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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

There's a big change of mind-set about collisions at the plate

Florida Marlins' Scott Cousins, top, collides with San

Florida Marlins' Scott Cousins, top, collides with San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey on a fly ball from Emilio Bonifacio during the 12th inning in San Francisco. (May 25, 2011) Photo Credit: AP

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - On the surface, it sounds easy. Outlawing collisions at home plate, from a safety perspective, makes sense. Why risk the short-term health -- or the career -- of a top prospect such as Travis d'Arnaud or a franchise catcher such as Yadier Molina?

In actuality, the proposal is a difficult one. For as long as baseball has been played, protecting the plate, the most critical base in the sport, has been considered part of the game. As elemental as ball and strikes.

But no longer. Collisions already have been banned in the non-professional rungs of the sport, from Little League through college, and Major League Baseball is prepared to follow suit for the 2014 season.

Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, who also serves as chairman of the Rules Committee, said this past week that a new rule is being drafted, and that if it is approved by the Players Association, collisions at the plate will be permanently retired from the game.

"I'm proud of the league for taking a step forward,'' said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, a former catcher who helped spearhead the movement. "I don't know how it's all going to play out. But people who know me know my stance on this.

"I just believe it's something that we can't turn a blind eye to what's going on in these other sports. Let's learn from what's going on there and see if we can make our sport better.''

That was Alderson's view when he spoke with a number of catchers at the winter meetings. The Rules Committee wants to be proactive to get out in front on this issue as head injuries, specifically concussions, have become a serious health concern in every sport.

MLB already has established a seven-day disabled list for concussions, and it would like to avoid -- or minimize as best it can -- the types of problems that recently have come to light in the NFL and NHL.

"With the new information on concussions, it's probably the prudent thing to do,'' said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, also a former catcher. "However, I am a little bit old-school in the sense that I don't want to turn home plate into just another tag play. This is a run. This is the difference between possibly making the playoffs and not making the playoffs. It should matter a little bit more.

"In my mind, I'd love to see something that if there's a collision, any hit above the shoulders, maybe the runner is out. I know that would be very difficult to umpire -- intent on something like that.''

Ausmus brings up the tricky part to the rule-change conversation. How can it be enforced? If a catcher still is permitted to block the plate, it will be nearly impossible for a runner to get to it. And if he can't try to jar the ball loose, the whole thing becomes a foregone conclusion.

"I see it along the line of how college does it -- they pretty much become more tag plays,'' said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, a former catcher and an early advocate of the changes. "The question is going to be: Can the catcher get in front of home plate and block it with a shin guard? You don't want that either if the runners are there.''

While the rule's supporters obviously have good intentions, too much governing of the plate can be a slippery slope. Alderson acknowledged that but sounded confident that the wrinkles in this process can be ironed out. If the Players Association votes against it this year, MLB can unilaterally implement the rule for 2015.

"The exact language and how exactly the rule will be enforced is subject to final determination,'' Alderson said. "We're going to do fairly extensive review of the types of plays that occur at home plate to determine which we're going to find acceptable and which are going to be prohibited.

"But this is, I think, in response to a few issues that have arisen. One is just the general occurrence of injuries from these incidents at home plate that affect players -- both runners and catchers. And also kind of the general concern about concussions that exists not only in baseball but throughout professional sports and amateur sports today.''

Some may be tempted to label this Buster Posey Rule, because the idea didn't really gain much traction before the Giants catcher was wiped out at the plate by the Marlins' Scott Cousins in 2011. Posey suffered a fractured left fibula and three torn ankle ligaments in the collision, kicking off a debate about outlawing them altogether. But the argument really picked up momentum from the alarming studies involving concussions.

"When I was growing up as a kid in Philadelphia, it was a badge of honor. You were expected to hang in at the plate,'' Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "and the runner was expected to do everything he could to tag the plate. We're going back 40 years ago, but the mind-set has changed a bit.''

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