Saturday, December 21, 2013

By Joe Tevelowitz, Columnist -

As MLB Rules Committee announced that new rules eliminating home plate collisions would be introduced for the 2014 season, and before the rule itself is written, it was expected for traditionalists to be up-in-arms over a change to what some deem such a fundamental part of the game.  Images of collisions of the plate highlight many a scrappy player's career and become part of the mythology of those able to overcome natural born skills with grit and toughness.  Eliminating home plate collisions takes away the most physical element of a game that chooses to tag rather than tackle as a means of stopping opposing players.  However, lost in the talk of trashing tradition or "sissifying" the sport lies the real motivation for the removal of what some deem such an important part of the game.  Baseball may no longer hold the same sway as the increasingly-popular National Football League, but America's Pastime is definitely taking note of the issues facing their helmeted brothers in deciding that, for all parties, its better safe than sorry.

While Major League Baseball has experienced dips in popular, as well as corresponding medically induced rises, the game itself has remained largely the same.  It's that stability that lends greater importance to baseball records and greater affection for the traditions of the game.  It's the reason why the idea of playing games at night with artificial lighting seemed so revolutionary at the time or why some were appalled at the idea of interleague play.  Yet, while both of those decisions were motivated by growing the game and increasing profits, elimination of the catcher and pitcher collision and with it that final brawl that separates safe from out, stems more from a fear of loss -- for both player and league.

The recent revelation that former major leaguer Ryan Freel suffered from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) prior to his suicide marks the first baseball player to be diagnosed with the same concussion-inflicted ailment that plagued  deceased professional football players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson.  While alone among baseball players with the CTE diagnosis, Freel was not alone in the hard-playing style he demonstrated over nine seasons with the Blue Jays, Reds, Orioles, Cubs and Royals and it would be foolish to assume he would be the only player to have ever taken the diamond that suffered from the degenerative brain disease.  Eliminating home-plate collisions does not take away completely from the physicality of baseball, it simply eliminates that action must likely to bring about concussions among both players involved.

Now, there remains a monetary motivation for even this rule, as there does for most decisions in professional sports.  However, the economics at play involve MLB's recognition that concussions, CTE and other effects from colliding head first with another player are a bigger risk than the reward of a highlight play at the plate are worth.  As the NFL faces the possibility of a class-action suit from former players dealing with the effects of a sport that is almost entirely about barreling into the other player in a collision-at-the-plate manner, the biggest risk is not the size of a future settlement, but rather the fundamental changes the league will one day be forced to make to continue. 

Baseball, already the least physical of the Big 4 in American sports (football, baseball, basketball, hockey -- sorry NASCAR) has battled concerned that more and more children are gravitating towards soccer.  Football on the other hand is slowly dealing with the effects of more and more parents preventing their children from throwing shoulder pads on.  These safety concerns, and the findings relating football to concussions to CTE and other lifelong and life-altering ailments, leave many wondering where the NFL will be in 50 years, if it's even operating at all.  Baseball, by eliminating the most dangerous of plays, is protecting itself from those same concerns, and that league protection is as important to them as protecting the players who make up their teams.

The memory of Darin Erstad putting it all on the line for one more run will always remain vivid.  And it's understandable why Pete Rose would be so opposed to a new rule that would have effectively undermined what Charlie Hustle stood for.  However, the ban on home plate collisions, however it is written, will not remove all those most exhilarating moments from the game of baseball, nor will it remove all those responsible for concussions or other lingering effects.  Rather, Major League Baseball recognizes that this rule is the cheapest risk avoider for both league and players.  Fans may mourn the loss of those breathtaking moments, when runner and catcher collide, as the umpire searches for the white of the ball inside the dark of the glove and the determination of tough is made by either holding on or putting enough oomph into your to knock it loose.  Yet, that loss is far easier to accept than that of another mentally-diminished player who gave us so much to cheer for, but ended up taking his own life. 

Love to hear what you think!

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