Former catcher and current St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny is in the news for his opinion on catchers blocking home plate, and generally when an article begins with a sentence like "former player and current manager so-and-so is in the news for his opinion about an aspect of the sport he played and works in," it's because he wishes something about his current job was more like it was back in his day. Not so this time: On Tuesday he voiced his recent conversion to the idea that collisions at home plate, between runners trying to score and the catchers trying to stop them, should be banned.
Considering former catcher, former manager and current MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Joe Torre believes nothing of the sort, it's unlikely there will be any movement on a change in the rulebook -- or enforcement thereof -- for the upcoming season, though Matheny has requested a meeting with Torre to make his case in person. Regardless of Torre's personal feelings on the matter, however, it's unlikely that baseball will make it through another season or two without a very public revision of the league's policy on player collisions at the plate. And though the serious injuries suffered by Giants catcher Buster Posey and Indians backstop Carlos Santana in recent years will be brought up as reasons why, the thing that is likely to actually push MLB over the edge into trying to enforce a cultural change among its players -- something every professional sports league is reluctant to do, but baseball more than most -- only tangentially involves keeping players healthy and safe.
Instead, it has to with money, lawsuits, and the concept of legal liability. The NFL is dealing with this right now, as a court case brought by former NFL players concerning the league's non-action and alleged outright deception about the severity and regularity of head injuries and concussions makes its way slowly through the legal process. Other sports are taking notice not just of the NFL's ongoing public relations war to try and limit the damage of the lawsuit, but of the implications that lawsuit could have for them should a group of former hockey or baseball players get together and claim something similar. Leagues are taking steps now so that in the future, their lawyers can point back at those rules and say that the league fulfilled its legal duty.
In a legal environment where a major sports league is facing a lawsuit for not adequately protecting its players from the dangers of physical contact and headshots, then, it has to concern MLB that the act of hard, violent contact between a runner coming home to score and a catcher playing his position properly is not only an accepted cultural fact of the game but an act that is provided for by the sport's official rulebook. Rule 7.06 in the Official Baseball Rules concerns the act of obstruction: a fielder preventing a baserunner from taking the base to which he is entitled. Rule 7.06(b), which specifies when the umpire is to call time following an act of obstruction, has a comment appended to it about runners advancing after being obstructed, and attached to that comment is this note:
The catcher, without the ball in his possession, has no right to block the pathway of the runner attempting to score. The base line belongs to the runner and the catcher should be there only when he is fielding a ball or when he already has the ball in his hand.
On first glance this rule seems like a point in the league's favor, and from a pure player health standpoint it is: organizations should not be teaching catchers to set up to receive the throw from the cutoff man inside the baseline, and as far as I'm aware none of them still do. However, from a liability standpoint, this means that the rules do permit the catcher to occupy the baseline once he has possession of the ball -- meaning that it is legal to block the plate with the baseball, and it is legal to run anyone with the baseball blocking the plate over. As far as I am aware there is no other rule in the rulebook, either in section 7 or elsewhere, that contradicts this.
Does the mere fact that contact is legal under MLB rules make them liable for the negative outcomes of all contact that occurs? Of course not. If it did the NFL and NHL would be in court every day. But the contact between a runner trying to score and a catcher is not the same as a normal check in hockey or a standard tackle in football; when a runner hits a catcher, he is moving at full speed in a straight line at a person standing still. Regardless of the fact that the catcher is wearing protective gear, or if he is ready and bracing for the hit, the situation is more apt to the penalty of interference in hockey or hitting a defenseless receiver in the NFL -- the only difference, really, is that unlike in those two situations, in baseball the guy breaking the rules most of the time is the one being hit.
Though it is legal for the catcher to try and physically impede a baserunner as he approaches the plate so long as he's holding the baseball, there's no particular reason why this should be the best place for him to stand to tag the runner out. The baserunner can't leave his straight line home and he's out if he leaves the baseline to flying tackle the catcher, so standing off the baseline with the glove poised to slap a tag on the runner as a part of his body nears the plate on the third base side would seem to be the most effective position. In fact, it's why catchers generally set up in front of the plate and a few steps up the line to receive the ball, so they can smoothly swipe a tag. And there's far less chance the ball gets knocked loose if the guy holding it isn't being leveled by a professional athlete the moment he applies the tag. Matheny put it best in a recent interview when he rhetorically asked why no one ever tried to block third base.
For the sake of argument, though, let's say that MLB's rules on obstruction reasonably satisfy any obligation the league has to protect its catchers. There's still a second, more substantial problem with the note attached to the comment appended to Rule 7.06(b): the only penalty that a catcher suffers for blocking the baseline without the baseball is … getting hurt when the runner bowls him over. This brings us back to the most important part of liability: having a rule does nothing to show you're not liable if you're not actually enforcing it. To my knowledge, no umpire has called obstruction on a catcher blocking the baseline without the ball in at least the last three years. I cannot think of a single instance where I've seen it or heard of it happening, whether while writing about baseball, playing it as a kid or watching as a fan.
The earliest this comment could have entered the rulebook was in 1977, when the Playing Rules Committee voted to merge their notes/appendices to the rules to the rulebook itself; I would be shocked if in all the baseball played between then and now, there were more than five instances of umpires actually calling obstruction as outlined in 7.06(b). Honestly, I'm pretty confident in saying there hasn't been one.
Broadly speaking, having a rule on the books that isn't enforced is no different from having no rule at all as far as a court of law is concerned. And while amending the rules of the game is an onerous process not lightly undertook a few weeks before the season, there's something very easy that Mike Matheny can insist Joe Torre start doing right now: impressing on umpires the need to actually call obstruction when obstruction occurs, and punish umpires if they're unwilling to fall in line with the new policy. If some of the older umpires see this as an unwelcome intrusion on their interpretation of the rulebook or their ability to make judgment calls, MLB should free them to find some other professional baseball league to work in. As it happens, not being able to control the employees charged with the actual oversight responsibilities isn't a viable defense either.
The point has sometimes been raised that due to the nature of the game, hard collisions at the plate will always happen regardless of changes to the rules or their enforcement. While I think that viewpoint seriously underplays the number of preventable injuries that could be stopped by catchers playing their position the way they were taught, the fact is that it's really immaterial if hard collisions completely stop or not. Would seriously enforcing Rule 7.06(b) lead to fewer collisions at the plate, and fewer injuries? Probably, though it would take a while for players to get used to the new policy.
Would a strict prohibition against catchers blocking the plate stop every collision, concussion or knee injury? No. Catchers would still catch elbows in the head trying to make a tag, or get caught out of position every now and again and leveled. It's important to realize, however, that while MLB would certainly like the outcome of stricter enforcement to be fewer (or no) injuries, that wouldn't really be why it's doing it. Not so a star catcher doesn't get trucked when he's blocking the plate without a ball and miss months of the season -- though that'd certainly be nice. But so that after that star catcher retires, if he sues for negligence or unsafe working conditions the league can point to how they did everything in their power to stop him from making an illegal play, and he kept doing it anyway.
So while there's no particular reason to believe that Mike Matheny will be the one to make Joe Torre have a come-to-Jesus moment about a baseball idea under thirty years old, there's a decent enough reason to believe that change is coming anyway. I don't think that collisions at the plate will ever disappear entirely -- though I won't miss them if they do -- but I don't think they have to for the league to reasonably address the safety of its catchers. Once catchers get used to not blocking the plate without the ball, they'll probably discover they don't have to block the plate with it, either.
MLB has already written the right rules. Now it just has to enforce them. Over time, the rest should take care of itself.