Thursday, June 09, 2011

By Which Rules?

In sports, as well as in life, there are written and unwritten rules. And sometimes, the unwritten ones take precedence.

Two incidents in major league baseball just a few days apart illustrate the point. Both involved catchers. I toiled at that position as a youth on grade school, high school, American Legion, and county league teams, so the news got my attention.

First, Buster Posey, a legitimate all-star performer with the San Francisco Giants, had a broken leg after an opponent crashed into him instead of sliding as Posey awaited a throw near the plate. Posey is out for the season. Just days later, Houston Astros’ catcher Humberto Quintero was put on the 15-day disabled list with a sprained ankle after a collision at home plate.

What’s new? Not much. Catchers have led most leagues in injuries since the game began back in the 1800s. “Muddy” Ruel knew of what he spoke when he dubbed the face mask, shin guards, and chest protector (plus a cup to protect a young man’s most important parts) as “The Tools of Ignorance.” Ruel was a catcher for the Washington Senators. The implication was that intelligent people with some semblance of ability could choose more rewarding positions with fewer hazards.

I was a very slow runner with other limited skills, so working behind the plate was my only real chance to participate in what was then, without a doubt, America’s pastime. Green Bay Packers t-shirts were rarely seen when I was a kid in Wisconsin. Chicago Cubs and White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals (and eventually Milwaukee Braves) caps were common. Every rinky-dink town had a baseball team, and, especially on Sundays, going out to the old ballpark was the thing to do. Boys wanted to be part of the action, and donning “The Tools of Ignorance” was my chance for glory.
My baseball career ended at age 17. By then I was smart enough to know I couldn’t hit curve balls tossed by even washed-up former minor league players. I also knew by then I had a relatively weak throwing arm to go with my poor foot speed. Before those truths dawned on me, I had played in several hundred games.

Four things remain from my days on the diamond. A deep bone bruise in my left hand still hurts if something hits there hard enough. The thumb on my right hand is noticeably larger than the one on the left, the result of being split open (it resembled an overcooked hotdog at the time) by a foul tip. All four fingers on my left hand work just fine (I can type really fast), but I can bend them at the first joint in a way few other people can. My left kneecap has a small scar over an area that serves well as a weather forecaster.

That’s what catchers do. They get hurt, whether the hurt is applied by errant balls, foul tips, flying bats, or base runners intent on scoring any way they can.

During the time I played, and to this day, the written rule in baseball said a catcher cannot impede a runner by standing in the base path without the ball. I knew that, because I made an effort to be familiar with the rules of the game.

My high school coach, who was a former minor league catcher as well as a college football star, never mentioned it. He taught the unwritten rule: “Your job as a catcher is to guard that plate. Make the opponents respect your territory. Whenever you can, make them pay a price for crossing the plate.”

My mentor pointed out that catchers have an advantage. The “Tools of Ignorance” give them some armor-plating the runners don’t have. That doesn’t always help, though. It often didn’t help in county ball.

The Lincoln County League, where I played two summers, was made up mostly of men in their 20s and 30s with only a smattering of high school boys. It was a man’s game, no question.

In one contest at Tug Lake, a community consisting almost entirely of a tavern and a rudimentary baseball field with no fences, the going got rough. Early in the game, a runner charged in from third base after tagging up on a fly ball. I took the throw and had plenty of time to block the path between him and the plate. He chose to slide with one foot high enough in the air to rake a spike across my leg above my shin guard. There is no written rule against that kind of high-spiking; there is an unwritten rule.

He was the third out, so the father of one of our players had time to give me medical attention between innings. That consisted of pulling a piece of sod out of my wound, dousing the cut with beer, and applying a bandage brought by a lady who had been watching the game from a window in the tavern. I continued to play. We had no subs.

A bit later, one of my teammates, Joe Obey, retaliated. Obey weighed well over 200 pounds and had success as a football center and hockey goalie among his athletic credentials. He was clearly out at first base on a routine ground ball. The first baseman somewhat sloppily let his foot drag over the bag. Obey stepped on it. Howls of pain and a few choice words resulted, but there was no serious injury.

Perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, an opposing runner tried to run right over me several innings later. He was attempting to score on an infield ground ball. I blocked the plate without the ball, assuming it had a chance of arriving about the time he did. It did.

The runner threw himself into me with a sort of clumsy cross-body block. But he missed most of me. I heard a sharp crack as I tagged him out. The middle of his shin had collided with the middle of my shin guard. He had a broken leg. The game was stopped for some time waiting for a stretcher and an ambulance. There were no further incidents, and both teams adjourned to the bar after the contest.

In the wake of the major league collisions, some are proposing rules changes to make it illegal for runners to try to level catchers and to keep catchers from impeding a runner’s path to the plate. The latter already is the rule. Neither of the two injured big league catchers had the ball when they were bashed. They were the ones violating the rule, not the runners.

The better player of the two, Posey, made somewhat conflicting statements. “I don’t think he did anything illegal,” he said of the runner who broke his leg. Later, he suggested that runners might be required to slide if “a lane presented itself.” Why should they have to slide when they could score by just running straight ahead?

Traditionalists yowled that just because an all-star was seriously hurt doesn’t mean the rules should be changed, and that injuries in the battleground around home plate are inevitable. I’m pretty much of an anti-violence guy, but in this case I’m with the traditionalists.

And, it’s not all bad to have a left knee that throbs a little to warn you when a storm is coming.


Richard Brewer said...

I like the idea of the old ways in baseball. Nobody better ever hit a Cardinal when Bob Gibson was pitching, by golly.

But baseball isn't supposed to be a contact sport.

Neither is basketball. When I last looked at high school and college basketball rules (which was about 1950), if there was bodily contact it was a foul against somebody. Now the pros have led the way to constant bumping. Upper body strength is more important than a good shooting eye. Not to mention that that it's practically impossible to be called for traveling.

Jayhawk23 said...

I was never a baseball player except in an occasional pickup game as a kid, but much was made in the sports news about the two incidents you mention, and my impression was the same as yours: Leave well enough alone. The world is too much governed by rules upon rules these days, and the rather naive expectation that all accidents and injuries are somehow avoidable if we just make enough rules. That's hogwash.

On a broader question, I wonder if some baseball players might be trying to take a page out of the hockey, NASCAR, and football playbooks, where roughness ranging from injury on the field to a potentially fatal wreck seems to be part of what attracts fans. Could those runners be trying to "liven up" the old game?

Sightings said...

And baseball gave you something else ... wisdom. Nice post!

I substituted one game as catcher in Little League. That was it for me. My knees couldn't take it.

My hero was Tony Kubek, but I didn't have the arm for shortstop. (I, too, was a slow runner with a weak arm.) So I played second base. For some reason (unlike a lot of other kids) I didn't worry about getting hit in the chest or face with a grounder. My only injury -- once I ran into the rightfielder going after a fly ball. He was taller than me, and drew blood from my head with his teeth. I got seven stitches. He lost a tooth.

Dick Klade said...

Bill Hamilton commented by e-mail:

I just discovered that we have time behind the plate in common. I caught for 2 years in high school, for just a year in college, and while I was in Japan during the Korean War. All my catching experience was in softball. The only injury I had was on the third finger of my throwing hand, and that finger still bends farther backward than forward at the first knuckle!