LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Baseball officials are up front about this: They want to ban home plate collisions to guard their investments.
Minnesota’s Joe Mauer, a former MVP and three-time batting champion, is less than halfway through a $184 million, eight-year contract. He was limited to 75 games at catcher this year in a concussion-shortened season.
Buster Posey, another MVP and batting champ, has a $167 million, nine-year deal. San Francisco wants to ensure that he doesn’t have another horrific injury like the one that ended his 2011 season.
That’s why Major League Baseball’s rules committee voted this week to prohibit runners from plowing into catchers. The rule will take effect next season if the players’ association agrees, and in 2015 if the union doesn’t.
“It’s a great change. We protect our assets,” Los Angeles Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto said Thursday as the winter meetings ended. “Some of the things we’ve seen happen in the recent past – Buster Posey, concussions with Joe Mauer, Yadier Molina getting blown up, they are some of the best players in the game. They mean so much to their team – the financial investments involved. And more importantly, the health of the individual.”
Boston’s David Ross, Detroit’s Alex Avila, Oakland’s John Jaso and Kansas City’s Salvador Perez all missed time because of concussions this year.
“Collisions at home plate can significantly alter your ability to win games,” said Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay’s executive vice president of baseball operations. “I just think athletes today are bigger, faster, stronger, and the catchers are in significant danger of long-term injuries that we can avoid. I think the heightened awareness to concussions influences it quite a bit.”
Eleven players who were primarily catchers last season are signed to contracts running through 2016 and beyond, with a total of $565.45 million in remaining guaranteed salary, according to calculations by the Associated Press.
MLB watched as the NFL reached a $765 million settlement last summer in a concussion-related lawsuit by former players, and a group of hockey players sued the NHL last month over brain trauma.
“How much is it that they’re paid a lot more than they used to be?” said New York Mets GM Sandy Alderson, chairman of the rules committee. “It’s a combination of those things. But I think what’s crystalized our thinking is probably the concussion issue. Try to be proactive.”
This year’s winter meetings likely will be remembered most for the rules decision. There were just six trades – two more than during last year’s drab session in Nashville, Tenn. As the meetings ended, the Chicago Cubs acquired Justin Ruggiano from Miami for Brian Bogusevic in a swap of outfielders, Seattle completed its $240 million, 10-year contract with All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano, Boston finalized a $32 million, two-year agreement with first baseman Mike Napoli, and Washington completed a two-year deal with outfielder Nate McLouth.
In one-year deals pending physicals, outfielder Michael Morse agreed with San Francisco at $6 million, right-hander Roberto Hernandez with Philadelphia and reliever Joba Chamberlain with Detroit.
Crashes at home plate have been a baseball tradition and a staple of television highlight shows. Some traditionalists such as career hits leader Pete Rose are against a change.
But some in MLB management fear continuing the status quo could lead to possible liability.
“I think it’s always been in a lot of people’s minds as odd that we allow collisions there and we don’t really allow them at other bases,” Los Angeles Dodgers President Stan Kasten said. “I think it’s frankly overdue.”
Even without collisions, catchers get banged up more than most other players. Mauer was hit on the mask by a foul ball Aug. 19 and missed the final six weeks of the season. Still bothered by headaches and light sensitivity in October, he consulted with doctors at the Mayo Clinic and will be switching to first base in 2014.
“When I kept gathering information, to be honest with you, it wasn’t really even a decision,” Mauer said last month. “I kept searching to see if it was going to be OK, if it was going to be safe for me to go back there and catch, and I just wasn’t finding that.”