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

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[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.

Twins pitcher barfs before almost every appearance

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 18:  Ryan O'Rourke #61 of the Minnesota Twins reacts after loading up the bases in the seventh inning against the New York Yankees on August 18, 2015 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Twins righty Ryan O'Rourke has pitched in 54 big league games. He has barfed before almost every one of them.

No, really:

Through his first 54 big-league outings over the last past two years, O’Rourke estimates he emptied the contents of his stomach close to every time.

“I don’t do it in the public’s eye,” O’Rourke said Tuesday. “I go in the bathroom, or sometimes it’s just on the back of the mound. But, yeah, it happens.”

I wonder if I’ve barfed 54 times in my entire life. I doubt I have. Then again, I’m not doing anything in front of tens of thousands of people with potentially millions of dollars at stake.

Yet he who is without sin hurl the first, um. Well, never mind.

The new intentional walk rule isn’t a big deal but it’s still dumb

PHOENIX, AZ - JUNE 06:  Anthony Recker #20 of the New York Mets calls for an intentional walk as Paul Goldschmidt #44 of the Arizona Diamondbacks looks on during the eighth inning at Chase Field on June 6, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
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Let us preface this by stipulating that the new rule in which pitchers will no longer have to throw four balls to issue an intentional walk is not a big deal, objectively speaking. Teams don’t issue many IBBs to begin with. A couple a week, maybe? Fewer? Moreover, the times when a pitcher tosses one to the backstop or a batter reaches out and smacks a would-be intentional ball may be a lot of fun, but they’re extraordinarily rare. You can go years without seeing it happen.

So, yes, the intentional walk rule announced yesterday is of negligible consequence. We’ll get used to it quickly and it will have little if any impact on actual baseball. It won’t do what it’s supposed to do — speeding up games — but it won’t harm anything that is important either.

But let us also stipulate that the new rule is dumb.

It’s dumb because it’s a solution in search of a problem. Pace of play is a concern, but to listen to Rob Manfred and his surrogates in the media tell it, it’s The Most Pressing Issue of Our Time. Actually, it’s not. No one is abandoning baseball because of 5-15 minutes here or there and no one who may be interested in it is ceasing their exploration of the game because of it. And even if they were, IBBs are rare and they’re not time-consuming to begin with, so it’s not something that will make a big difference. It’s change for change’s sake and so Rob Manfred can get some good press for looking like a Man of Action.

It’s also dumb because it’s taking something away, however small it is. One of my NBC coworkers explained it well this morning:

I agree. Shamelessness is a pretty big problem these days, so let’s not eliminate shame when it is truly due.

Picture it: it’s a steamy Tuesday evening in late July. The teams are both way below .500 and are probably selling off half of their lineup next week. There are, charitably, 8,000 people in the stands. The game is already dragging because of ineptitude and an understandable lack of urgency on the part of players who did not imagine nights like this when they were working their way to the bigs.

Just then, one of the managers — an inexperienced young man who refuses to deviate from baseball orthodoxy because, gosh, he might get a hard question from a sleepy middle aged reporter after the game — holds up four fingers for the IBB. The night may be dreary, but dammit, he’s going to La Russa the living hell out of this game.

That man should be booed. Boo this man. The drunks and college kids who paid, like, $11 to a season ticket holder on StubHub to get into this godforsaken game have earned the right to take their frustrations out on Hunter McRetiredBackupCatcher for being a wuss and calling for the IBB. It may be the only good thing that happens to them that night, and now Rob Manfred would take that away from them. FOR SHAME.

And don’t forget about us saps at home, watching this garbage fire of a game because it beats reading. We’re now going to have to listen to this exchange, as we have listened to it EVERY SINGLE NIGHT since the 2017 season began:

Play-by-Play Guy: “Ah, here we go. They’re calling for the intentional walk. Now, in case you missed it, this is the way we’re doing it now. The new rule is that the manager — yep, right there, he’s doing it — can hold up four fingers to the home plate umpire and — there it goes — he points to first base and the batter takes his base.”

Color Commentator, Who played from 1975-87, often wearing a mustache: “Don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. There was always a chance the pitcher throws a wild pitch. It happened to us against the Mariners in 1979 [Ron Howard from “Arrested Development” voice: it didn’t] and it has taken away something special from the game. I suppose some number-cruncher with a spreadsheet decided that this will help speed up the game, but you know what that’s worth.

No matter what good or bad the rule brings, this exchange, which will occur from April through September, will be absolutely brutal. Then, in October, we get to hear Joe Buck describe it as if we never heard it before because Fox likes to pretend that the season begins in October.

Folks, it’s not worth it. And that — as opposed to any actual pro/con of the new rule — is why it is dumb. Now get off my lawn.