It's only one run.
I understand where San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy's edict against blocking the plate is coming from. And it's not a good place. It was a moment -- a painful, Instagram flash of a moment -- one that changed the fortunes of a team and altered the trajectory of a rising star catcher, Buster Posey.
Still, Bochy's strategy is wrong -- for myriad reasons.
As is often the case in baseball, with its small-town, analog pace, the moment unfolded slowly last May, almost routinely, even mundanely. With one out in the top of the 12th at AT&T Park in San Francisco and the score tied 6-6, Florida Marlins shortstop Emilio Bonifacio, facing a 2-2 count, reaches for a pitch from Giants reliever Guillermo Mota and pops it toward right field.
Schierholtz has the best arm, says the announcer, just as right fielder Nate Schierholtz settles under the ball in shallow right-center.
Suddenly, the announcer's voice rises Cousins is gonna test him!
Although there are two outs, Florida outfielder Scott Cousins, on third base, tags up, and just as the ball lands in Schierholtz's mitt, he chop-steps off the bag like a sprinter out of the blocks, lowers his head and charges toward home. He never looks up. Never glances to see the ball. He just runs. Hard.
The throw sails past the cutoff man, first baseman Aubrey Huff, and bounces about 15 feet in front of the plate and Posey, who crouches just in front of and shaded right of the plate, lowers his left knee to the ground and begins to turn toward Cousins.
Then the moment happens. Bam! Ohhhhh.
And Posey gets clobbered!
Cousins is 6-1 and 208 pounds; Posey is 6-1, 219. So there's no disparity in size to blame. Just that one man was moving at full speed, while the other, well, wasn't.
Posey doesn't catch the ball. It is slightly to his right, and glances off his glove and body as the catcher turns as if to tag Cousins. At that instant, Cousins uncoils like a free safety or linebacker with a wideout in his crosshairs -- think Troy Polamalu or, even better, James Harrison. He crushes Posey, sending him flat onto his back, his legs folded beneath him.
Posey is hurt.
The catcher rolls over immediately and pounds the dirt, in clear and excruciating pain. Cousins scrambles back to touch the plate with what proved to be the winning run, then reaches over and touches the Giants catcher consolingly.
Last year, ESPN had a former baseball player and stuntman run full force into a sensored-up crash-test dummy. With him reaching almost 18 mph, the sensors measured 3,200 pounds of force at impact -- more than most blindside hits in football.
The Giants' 2010 Rookie of the Year had been hitting a solid .284 with four home runs and 21 RBIs out of the cleanup spot, and was poised to be a key cog in the team's defense of its World Series championship. But that moment, that collision, ended his 2011 season. Posey suffered a broken left leg and significant ankle ligament damage, a mess requiring two surgeries.
Never again, Bochy says. At the start of spring training this week, the manager told Posey, who has recovered and reported to the Giants with pitchers and catchers, that he was not to block the plate at all this season. Under no circumstance. No matter what.
Instead, Posey will learn new techniques for tagging the runner without blocking the plate. And if those techniques don't work
it's only one run.
That's the logic, the calculation. Is one run, one game even, worth losing a young star to an injury that could potentially diminish what remains of his career?
Of course not.
Yet one run was the difference in the Giants' loss to the Marlins. And last season, the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox missed qualifying for the postseason by one game. The Giants finished four games out.
Again, I understand where Bochy is coming from. His team's fortunes (translation: his own job) very much depend on having Posey behind the plate. Beyond his offensive production, Posey is one of the game's best at thwarting potential base-stealers (36 percent, which would have been third among qualified catchers had he kept it up all of last season). And it's too bad there's no stat for this: He's also masterful at calling games and handling Giants pitchers. He exudes a confidence on which they feed.
Still, here's why Bochy's strategy is wrong.
While it may be "smart," it compromises the game. Players are paid to perform to the best of their abilities, and with maximum effort. Now Posey is being asked -- no, ordered -- to hold back, to not do what he has been taught from the moment he first donned shin guards.
What next? Should managers tell their best fielders to pull up before crashing into a wall to make a catch? Do we tell runners not to barrel into second base to break up the double play? Better yet, should New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi say to Derek Jeter, "Hey, Cap, forget about turning two at the bag. Guys coming in hard at you, cleats up. Nah, fuhgedaboutit."
It's only, after all, one out.
For a catcher, blocking the plate is instinctual. It's also extremely risky, and catchers know it. It's great theater, too, guaranteed to make the "SportsCenter" Top Ten. And if it's really good, well, there probably isn't a fan or player who hasn't seen Pete Rose dive-bombing Cleveland catcher Ray Fosse at the 1970 All-Star Game. Yes, the All-Star Game. Fosse suffered a broken collarbone, and many say he was never the same.
Taking that kind of hit is considered part of the job. A duty. Doing so while holding onto the ball and getting the out is considered badge-of-honor stuff.
It's time to retire the medal. Just as the NFL has changed its rules to protect quarterbacks -- some say so much that QBs should wear tutus – Major League Baseball should ban home-plate collisions. Under no circumstances should they be allowed. No matter what.
Others with direct ties to the game have said as much. Posey's agent, Jeff Berry, reached out to both MLB and the players' union last year pleading with them to consider outlawing home-plate collisions. "You leave players way too vulnerable," he told my colleague Buster Olney. "It's stupid." And some in the sport have called for curtailing home-plate collisions, at least in spring training.
Alas, the debate wasn't much of one. The discussion went nowhere. The rule didn't change. Of course there are opponents who think that if MLB banned these human car crashes you might as well, yes, have the catchers wear tutus.
Nonsense. The NFL has never been more popular, despite its rules changes and the grumbling of old-guard (and tackle) types who seem to think walking around with a headache for the rest of their lives is sexy. And with only a handful of home-plate collisions each season, baseball, too, wouldn't lose much popularity if they were to disappear.
Moreover, consider this: Posey wasn't even blocking the plate, something he has long maintained. He was mostly in front of the plate, and he initially even slid to his right, pulling his left leg away from the plate, toward the throw.
Certainly on the field, decisions are made in less than an instant. In viewing video of the play several times, it looks as if Cousins would have been safe had he slid -- even had Posey caught the ball. Of course Cousins didn't know that at the time, and he hasn't revealed how his brain was processing all the options as he sprinted down the third-base line. Yet a discerning eye suggests that the word "slide" was not even pondered. (Cousins later apologized for the hit.)
So even if he had been playing by Bochy's new rules, Posey might have been hurt anyway. By contrast, if there had been a rule against collisions, Cousins would have approached the plate differently, and Posey likely would have played out 2011.
And it would have only cost one run.
Roy S. Johnson is a veteran sports journalist and media consultant. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.