With the Cardinals and Pirates engaged in a tight Wild Card race, Pittsburgh took an early 1-0 lead on Tuesday night at PNC Park. With two outs in the second inning and second baseman Josh Harrison on second, left fielder Jose Tabata scorched a liner to right field. Carlos Beltran fielded the ball on a hop and smoothly fired a strike to catcher Yadier Molina that easily beat Harrison, who was attempting to score. Molina had the ball in glove and home plate blocked. Harrison faced the choice of attempting to slide around Molina or bowling the catcher over. Harrison chose to try and knock the ball loose. The 5-foot-8, 190-pound infielder lowered his shoulder and bowled over Molina, but the Gold Glove catcher held on to the ball and Harrison was called out to end the inning.
The play was one of the game's most dramatic. The runner taking off on the hit to the shallow outfield. The outfielder fielding the ball cleanly and firing for home. The catcher receiving the ball in position to block the plate. A run at stake. The collision. While thrilling, this play should be outlawed by Major League Baseball.
The throw came in on a short hop from Beltran. Molina skillfully scooped the ball ever so slightly up the line with his foot positioned so as to block the plate. He reached as if he expected Harrison to slide away from home plate and his glove, toward the backstop.
Harrison hit Molina like he had been shot out of a cannon.
With a full head of steam gained over the 90 feet between third base and home, Harrison threw shoulder and forearm into the Cardinals catcher. The force of the collision caused Molina to spin completely around, from facing Harrison as he applied the tag to lying on his stomach on top of home plate. Molina immediately grabbed for his face and forehead as he rolled from lying on his stomach to his back. Yadi tried to get up on his hands and knees but couldn't. The Cardinals training staff immediately materialized to check on him. After some time, Molina was helped to his feet, where he wobbly stood before leaving the field.
The Cardinals announced that Molina was out with a strained neck, back, and shoulder. No word of a concussion diagnosis as of now. Whether Molina suffered a concussion on the play or not, the potential was there for a severe injury, whether it was to a season-ending leg injury like Buster Posey last season or a traumatic brain injury.
Perhaps the greatest injury risk is that of concussions. While the risk is there for both the runner and the catcher, it is particularly acute for the catcher, who is often as defenseless as a bowling pin. The effects of such traumatic brain injuries can be felt long after the collision. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny's playing career was cut short because of concussions. Matheny gave an interview to The Hardball Times about what he dealt with due to concussions.
When Matheny first landed on the DL with a concussion he had his own set of concerns to deal with. "The first nine months were really scary. It took almost 18 months until I felt like I could do things that I was doing right before I was hurt. That was a pretty scary time and very eye opening."
"My problems were always with the cognitive stuff, not being able to put things together or even being able to speak right at times. It was bizarre how my concussions went. The headaches and that sort of stuff were there, but they weren't any big deal to me. I could just tell my mind wasn't working right."
We know that catchers get concussions from foul tips and being hit with the bat on a batter's follow-through. These concussion hazards are intertwined with the game and much more difficult to eliminate. It is comparatively much easier to remove from the game the home plate collisions that often result in injuries.
There is a group of traditionalists out there who feel there is no need to change the rule regarding collisions at home plate. If there were no such opposition, the rule would have already been changed. For reasons I can't fathom, Matheny is amongst them. This attachment to the past, while understandable, is misplaced.
Batters used to bat without helmets. Pitchers used to bean batters in their helmetless heads to make a point. These practices were brutish and unnecessarily dangerous. Major League Baseball ushered in helmets and cracked down on bean balls. The game is the better for it.
Changing the rules so that a close play at home plate is no different from a close play at second base is a common sense step to make the game safer for players. As players like Posey and Molina become franchise players with salaries to match their statuses in the eyes of fans, they become high-dollar investments for owners. It is in the interest of the players and owners to change this rule.
It is also in the interest of fans.
When Harrison plowed over Molina last night, I was wearing my Yadier Molina shirsey. I own the shirt because Molina is one of my favorite players. He's one of the primary reasons I tune in to watch the Cards on a regular basis. In short, I want to watch Molina play ball. I don't want to be denied this because of some absurdly outdated rule that allows players to tee off on catchers who aren't in a position to protect themselves.
In truth, the play of a baserunner lowering his shoulder and barreling into a largely defenseless catcher at full speed should have been banned long ago, before Posey in 2011 and before Molina on Tuesday night. Commissioner Bud Selig should lead the way. No blue-ribbon panel is needed. This is a matter of simply applying commonsense to player safety.