It was surely a coincidence that Ryan Freel's family found out that he suffered from a degenerative brain disease on the same day that MLB announced that home plate collisions were no longer allowed in the game beginning next season. But the timing may have been serendipitous.
There isn't a direct connection between the two, at least as far as we know. But of the 10 concussions Freel believes to have suffered during his career (his family believes it may have been closer to 14 or 15), could any of them have occurred while colliding with a catcher at home plate trying to score a run?
Just asking that question should be enough to justify MLB outlawing home-plate collisions from the sport. As far as I can tell, there appears to be wide support for the rule change among players, fans, reporters and analysts. Many feel such a ban on collisions was overdue, in light of the grisly ankle injury Giants catcher Buster Posey suffered in 2011. Others simply felt it was time for such a rule with so much more attention drawn to concussions and head injuries in sports, and the measures increasingly taken to prevent them.
But as could be expected, there are some voices of opposition. There will always be those who don't want to see any changes in the game whatsoever.
To a lesser extreme are people who enjoy the excitement of the collision — the anticipation of it, the impact itself and its aftermath. I admit I was one of those fans. I've stood up out of my chair and pumped my fist for both outcomes, whether a baserunner smashed into a catcher and jarred the baseball loose to score a run or the catcher stood his ground, prevented the runner from touching home plate and held onto the ball.
Then there are the diehards, those who seemingly want to draw a line in the sand based on toughness and grit. For some who felt baseball wasn't enough of a contact sport like football or hockey, the home-plate collision was the one play in which men were men and the strongest would either score the run or prevent it from being scored. Taking that play out of the game would change it fundamentally.
I'm presuming no one was surprised when Pete Rose spoke out against the rule. One of the most famous — or infamous — plays of Rose's career is when he ran into Indians catcher Ray Fosse during the 1970 All-Star Game. The play is often held up as an example of what made Rose such a great ballplayer. Even in an exhibition like the All-Star Game, he was playing all-out, doing what he had to score a run for his league.
Yet the collision effectively ended Fosse's career at 23 years old. After the season, it was discovered that he'd been playing with a fractured shoulder. However, since there was no attention paid to concussions back then — nor was there the medical technology available to check for such injuries — Fosse may well have played with an injury that would now likely require him to sit out for seven games under MLB's policy.
"What are they going to do next, you can't break up a double play?" Rose said to the Associated Press.
"Now you're not allowed to try to be safe at home plate? What's the game coming to? Evidently the guys making all these rules never played the game of baseball."
That's macho baloney, of course. A runner is still allowed to be safe by sliding or trying to beat the throw home. And several people who played baseball — including former catchers Bruce Bochy and Mike Matheny — were among those who fought for this rule to be adopted. But at least Rose is sticking up for the way he played. What about those who say this rule change takes the toughness out of baseball and is leading to the "wussification" of the sport? That sounds like a fake tough guy attitude to me, like those who thought Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin was less of a man for not tolerating the bullying from his teammates.
This isn't taking tackling out of football or checking out of hockey. The home-plate collision was an aberration, a violent play that often veered drastically in tone, style and outcome from the game in which it took place. The consequences of the play felt even more dire when considering the toll that such hits have taken among football and hockey players, sometimes leading to tragic outcomes after those athletic careers are over.
Whether you were a Tigers fan, Red Sox fan or general baseball fan, how did you feel during this year's ALCS — a great series between Boston and Detroit — when catcher Alex Avila was knocked out of Game 5 after a collision with David Ross? As it turns out, Avila strained his left patellar tendon from the play, not a concussion. Maybe that gives the pro-collision crowd something to point to. But was there anyone who didn't initially believe that Avila had suffered a concussion when you saw his head snap back on slow-motion replay of the impact? Avila got injured on a play that could've been prevented — and now will be.
Maybe you think it's a stretch to tie Freel's condition in with MLB's new home-plate collision rule. If you watched Freel play, you can think of many other instances in which he could've suffered some sort of brain injury, whether it was diving into the grass or dirt, or slamming into an outfield wall, trying to make a catch. A concussion could also have occurred if he collided with a teammate in the outfield or while sliding back into the bag on a pickoff play.
But if there's an opportunity to eliminate a play in which you're practically asking players to hurt each other, why not do so? Players could also be told not to dive for balls or run into outfield walls, but that would truly be taking away a part of their game. You'd be eliminating effort and athletic ability, even if it was in the name of safety. There are some hazards to playing baseball — or any other sport — that simply have to be accepted. Catchers are going to be hurt by foul balls, perhaps suffering concussions from blows to the jaw and head. (That prompted the Twins' Joe Mauer to move from catcher to first base next season.)
Yet caution can still be exercised without resulting in drastic changes. Maybe eliminating takeout slides is next, as Rose fears. Eventually, we'll likely see pitchers have to wear some sort of headgear to protect them from line drives. Perhaps players will be required to wear helmets or mouthpieces in the field. Ballparks may have to install more padding on outfield walls or get rid of digital scoreboards that provide no forgiving cushion.
If banning home-plate collisions can prevent another Ryan Freel from sustaining multiple head traumas that affects his quality of life during his career and after his playing days are over, shouldn't MLB do so? If players can be saved from developing a condition like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and avoid deteriorating into a state where suicide seems like a solution — as it did with Freel and football players such as Dave Duerson, Andre Waters and Junior Seau — doesn't baseball have an obligation to try taking those measures? Even if it means legislating any perceived toughness from the sport?