game of inches where speed and finesse are as important as mass and power, the game could survive without the home plate collision. Yes, it's an incredibly exciting play. But wouldn't a sneaky hook slide be just as exciting?

And if we want to see the best-of-the-best on the field facing each other at the end of the year, why would we want to sacrifice a few of them to injuries that might be avoided? If we looked at the Posey collision and considered the principle of beneficence -- that one ought not to inflict harm -- such plays would be avoided. Or you can weight the harm of the collision against the entertainment value it offered professional baseball. Is the excitement of one play in May worth the loss of one of the heroes of October?