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Safe at Home: Learning from Jackie Robinson

Over the years collisions at home plate have gotten widespread publicity. With a proposed change aimed at protecting player safety, the argument against the effort to stop collisions comes from those who think the change makes the game soft.
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If all goes well, Major League Baseball will be safer in 2014 thanks to an important change its rules committee is proposing. The committee wants to eliminate violent collisions at home plate between catchers and base runners.

As the Mets general manager, Sandy Alderson, chairman of the rules committee, observed, "Ultimately what we want to do is change the culture of acceptance that these plays are ordinary and routine and an accepted part of the game." The change sounds like one that would only interest the hardcore fan. The new rule will prevent runners from deliberately running into catchers rather than simply trying to beat a throw home, and it will, in turn, require catchers to give runners a clear path to the plate, making close plays at home no different than at second or third base, where a runner can't be impeded by an infielder. There is, however, nothing arcane about the proposed changed. In an era like the present when sports safety -- particularly preventing concussions in football and hockey -- has become a national concern, the new rule would not just affect professional athletes. It would influence players at all levels of baseball. Over the years collisions at home plate have gotten widespread publicity. The most notorious one occurred in 1970 during the All-Star Game. Cincinnati's Peter Rose, who would go on to establish the major league record for the most career hits, barreled into Cleveland Indians catcher Ray Fosse, fracturing a bone in Fosse's shoulder and giving him a lifetime injury that forced him to develop a less powerful swing. Fosse was never the same home run hitter he had been before the 1970 All-Star Game. More recently, Buster Posey, the San Francisco Giants catcher and the National League's Most Valuable Player in 2012, had his entire 2011 season cut short as a result of a fractured bone and three torn ankle ligaments in his left leg that he sustained following a home plate collision with the Miami Marlins' Scott Cousins. The argument against changing the rules to stop home plate collisions comes from those who think the change makes the game soft. "Now you're not allowed to be safe at home plate? What's the game coming to?" Pete Rose asked after learning of the new proposals. Rose's objections remind us that at one time many veteran players opposed wearing the now-required, protective batting helmets that mitigate the effects of a beaning, but Rose's remarks also ignore how baseball does not need collisions at home plate to remain a game of skill and daring. The most exciting home plate play in baseball history occurred in the first game of the 1955 World Series between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. That's when -- many years after he broke baseball's color barrier -- Jackie Robinson stole home on Whitey Ford and beat the tag of Yankees catcher Yogi Berra in a close play. It was a dramatic moment that centered on three future Hall of Famers, but it might easily have been a tragedy if Robinson (a former UCLA football player) had barreled into Berra instead of sliding, or the smaller Berra (who stood just 5'7") had decided to prevent Robinson from scoring by standing in his way. The tragedy of Robinson and Berra having their careers cut short as a result of a single, violent play at home never occurred. Both were able to remain in baseball until age caught up with them in their late thirties. What better argument for the new rules change! For the change to become effective in 2014, all that now awaits it is the approval of the MLB owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association at their next meetings.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower.

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