David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
Saving a run can come at a serious cost for a catcher. Mike Matheny's playing career was ended by his struggles with post-concussion syndrome, from what he believes was the cumulative effect of too many collisions.
"I had 18 months of my life where I wasn't sure I was going to be normal again," said Matheny, who figures he absorbed more than 25 concussions from his years behind the plate. "I couldn't sit here and have a conversation like this. I had words I wanted to say, and they were right there [in my head], and I couldn't come up with them.
"I wasn't completely debilitated, but I was certainly deficient. At first, I was like, 'Wow, this is weird.' Then it turned into, 'Am I going to be right again?' I had to write down whenever I was going to drive somewhere."
In retrospect, he was lucky. The clouds eventually parted, and Matheny, who said he has no symptoms now, is about to begin his second season as manager of the Cardinals. He also is using his position as a platform to initiate a possible rule adjustment designed to eliminate collisions at home plate.
It's a movement that pops up from time to time -- usually sparked by a spectacular injury suffered by a catcher. But nothing concrete from a rules standpoint has been done about it, other than some clubs encouraging their young catchers -- the Mets have done so with Travis d'Arnaud -- to be more mindful of staying out of harm's way.
Matheny, however, thinks home-plate collisions should be outlawed, just as they are at every other base. It's hard to argue with him. When talking about the health and welfare of athletes, concussions have become Public Enemy No. 1 because of the challenges in diagnosing them and the potential for long-term damage.
For catchers, the danger starts early, and Matheny believes it's unnecessary. He argues that baseball as a sport is not dependent on contact -- as football and hockey are -- so why is it acceptable in such an isolated circumstance?
"I was catching since I was 10 years old and we were getting run over religiously," Matheny said. "That was just part of it. 'Hey, you got your bell rung; way to hold on to the ball!' I think people are wising up now to realize "bell ringing" is a violent shaking of the brain, and violent shaking of the brain isn't something that's good."
Matheny's goal is a noble pursuit, and everyone would agree that protecting a catcher from getting his brain scrambled is a worthy endeavor. But there are obstacles hindering passage of such a rule.
Even if Torre, a former catcher, supports Matheny's idea, the motion still must be submitted to MLB's rules committee, a nine-member panel that includes Mets general manager Sandy Alderson as chairman. If that committee were to approve the change, it would be presented to the Players Association, which has the authority to block the proposal -- but only for one year.
Alderson, citing his position as chairman, declined to give his take on a potential rule to ban collisions. But there are obvious questions about the practicality of enforcing such a rule, as beneficial as it might be toward protecting players. Some see contact at home plate as a fundamental aspect of the game.
"If you've got to score a run, you've got to score a run," former Met and SNY analyst Keith Hernandez said. "If it's a boom-boom play, a lot of times the catcher is just about ready to catch the ball, and he's blocking the plate, so what are you going to do? They're going to call timeout and it's an automatic run?"
Catchers accept the hazards that come with putting on a chest protector. No one is looking to get hammered by a runner barreling in, but catchers learn how to shield themselves: Stay low, cover up and try to make sure the legs are not in a precarious alignment.
"I don't really think about it a whole bunch," Mets catcher John Buck said. "I'm conscious where the plate is, and the direction of my knee, and where my foot is going. After that, I'm trusting that I've put myself in the right position. You're always going to move to get to the ball, and sometimes you expose yourself.
"I feel like if I worry about that, I'm not going to catch the ball. Sometimes you can be put in a blind spot, and it does leave a catcher vulnerable. Still, it's been that way for a long time, so it would be hard to change. It's a play that means everything. The object of the game is to score runs and stop them, so it all comes to a head there."
In Matheny's view, the rule would be more about changing the mind-set of the runner, who would be penalized for crunching the catcher.
When asked if it makes sense to instruct his catchers to simply avoid the runner by giving up a corner of the plate and using sweep tags, Matheny felt that isn't enough.
"Not really, because you're always going to have that guy, whether he's just some rogue ex-football player that loves the contact," Matheny said. "The problem is, as soon the catcher puts his guard down, that's when he gets hurt. The equipment isn't football equipment, and most of the time you don't even have your helmet on.
"Hopefully we learn from those other sports. What does that play bring to this game that's so valuable? It gets everybody on their feet once or twice?"