<
>

MLB wisely adjusting to game's risk

Change is hard, and as baseball works out the details for protecting catchers from home plate collisions, there is concern for its history. The "old school" in us wants to see everything stay the same. We don't like change because it ages us, makes us lose something sacred, especially when we can debate if that change is necessary.

Not every change in MLB is as drastic as banning collisions, but the game is always adjusting. In the middle of my career, right around the turn of the century, it was strange when MLB was working on redefining a strike. Umpires were going to adjust the strike zone by elevating it. The "high strike" was now going to be called. As a change that would have only helped my career as a high-ball hitter, I was excited about it. But it lasted only a few months because it was too hard to change the human nature of a strike zone, and umpires gradually went back to the zone they had been calling for years.

Some changes, however, are much more important and shouldn't be allowed to fade away via the laws of inertia.

When thinking about whether banning collisions at home is a good idea, I can't help but be reminded of Ryan Freel and the suffering he experienced before he took his own life last year.

Freel, who played with a devil-may-care style, had a number of concussions. Nine or 10 was the number thrown out there, and a recent report showed that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). In the midst of what the NFL is figuring out about CTE, it is clear that concussions and their long-term effects are elements we want to avoid at all costs, and catchers standing in the base lane with a runner bearing down on them is a problem that brings this to light.

Catching gear is protection but not from a runaway baserunner about to take a free shot. It helps with foul balls and blocking balls in the dirt, but it is not even close to sufficient body armor for someone standing still about to get trucked. Some may say that concussions are part of the history of the game, but some history needs to be overthrown, just like when Jackie Robinson walked in the door and changed the game forever. We cling to a lot of traditions that might not be fair or just not challenged because they represent "the way we do things."

I believe that baseball is better when it is adaptable given the speed and awareness of advances in science. Then, we can be proactive with change and set examples. So if we can look past how the game might change on the field, we can see that catchers are at greater risk of long-term health risk.

These changes are not just for the betterment of the game; they are for the future of these players, many of whom have already taken a greater risk by simply being catchers in the first place. I think we owe it to them to understand the true risks involved and protect them as we continue to get new information about that risk.

Rules cannot stop every injury, nor will the game be risk-free given the fact that someone is throwing a 90-plus mph ball near a hitter, but there is low-hanging fruit of change that can be made, and just like every other major change, the game will adjust and still be able to showcase its competitive excitement.

Freel was not a catcher, but his situation illuminates some of the dangers that players face. Being in the family of baseball and its alumni, his suicide feels like losing a brother and makes you feel like you missed something -- you were not there for him as a person, as a group, as an institution. Maybe there was nothing to be done for one reason or another, but I would think there is always something that can be done, even if it is for the future.