The Aesthetic Argument Against Home-Plate Collisions

Milwaukee, WI, USA; Houston Astros catcher Jason Castro (bottom) tags out Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Mat Gamel (24) in the sixth inning at Miller Park. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-US PRESSWIRE

You read the headline, and you automatically knew to put me in one (or all) of the following categories:

  • Whiny Giants fan still upset over his precious Buster Posey
  • Nancy boy
  • America-hating marxist

I'm certainly a Giants fan, and I'm possibly a Nancy boy. And I watched a couple of World Cup games once, so the last one might fit. Guilty all around, I guess. So feel free to ignore these thoughts because they're coming from a biased source.

But home-plate collisions are still a mystery to me -- a confounding and unpleasant mystery. The main argument for them is that they're some inextricable part of the game that have been and always will be, but I'd argue the opposite -- it's because they're so not part of the game that they stand out. A runner taking out a catcher is like a musical number -- "May the (Four of Us) Be With You!" -- in the middle of Star Wars. It wouldn't be why you were watching, and it wouldn't even be the same damned genre. It'd feel too incongruous to have two things so different mashed together.

You don't need to argue against it morally or ethically -- it just doesn't fit. And this comes up now because Mat Gamel hit Jason Castro hard enough on Monday night to find the Higgs boson:


And that elicited the following commentary from the excellent Kevin Kaduk:

... I'll enjoy all the spots where two determined sides are fighting for every valued inch of the basepaths. That's really the essence of the game and it can make for some of baseball's greatest highlights.

To which I respond: Nah. Don't need it. It's a swimsuit competition in the middle of a "Jeopardy" taping, a poetry reading in the middle of a presidential debate. This isn't to suggest that baseball players need to be mollycoddled and sheathed in bubble wrap. Just that home-plate collisions are another genre. They just don't fit in with the rest of baseball.

A player can't slap the ball out of a first baseman's mitt. He can't swipe at the glove as he's running past the bag, hoping for a fumble.

Nor can a player go into second with his spikes up, hoping to kick the ball loose and prevent a double play.

There's an argument that home plate is different because it's a base that the runner can run through (like first), but it isn't a base where the force is on (unlike first), a combination which makes collisions acceptable and occasionally necessary. But I don't understand why that combination means that it's the only occasion in baseball where dislodging a ball becomes a goal.

A brushback pitch is a strategic maneuver designed to alter the hitter's approach. A takeout slide at second during a double-play attempt is (in theory) just a late slide, which is a normal part of the game. Both can cause injury. But both make sense in a baseball context. And when things started to get out of control with runners going into second, baseball adjusted the rules.

Dislodging a baseball, though, only occurs in one context. There could be more! We could make it so that runners could grab the mitt out of a fielder's hand, and if the runner makes it to the bullpen mound before the right fielder touches him with the rundown stick, an extra run will score if the runner does. That would be really, really exciting. But it wouldn't be baseball.

You've noticed the delicate, almost-perfect balance of a baseball field. A grounder to short often results in a play decided by a step or less. The throw from a catcher to second on a steal attempt usually arrives with a half-second of the runner. If the dimensions were just a little different, everything would be different. But they aren't. The double play, the relay throw, a pitcher covering first -- it's all an exhibition of geometric precision.

And every couple dozen games, a runner will attempt to dislodge a ball from the guy holding it. It doesn't fit. It makes no sense. And then you get to the part where the catcher is often defenseless, or at least not set up to take a shot from a 200-pound man running at full speed. It's a silly play before you get to the dangerous part. Then it becomes untenable.

The solution? Eh, you could probably get another 1,000 words out of that. But they would all be variations of a simple idea: Make intentional attempts to dislodge a ball at home illegal, just as they are at every other base. The status quo is baseball mashed up with something else entirely.

***


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