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April 16, 2014

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A healthy rule change

Our national passion for sports doesn’t produce all that much good news, so it’s worth noting that last week, Major League Baseball’s rules committee took a step so sane and healthy that one wonders why it wasn’t taken long ago: The committee voted to change baseball’s rules to eliminate runner-catcher collisions at home plate.

Briefly, for the non-fan: Baseball is essentially a non-contact sport. Unless a fielder is holding the ball or in the act of catching it, a runner approaching any base must be given a clear path and is ordinarily prevented from reaching the base only by a tag with the ball. Collisions on the base paths are relatively rare.

The exception is home plate, where a runner attempting to score is often physically blocked by the catcher. The result is a punishing collision between ballplayers, one running at top speed, one dug in hard, and both essentially unprotected. Collisions at home plate are generally inconsistent with all the rest of baseball, and they have inflicted serious injuries and ended careers.

The final language of the new rule is under development, but likely it will mean the end of violent home-plate collisions.

No doubt many players will welcome this change, but expect some pushback. In the New York Times account, Brad Ausmus, former catcher and current manager of the Detroit Tigers, expresses reservations: “I’m a little bit old school in the sense that I don’t want to turn home plate into just another tag play.” His point is well taken. Baseball’s conservatism — its resistance to instant replay and, at least in the National League, to the designated hitter rule — is generally a good thing. And home plate collisions have been a part of the game from the beginning.

But I suspect that if objections to this rule change arise, they will be less concerned with the conservation of the original game and more worried about its “sissification.” This is the problem that football faces, and it’s one of the reasons that football, in the midst of its slow and half-hearted response to the so-called concussion crisis, is unlikely to make changes that significantly diminish the violence at the heart of the game. Some of the players themselves object to proposed rules modifications designed to protect them, harrumphing indignantly about turning America’s favorite game into touch football.

If Major League Baseball eliminates home-plate collisions, look for someone to object that they might as well be playing softball.

Call me a wimp, if you like, but indulge for a moment the assertion that the games we play should require speed, skill, endurance, teamwork, strategy, competition, sportsmanship, and so on, but they should not serve as vehicles for encouraging an overwrought sense of macho manliness. And they should not inflict on their players injuries that are permanent. In fact, games supported by public money — that is, those played in public colleges and high schools — should have positive, lifelong physical benefits for as many citizens as possible.

Unfortunately, our favorite game, football, falls short in all these areas. The best players reside precariously at the peak of a vast pyramid of players who suffer injuries that will persist for a lifetime. And the essential spirit of the game involves an aggressive, testosterone fantasy that has no real connection to the development of character.

In fact, if the Duke of Wellington ever said — he probably didn’t — that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing field of Eton, he was referring to cricket, not a joint-crushing, disabling, super-macho game like American football.

So, Major League Baseball, abolish home-plate collisions, and ignore objections that depend on appeals to manliness or toughness. The courage of any ballplayer who can function in the batter’s box while an extremely hard spheroid flies past inches away at nearly a 100 mph will never be in question.

John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.

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