Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Protecting The Players And The Plate

5.25 ounces.  9.25 inches in circumference.  Constructed of a mixture of cowhide, rubber, and thread.  Hardly the description of a lethal object.  Even when hurled at over 90 miles per hour, it is hard to imagine it being able to kill a human being, especially one armored in composite elbow armor and impact resistant helmets.

Yet the evidence is there.  Tony Conigliaro's fractured jaw and cheekbones and eye damage in 1967.  The pitch to the skull that ended derailed Dickie Thon's career in 1985.  Of course there is the fastball from Dennis Martinez that ended Kirby Puckett's Hall of Fame career in 1995.  The major league pitch is as dangerous as any tackle in football or check in hockey.  When that amount of energy is released on such a small impact area, the damage can be extreme.

So many would ask why the brush back pitch is still permitted in baseball.  It seems to be a product of a long forgotten era, when players sharpened their spikes to enhance the damage from their slides, or would plow over a catcher if he happened to be anywhere near the plate.  The era of Ty Cobb and his reckless assault on defending players, or of hyper-competitive Pete Rose's desire to win at any cost, such as running over Ray Fosse during the 1970 All-Star game.  The era of Nolan Ryan warning batters to not crowd the plate or risk a fastball to the dome.  An era before we knew what kind of long term damage concussions could have, before we regularly saw players ending their career looking like they were made of straw and glue.

Yet on Saturday, Arnold Leon of Team Mexico fired a pitch at Rene Tosoni of Team Canada during the World Baseball Classic.  This started a full scale brawl between the two teams resulting in punches being thrown like changeups and five players hitting the showers early.  Leon was reportedly told to hit Tosoni by third baseman Luis Cruz because Chris Robinson had laid down a bunt in the ninth inning of a game Team Mexico was winning 10-3.  Honor needed to be avenged; a lesson had to be taught.  One slip of that pitch, and Leon could have ended Tosoni's career, or worse.  Players get hit all the time when the pitcher is not trying to, what if the accuracy had slipped a little?

This is not the old days.  Just like Ed Reed is not allowed to lead with his helmet to dislodge passes in football, just like Dave Bolland is not allowed to check an opponent without the puck on open ice, pitchers should not be allowed to intentionally hit batters because someone's honor was offended.  Beat them on the field, not with violence.

Purists would argue that the new technology is why the brush back pitch is needed.  Players like Barry Bonds exploited the new elbow armor, sticking their armored limb out near the edge of the plate, trying to either draw a hit by pitch and a free trip to first, or force the pitcher to throw into their wheelhouse.  Pitchers need a weapon to convince batters to stay off the plate in order to keep the playing field level.

What is needed in baseball is not balls aimed at batters.  What is needed is a rule change.  Enforce the batter's box better, and move the boxes one inch away from the plate.  Stop players from erasing the lines of the batter's box by the fourth inning, and abusing the rule that allows them to have their feet over the lines as long as the back of the heel is in the box.  Do not let the batter lean out over the plate with his armor.  Give the pitchers more room to pitch with, and stop the exploitation of the rules over the past ten years.  Put more enforcement towards ignoring the hit by pitch if the batter made no effort to move out of the way.

As long as the rules are shifted towards helping the batter and giving the pitcher a limited space to work with, they will use what they have to control the plate.  Which means coming inside and possibly hitting someone.

No life has been lost in professional baseball from a pitch since Ray Chapman in 1920.  I hope we are able to keep it that way.

Be sure to check out other great articles at Oregon Sports News.
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