Updated 03:09 AM EST, Tue, Nov 30, 2021

After Ryan Freel's CTE Postmortem Diagnosis, MLB's Ban on Home Plate Collision is the Right Move For Player Safety

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Despite what baseball purists and ex-Major League Baseball (MLB) players such as Pete Rose and John Kruk may say about the pending changes being proposed by MLB owners, banning collisions at home plate might be what is best for the sport of baseball, despite the inevitable criticism that the sport is going "soft".

No one can deny that the collision at home is one of the most exciting plays in the game of baseball, with tensions building up as the runner rounds third base, trying to beat the ball to home, with a catcher planted practically on top the plate, prepared to not only catch and hold on to the baseball but also brace themselves for the inevitable big hit as they block the runner's path home and attempt to tag the runner for the out.

Under the new rules, a runner must slide if there is a play at home, with catchers not allowed to block home plate without the ball in hand or they will be called for obstruction, awarding the run to the opposing team.

"This is, I think, in response to a few issues that have arisen," said New York Mets general manager and chairman of MLB's rules committee Sandy Alderson. "One is just the general occurrence of injuries from these incidents at home plate that affects players, both runners and catchers -- and also the general concern about concussions that exists not only in baseball but throughout professional sports and amateur sports today. It's an emerging issue and one that we in baseball have to address as well as other sports. So that's part of the impetus for this rule change as well."

The change in the rules was discussed during last week's MLB's winter meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, with the league hoping to implement the changes in the upcoming 2014 season, pending approval from MLB's Player's Association, who are expected to approve the change.

Though the parameters of the new rule have not be finalized, MLB intends to fine base runners or catchers that do not readjust their style of play as well as suspend repeat offenders.

"The rule will govern the conduct of both catchers and runners, and so it will be a little bit complicated, but we are going to work our way through it," said Alderson to reporters last Wednesday. "We're going to do a fairly extensive review of the types of plays that occur at home plate to determine which we're going to find acceptable and which are going to be prohibited." 

While the new rule may offend the old-school sensibilities of a segment of sports fans unwilling to change and who are living in a past where concussion injuries used to be dismissed as "getting your bell rung" and that athletes should just "shake off" having their brain slammed hard against their skull, banning collisions at home plate is one of the most sensible things the league can do in order to protect the long-term health of their athletes.

Alderson understands that changing baseball's attitude toward the excitement of the home plate collision will not be an easy task but it is a necessary modification in the game as research into head injuries continues evolve.

"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," said Alderson. "The costs associated in terms of health and injury just no longer warrant the status quo."

Ryan Freel, a utility player who played for the Toronto Blue Jays, Cincinnati Reds, Baltimore Orioles, Chicago Cubs, and Kansas City Royals between 2001 and 2009 who committed suicide last December, has the distinction of becoming the first MLB player to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), according to researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine. CTE is a degenerative brain disease that is associated with erratic behavior, memory loss, aggression, paranoia, and full-blown dementia in the later stages, which is caused by a build-up of tau, a protein that when it spills out of cells can disrupt neural pathways that control memory, judgment and fear in the human brain.

CTE is mostly associated with former football and hockey players who sustain repeated head injuries throughout their careers. However, Freel once estimated that he may have sustained nine to 10 concussions in during the span of his pro baseball career, playing a hard-nosed style of baseball that saw him run into walls and crashing into other players to make plays for his teams.

"I cringe when I see two guys going after the same ball," said Robert Stern, co-founder of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at BU and professor of neurology and neurosurgery at BU's School of Medicine, to CNN.com. "Is baseball as significant a concussion sport compared to others? No. Is it a concussion sport? Yes."

This season, 18 baseball players were placed on the disabled list due to concussions, 10 of those players were catchers who tend to stand in vulnerable positions while preparing to catch the ball while blocking the plate and preparing to get "jacked up" by the runner barreling full-steam ahead.

There is also a financial incentive for MLB owners to ban home plate collisions, on top of protecting the millions of dollars invested on players who could get hurt on plays at the plate that could easily be avoided. MLB owners are not blind to the lawsuits the National Football League (NFL) and the National Hockey League (NHL) have faced recently, with former players in both sports leagues looking for compensation for their head injuries sustained during their playing days.

A group of ten former players are suing the NHL, accusing the North American hockey league of concealing the risks that come with concussions and not doing enough to prevent head injuries in their sports. The lawsuit against the NHL comes on the heels of the National Football League's (NFL) $765 million settlement with ex-players over a similar case against the American football league. Such lengthy and costly lawsuits can certainly hurt a sports league's financial bottom-line.

'I don't think it's completely sparked by anything that's happened in baseball as much as what's happening outside of baseball and how it's impacting people and impacting the welfare of each sport,' said St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny at the press conference

Despite the criticism from baseball purists who refuse to change with the times and outdated relics like Pete Rose, who ended Cleveland Indians catcher Ray Fosse's career in a collision at the plate during the 1970 All-Star Game in Cincinnati, the executives at MLB headquarters as well as baseball managers who played the position such as Matheny, the New York Yankees' Joe Girardi, the Los Angeles Angels' Mike Scioscia, and the San Francisco Giants' Bruce Bochy - whose starting catcher, Buster Posey, fractured his fibula and tore ligaments in his ankle trying to protect the plate in a nasty collision during the 2011 season in a game against the Miami Marlins - understand that the rule change is best for the sake of the long-term health of their players, even if it means changing the culture of the game.

"I think it's better to be proactive before we carry a guy off the field paralyzed and think, 'Why didn't we change this rule?'," said Bochy.

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