Sometimes, when Bruce Bochy comes out with one of his notions, you can practically hear Robert Redford telling Paul Newman: "You just keep thinkin', Butch. That's what you're good at." A few years ago at spring training, Bochy mentioned he thought interleague games should follow the rules of the visiting team so that AL fans in cities such as Kansas City and Seattle could see National League ball and vice versa. The idea seemed like a throwaway line at first, but advanced quickly from intriguing to clever to "Why aren't they already doing this?"
In May 2011, the day after a home-plate collision contorted Buster Posey's left ankle into a mass of torn ligaments and a bone fracture, Bochy started talking about banning football-style contact at home plate. He sounded reactionary, willing to grab at a thought that made the loss of the Giants' most valuable position player an injustice rather than just misfortune. Then he kept talking about it, and lobbying, trying to turn other managers, luring supporters out of silence. With none of the politician's affect, he even cultivated the core of a stump speech: I don't want to see somebody paralyzed because we didn't change this rule.
Less than three years later, his radical idea has become a near-inevitability. Joe Torre, the rules czar of MLB, said Tuesday a written proposal would be distributed at baseball's winter meetings next month and that attitudes had shifted in favor of banning collisions, perhaps as soon as this season. He plans to meet with Bochy and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, a former catcher who retired prematurely because of concussions, at the meetings.
Twenty years from now, baseball fans will watch archival footage of Pete Rose leveling Ray Fosse or Scott Cousins slamming into Posey and wonder: What the hell were they thinking? Which is exactly what a lot of fans and baseball insiders said when Bochy first spoke up with backing from Giants general manager Brian Sabean.
Joe Mauer's announcement this week that he would move to first base after a concussion ended his season in mid-August adds weight to the argument against collisions, even though foul tips were the culprits in his brain injury.
"I think it should make our case stronger for trying to protect these guys around the plate," Bochy said by phone Tuesday. "… It doesn't make any sense that we haven't made any change, because they have in every sport [for safety purposes].
In football, you can't hit in the head, you can't hit low, but a catcher you can hit him anywhere."
The hazard of foul tips presents difficult questions. Do the new hockey-style masks increase the force and the danger vs. the old helmet with a mask strapped on over it? Research done by the Giants' training staff after Matheny's career ended abruptly in San Francisco showed no difference. Bochy played catcher and wore only a cap with a mask over it, and he does not believe he ever suffered a concussion. He allows for the possibility that his generation, less attuned to brain trauma, overlooked damage as it was done.
For now, there is no way to play catcher without assuming those risks. The collisions, however, are unnecessary, which is why they have to stop.
Bochy has always made decency the centerpiece of his campaign, but in the stretch drive, he's taking up the bad-business argument, too. It is, as A's general manager Billy Beane has said, absurdly inefficient to set up showdowns that can undo a roster and a payroll (whether the catcher or baserunner gets hurt) for the sake of a single run.
Posey, a batting titlist and MVP like Mauer, wants to stay behind the plate, and the Giants say they will keep him there, for now. Assuring he cannot be run down at home makes it easier for his bosses to let him stay in a job that is effectively every team's captaincy.
Mauer signed an eight-year $184 million deal with the Twins in 2010, cashing in on three batting crowns, an MVP award and his skills as a catcher -- he earned his third Gold Glove after he got the contract. With limited power (105 home runs in 10 major-league seasons), he would not be considered a $184 million first baseman.
"For a ballclub, those are decisions made when you sign a guy as a catcher, not a first baseman or third baseman or an outfielder," Bochy said. "If you have to move him, he may not have as much value. [Yadier] Molina, the way he handles the staff, he won't have as much value if he's not behind the plate."
Putting a catcher at unnecessary risk can also imperil the development of a franchise's pitchers, he said. Teams have often tolerated weak offensive skills in a catcher who can field his position well and help pitchers thrive. They'd also, with limited options, make the opposite tradeoff, but Bochy sees an increasing reluctance to give up pitching-management skills for a robust OPS.
"Teams don't want to put an offensive guy who can't run the staff behind the plate as much as they used to," he said. "They want a guy who can run the staff. That priority's getting even stronger."
When Bochy first proposed ending collisions at the plate, I thought that his passion would pass as Posey healed and that the game wouldn't and couldn't surrender the tradition and thrills of full-body contact at the most important station on the basepaths. Bochy, outwardly an old-schooler, was ahead of his time. Cue Newman's Butch Cassidy: "Boy, I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals."