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Former Major Leaguer Gabe Kapler wants collisions to remain part of the game

Dec 20, 2013, 6:00 PM EDT

joe mauer getty Getty Images

[Edit: The title originally included the word "concussion" rather than "collision", which made Kapler look bad for something he didn't say. It was an unfortunate malapropism on my part. I apologize for the mistake.]

Former Major Leaguer Gabe Kapler penned a thoughtful piece about the home plate collision issue over at FOX Sports. It’s nice to hear the viewpoint of someone who not only played the game but lived the actual experience of a brutal home plate collision. Kapler wants those collisions to stay in baseball, even though they caused him injury and ostensibly some time off the end of his career.

I do happen to disagree very strongly with Kapler, however, on many of his points. Rather than go through line-by-line, I’d like to summarize his main points and then respond to them broadly. His points:

  • It’s reasonable for baseball to “embrace its masculinity”, especially since both fans and players love it, and if baseball can do it safely
  • Suggested rule change: runner may hit the catcher below the shoulders, which would allow baseball to keep the collisions while reducing rate of concussions
  • Ancillary effect of above rule change: runners would be forced to further lower themselves, which would encourage aggressive slides more than collisions
  • Simultaneous news of Ryan Freel’s CTE and baseball’s decision to ban collisions should not, but will be, linked

First off, about “embracing masculinity”: Give or take a few percentage points, half of baseball’s audience is female, so that’s insulting right off the bat. That’s without mentioning men who identify more as female and vice versa, and those that have had surgical alterations. We can make arguments about our favorite things about our favorite game without showing preference to only cis men.

Then there’s the assumption that toughness, willingness to take risks, etc. are good traits to have as a man, and that’s just not true. Men die earlier than women do in part because they are socialized to embrace riskiness. According to the American Psychological Association, men are 25 percent less likely than women to have visited a doctor in the last year. Sound familiar? Baseball players are often pressured into playing through pain and avoiding the trainer as much as possible. For every one woman who is cited for reckless driving, nearly three and a half men are cited for the same offense. Men are more than three times more likely than women to drive without seatbelts. According to a recent survey, nearly ten percent more women wear helmets while riding a motorcycle than men.

To Kapler’s second and third points about amending the rules to still allow collisions but only below the head – concussions can still happen without a direct blow to the head. For instance, a runner can barrel into the catcher’s chest, and as the catcher falls back, his head slams into the dirt. Or he can even stay upright, but all the stuff inside of his skull – like his brain — bounces around like it was in a mosh pit. Furthermore, Kapler’s suggested rule wouldn’t have protected Buster Posey from Scott Cousins when the latter slammed into the former on May 2011. Posey suffered a broken fibula and severely strained ligaments in his left ankle.

As a result of that injury, many expect the Giants to eventually move Posey behind the dish to first base. The Twins have already done just that with Joe Mauer, who has suffered a concussion himself. The Giants signed Posey to a nine-year, $167 million contract extension last March; the Twins signed Mauer to an eight-year, $184 million extension in March 2010. Other teams like the Yankees with Brian McCann (five years, $85 million) and the Cardinals with Yadier Molina (five years, $75 million) also look at MLB’s decision to ban collisions with a vested interest as well.

The people in front offices don’t care so much about baseball’s culture so much as they care about their investments. The Twins having to move Mauer from catcher to first base significantly hurts their investment in myriad ways – elite-hitting catchers are rare, but elite-hitting first basemen are not; healthy catchers are rare, but healthy first basemen are common; catcher is a very difficult position to play well, but first base is a relatively easy position to play.

How about the fans? Fans may love collisions, but they love seeing their favorite teams’ star players more, and they love seeing their favorite teams win, too. I witnessed that firsthand as a Phillies fan. Tickets became extremely expensive from 2009-11, when the Phillies were on their stampede through the NL East. But the star players got old and went on the disabled list frequently, and the team stopped winning in 2012. Attendance waned and tickets became cheap and easy to find because Ty Wigginton, not Ryan Howard, was at first base. To bring it back to the Giants, they are a less profitable business when Guillermo Quiroz, not Posey, is behind the plate catching Matt Cain. This isn’t just a culture issue — it’s a business issue, too. (This is without making an aside on the $765 million settlement the NFL made with over 18,000 retired players due to concussion-related brain injuries, which Major League Baseball certainly watched with a close eye.)

But about that culture… people within a culture, particularly those that have benefited from it, are not very likely to actively help change it. The best teams in a team sport have unit cohesion. If you are going rogue, criticizing your sport’s culture (and, consequently, your team’s culture), then you are making harder for your team to be one unit with one common goal. Any other individuals who share the rogue’s viewpoint are less likely to show support lest they be bumped out of the larger group as a result. Cultures are hard to change, even when it’s obvious. I need not go through the embarrassing pages of a U.S. history textbook to illustrate this point. Attempting to change a culture at the expensive of self is heroic; attempting to preserve the status quo is often selfish. I don’t mean to say that in an insulting way to Kapler, as it is simply human nature. We wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t been so good at preserving the group and batting away dissidents.

Finally, to Kapler’s last point about Ryan Freel: yes, it is true that Freel’s chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) had to do with his crashing into inanimate objects like outfield fences, rather than bumping into catchers. Thus, Kapler argues, we shouldn’t be linking Freel’s CTE to the latest news about baseball banning home plate collisions. However, home plate collisions will always carry that concussion risk, no matter what type of headgear you wear, no matter what manner of “hitbox” boundaries you create, no matter how much you give lip service to the culture. The only thing that will absolutely make an impact on lowering the rate of concussions in baseball is banning home plate collisions.

Jeff Passan recently wrote about the issue at Yahoo! Sports. He spoke with Chris Nowinski, who is studying CTE for Boston University. Nowinski has dealt with officials from many different sports, but praised the interest and action shown by those in baseball. Passan wrote:

Not only does Nowinski laud the league’s seven-day disabled list for concussions – borne of an injury-analysis initiative run by some of the brightest minds in the sport’s labor-relations department – he said MLB officials at the meeting with Freel’s family peppered him with questions not of the defensive nature he’s seen from other sports but with a simple request: Help us improve.

To baseball players and fans of the sport, banning home plate collisions may leave a bad taste in their mouths, but ultimately, this is medicine that is good for all of us.

  1. sknut - Dec 20, 2013 at 6:10 PM

    Nice article, Bill. I agree, I like what MLB is doing to help the safety of the players. There is no reason to create situations where the best players are not playing especially when we know there are enough injuries and here MLB is doing something to try to limit needless serious injuries.

  2. missingdiz - Dec 20, 2013 at 6:28 PM

    MLB sets the standard for “playing the game the right way.” This is a chance to set a good example for baseball at all other levels down to Little League. Do we really want kids bashing their brains in order to be manly? Boys find enough ways to get hurt without adult encouragement.

    Besides, the home-plate collision is just not necessary. Most games it doesn’t happen, and those are not somehow unmanly games.

    If we’re going to be old-school, let’s get rid of batting helmets and make players chew tobacco instead of bubble gum.

  3. gothapotamus90210 - Dec 20, 2013 at 6:34 PM

    If a catcher blocks the plate the way he’s supposed to, he shouldn’t get run over. Posey gave Cousins a lane to run in, it was pretty low brow. His left leg was anchored on the corner of the plate, but unfortunately he dropped his left leg before he had the ball which left him vulnerable. He had to do it, though, to try and field the short-hop and have a chance of tagging Cousins out.

    • paperlions - Dec 21, 2013 at 9:45 AM

      Just so you know, the catcher isn’t supposed to block the plate or impede the runner without having the ball. The same rules apply to him and the plate as apply to every other position. It is called interference and has been a rule for about 125 years. Similarly, contacting a fielder with the ball in an attempt to knock the ball loose (rather than simply attempting to avoid the fielder to reach base safely) has been a rule for over a century and is called interference. They actually don’t need new rules, just enforce the old ones (which was always done until after WWII).

      • t51plus - Dec 21, 2013 at 8:32 PM

        Of course the catcher blocks the plate with or without the ball. If the ball arrives in time, the runner is out. If the ball does not arrive in time, the runner will be safe anyway.

        I agree with your comment that the runner should be called out for interference if he runs over the catcher trying to knock the ball loose.

      • hilfan2 - Dec 24, 2013 at 10:55 AM

        I don’t believe I have ever seen them enforce that rule at the major league level.

      • paperlions - Dec 24, 2013 at 11:45 AM

        Which has no bearing on the fact that it is a rule. There are no special rules for catchers or home plate. Fielders without the ball are explicitly prohibited from impeding the progress of runners. Runners are expressly prohibited from contacting fielders in possession of the ball in an attempt to dislodge the ball. Obstruction and interference are rules that have been around forever, and at some point umpires simply stopped enforcing them at home plate.

  4. brewcrewfan54 - Dec 20, 2013 at 6:46 PM

    How many homeplaye collisions do we see in baseball? Is it even one a week? I don’t understand why guys are so in favor of keeping a play with such possible injury risk that makes up such a small percentage of the game. When a Hall of Fame catcher like Johnny Bench says it a good thing to get rid of, I’m going to listen to his opinion more.

    • nothanksimdriving123 - Dec 20, 2013 at 7:04 PM

      Absolutely Brew, and if Mr Kapler wishes to display his revered masculinity, he’s welcome to invite the neighbors to watch him repeatedly run into a brick wall in his yard. Hope he posts the video online.

      • brewcrewfan54 - Dec 20, 2013 at 9:07 PM

        The thing is I like Kapler. I’ve read a few of his opinion pieces and they have been thoughtful and clearly explained. My issue is why do guys care so much about a play so much that rarely is any benefit to anyone? Its the whole “its always been done thos way” crap. Just because its always been done that way doesn’t mean its still the best way, its just the familiar way.

      • mikhelb - Dec 20, 2013 at 10:40 PM

        Run into a wall is not a “display of masculinity” it is a stupid suggestion on your part. I’ve seen women do as much stupid things as men. As for masculinity, it has nothing to do with whether you’re heterosexual or homosexual.

      • nothanksimdriving123 - Dec 21, 2013 at 4:00 PM

        Mikhelb, WTF? I said nothing at all about sexual orientation and I cannot fathom why you brought it up, unless you have some confusion as to the meaning of masculinity. Kapler himself is the one who mentioned masculinity.

  5. sabatimus - Dec 20, 2013 at 7:14 PM

    Hey Bill, you can’t remove and re-post with the correct word?

    • Bill Baer - Dec 20, 2013 at 7:17 PM

      Might be able to do a 301 redirect, but I’ll leave that up to the tech people. Either way, I don’t want it to seem as if I’m trying to erase the mistake and act like it never happened.

      • sabatimus - Dec 20, 2013 at 7:21 PM

        Oh I see.

      • mikhelb - Dec 20, 2013 at 10:43 PM

        It was not a “mistake” i am tired of reading “oh sorry, my bad”, if that’s what you think then DEAL WITH IT, you should be held liable to criticism for what you think, because after all you basically crucified Kapler for his opinion.

        I dare you to NOT modify what you think in order to be “politically correct”.

      • historiophiliac - Dec 20, 2013 at 11:20 PM

        Wow.

        Do you ever regret having the night shift, Bill? Eeee.

  6. tfbuckfutter - Dec 20, 2013 at 7:20 PM

    I want concussions to remain a part of the game.

    They give us this:
    http://www.mlbgifs.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/DelmonYoungFailThrow.gif

    (I’m assuming he ran into the wall and suffered a concussion right before this gif started)

    • historiophiliac - Dec 20, 2013 at 9:51 PM

      That throw was clearly fair. It rolled out. Not even close.

  7. firerogergoodell - Dec 20, 2013 at 7:22 PM

    You look like Babe Ruth’s gay brother… Gabe Ruth.

    • historiophiliac - Dec 20, 2013 at 9:51 PM

      What?

      • indaburg - Dec 20, 2013 at 9:59 PM

        I can translate. It says, “I’m a dumbass.”

      • historiophiliac - Dec 20, 2013 at 10:02 PM

        It’s unfortunate you know enough dumbass to translate. But, thanks.

      • indaburg - Dec 20, 2013 at 10:07 PM

        Thanks to my job, I’m fluent. Anytime.

      • lukescottsbedsidemanner - Dec 21, 2013 at 11:22 AM

        Oh, so you speak my language, eh? In that case, come to Korea with me. C’mon. Look at the size of my pig spear. How can you resist? Here. Have some soda….

  8. bh192012 - Dec 20, 2013 at 7:43 PM

    +1 for “brain — bounces around like it was in a mosh pit.”

  9. thebadguyswon - Dec 20, 2013 at 8:20 PM

    What a hack.

  10. dinofrank60 - Dec 20, 2013 at 9:20 PM

    I know I’m going to repeat this is other responses, so let me start: Guys are the most insecure creatures on this planet.

    • indaburg - Dec 20, 2013 at 9:56 PM

      Nah. Men and women are equally laden with insecurities. We merely express them differently.

      • dinofrank60 - Dec 20, 2013 at 11:29 PM

        Some men obsess over their manhood. They are always worried that someone is trying to take it away and are always trying to assert it. Guys, a lot of men don’t have time to worry about whether their manhood is legitimate. They’re too busy trying to live.

  11. dinofrank60 - Dec 20, 2013 at 9:30 PM

    Sometimes you have to go rogue, because you haven’t benefited from the culture and the unit. And going rogue may mean keeping the status quo. Change is neither good or bad, it’s just change. Often, the people who push that change is good have the most to .

  12. illuminancer - Dec 20, 2013 at 9:31 PM

    First off: I rarely leave the safe confines of SBNation, but the fact that you started out by addressing why “embracing masculinity” is problematic was great, and is why I felt like maybe I could make an account and post here.

    Second: sorry, Mr. Kapler, but I don’t enjoy watching home plate collisions. Every time I see it, I think about watching Buster Posey clawing at the dirt because he was in so much pain, and about not knowing if he was going to walk, let alone play baseball again. That clip got replayed a lot recently, and I discovered that over two years after it happened, I still get nauseous watching it.

    I enjoy seeing guys hit bombs into McCovey Cove. I enjoy inside-the-park home runs, and no-hitters and perfect games. I like seeing a bunch of incredibly talented athletes showing off their competence and skills. I don’t enjoy seeing people getting hurt.

  13. historiophiliac - Dec 20, 2013 at 10:09 PM

    I’m insulted at the notion that women are less tough than men. We may not be as strong, but the idea that we lack nerve, courage, drive, competitiveness or athleticism to the same degree is incredibly wrong. Also, I feel sorry for men that you get screwed by the notion that you have to do dangerous things to prove that you are a “man.” I am forever grateful that I don’t have to prove myself to be legit…beyond my ovaries, you know. Thanks, Bill, for that insightful and smart post. Smart dudes are sexy.

    • mikhelb - Dec 20, 2013 at 10:59 PM

      From mens perspective:

      I am insulted that you have to feel sorry for men. And I feel sorry for women because of the notion that women lack nerve, courage, drive, competitiveness or athleticism.

      I am forever grateful that I don’t have to prove myself to be legit… beyond my testicles, you know.

    • indaburg - Dec 21, 2013 at 6:37 AM

      Having the hormone testosterone makes people do dangerous, stupid things. There’s a wealth of research on the topic. Even female fetuses exposed to androgens show stereotypical male patterns of play (http://pss.sagepub.com/content/20/2/144.short). I remember one of my more militant Barnard professors saying that the entire male gender suffers from “testosterone poisoning.” I thought that was kinda harsh, but I got what she was saying. It’s not necessarily that certain men feel they have to prove their masculinity (although I’d like to believe we have free will and we’re not just slaves to the chemicals our bodies naturally produce) but that testosterone is very powerful stuff. If you want to feel sorry for them, feel bad that they have to fight their biology. As men grow older and mature, they reason better and the tendency to do stupid things goes down. Coincidentally, testosterone levels also decrease as men age.

      (If you think society doesn’t expect women to prove themselves… We have our own set of unrealistic expectations to meet, thanks to our ovaries. Read any stupid article about “Women Having It All”, then punch it in the face. I reject the notion that any of us, men or women, have to prove to anything, except to oneself.)

      • paperlions - Dec 21, 2013 at 9:53 AM

        +1

        Every since I got old enough to win my battle with testosterone I’ve said, “Testosterone is a hell of a drug.”, because it is. It is an amazing display of evolutionary balance that guys between the ages of 16-24 don’t kill each other any more than they do.

        I wouldn’t feel sorry for us though. Biologically, being a man is still much easier (on average) than being a woman….and socially, being a man is still much easier (on average) than being a woman.

      • yahmule - Dec 21, 2013 at 12:30 PM

        You wonder how much different the world would be if the part of the brain that produces testosterone had been 50% smaller in the human species. I guess it’s possible different variants of that type evolved, only to be massacred without mercy by cousins with a more aggressive natural disposition.

      • nothanksimdriving123 - Dec 21, 2013 at 4:08 PM

        Alan Alda wrote almost 40 years ago about “testosterone poisoning”. It’s online.

      • indaburg - Dec 21, 2013 at 4:39 PM

        Ah, so that must be where my prof got it. She would have been in that age bracket and she didn’t cite her source. I’ll look it up. I know Alda’s a bright guy (he’s doing some great work on communicating science to the masses) so his take should be interesting.

      • indaburg - Dec 21, 2013 at 6:26 PM

        Okay, I read it. Alda wrote “What Every Woman Should Know About Men” tongue firmly in cheek. My professor argued that testosterone was actually a poison and was not kidding. I thought that the term smacked of misandry. I believe in equality of the genders and to me, that entails respect. If we want to be respected by men, we have to likewise be respectful. Putting down men does not further the cause of women. I believe we’re in this together.

  14. mikhelb - Dec 20, 2013 at 10:53 PM

    “Finally, to Kapler’s last point about Ryan Freel: yes, it is true that Freel’s chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) had to do with his crashing into inanimate objects like outfield fences, rather than bumping into catchers.”

    MLB should ban diving for balls, running on to walls, sliding head first, jumping for balls and hit-by-pitches, those cause more concussions than collisions at home plate.

    MLB should implement a 2 week suspension for everybody who dives for a ball, and even if the ball is caught, it should be ruled a homerun-by-rule, that way, fielders are discouraged to make an extra effort to catch a ball when it could potentially harm themselves and they’d have to retire with just a few million bucks in their bank accounts.

    Oh yeah, and require catchers BY RULE to wear 3″ thick chest protectors, so the risk of injury on foul balls are diminished.

    In the future it could be also required that the baseball be made out of foam or plastic, and bats made of bambu, those hard line drives man, those are a great risk that shouldn’t exist in baseball.

    • paperlions - Dec 21, 2013 at 10:44 AM

      Congratulations on completely missing the point. There is a tangible benefit to the outcomes of baseball games for players diving for balls, sliding into bases, etc. There is no benefit to the game of baseball of deliberately assaulting the catcher. How many more runs were scored last year because of a collision that resulted in the catcher dropping the ball? Good luck finding one. More base runners are out because the don’t try to touch the plate and instead truck the catcher, than runners are safe because they dislodged the ball.

      • hilfan2 - Dec 24, 2013 at 10:52 AM

        You are the one who missed the point. What mikhelp is saying is that there is risk everywhere in baseball (or anything we do in life). You cannot regulate everything in the sport to keep it 100% safe.

        That being said, I support the rule change, but they need to do as they do in Little League and disallow the catcher to block the plate unless he has the ball. Otherwise, they are going to get bang/bang plays with runners going spikes first into the catchers shins, ankles, calves and knees.

      • paperlions - Dec 24, 2013 at 11:43 AM

        You are incorrect. The point is not that you can should regulate the sport to eliminate any possibility for injury. That is a strawman of gigantic proportions. The point is that the play is dangerous and there is no benefit to it; therefore, it is an easy play to get rid of without changing the game. In addition, the play is illegal and rules should either be enforced or taken off the books.

    • cur68 - Dec 21, 2013 at 11:18 AM

      Written from the “if we can’t fix everything, we fix nothing” perspective. The home plate collision is a meaningless and often futile play (as paperlions says). Get rid of it. People are getting hurt and the best players of our time are seeing their careers cut short due to injury caused by it.

      As for the rest, do the best you can to address them without interfering with the game too much. Why is this such a tough concept?

    • yahmule - Dec 21, 2013 at 12:32 PM

      Satire works better when its funny.

  15. psly2124 - Dec 21, 2013 at 8:33 AM

    Your an idiot. Half if baseball fans are not female. Have you ever been to a baseball game. Do you even enjoy the sport? It’s not my fault you were the worst kid on your little league team. Take your leftist views and shove it. Is then any lower form if life then a writer. Maybe a politician that’s it.

    • yahmule - Dec 21, 2013 at 12:35 PM

      I’m holding out hope this is just a spoof.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poe's_law

  16. Fantasy Football Consultant - Dec 22, 2013 at 11:00 AM

    Did I just read a politically correct baseball article ? I think I’m going to puke.

  17. Fantasy Football Consultant - Dec 22, 2013 at 11:12 AM

    You people that are so worried about athletes getting hurt need to stand out in front of UFC offices with picket signs. Concussions in baseball, football, what an outcry! What liability! Head to hand, knee, and foot contact? Nah , lets get it on!? Hypocrites. Leaders of the worst generation ever.

  18. grumpyredskin23 - Dec 23, 2013 at 10:33 AM

    Now that information is so easily accessible via online, this country is now being run by all the liberal writers out there and is now more quickly turning it soft. Before long we’ll be playing paddy cake and flag football in which everybody gets a trophy and is a winner. God save us!

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