Baseball’s single most dangerous field position is probably behind the plate. Catchers are in on the beginning of each play, receiving the pitcher’s delivery unless its struck by the hitter. But catchers can also be men one minute made mincemeat the next, depending.
They risk being concussed into brain damage by anything from a foul tip, a violent backswing, an unforgiving wall or rail or fence while trying to catch a foul popup, or a baserunner steaming from third base and flying home in a near-perfect impression of a cruise missile. The luckier ones retire from baseball without their bodies becoming their own quislings or their minds lost in the liquefying of their brains.
Their field equipment was nicknamed “the tools of ignorance” by ancient catcher Muddy Ruel, who hoped to highlight the irony, as baseball’s very own Website points out, “that a player with the intelligence needed to be effective behind the plate would be foolish enough to play a position that required so much safety equipment.”
Ruel played generations before catchers took to wearing helmets that are the next best thing to those employed by hockey goalies. Thomas Boswell once called the catcher “half guru, half beast of burden.” It’s the latter that often means a catcher sliced, diced, and pureed, Bigfoot turned to Blue Bonnet margarine.
Baseball changed the rules a few years ago to get catchers a little further out of the line of collision than was reasonably healthy for them to remain. There were those mourning the further snowflaking of the grand old game. But maybe we ought to wonder instead how such men as Hall of Famer Yogi Berra lived as long as they did with their marbles unspilled. (Berra died at 90.)
Nothing specifically says baseball must be excessively dangerous for those who play it or those who watch and love it. Nothing suggests concurrently that even the thinking person’s sport that baseball is must be immune at all times to physical injury. But players have been known to play as though in the youthful and naive belief that they are eternally invulnerable. Until they’re not.
Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella once said, famously, that for a man to play baseball well a lot of him had to be a little boy. Boys will be boys, but there’s nothing written or implicit mandating that they absolutely have to destroy themselves or each other to be boys, or young men.
On baseball’s final Sunday before the All-Star break, one major league catcher decided six concussions per twelve major league seasons was quite enough, and it was time to set the so-called tools of ignorance to one side. Francisco Cervelli, Yankee turned Pirate, got number six thanks to a broken bat hitting his chin on 25 May. “That’s enough,” he told DKPittsburghSports.com’s Dejan Kovacevic. “This time is different. I can’t live like this.”
What a difference almost a month and a half makes. When first knocked down and out, Cervelli was determined to get back behind the plate as soon as feasible, which seemed to unnerve Pirates general manager Neal Huntington.
“We care about this man. We care about this person and want him to have a great post-playing career . . . You have to respect the player’s wishes,” Huntington said then. “Francisco has been adamant that he wants to continue to catch. I think he would be quite unhappy if we told him he was never going to catch for us again.”
Kovacevic says Cervelli changed his mind gradually but surely and with no instigation from the Pirates. He talks of switching to the outfield, perhaps. Barring any frequent collisions with fellow outfielders, it’s a far less dangerous place to play, assuming Cervelli can recover his batting stroke enough to justify the Pirates letting him fall in out there.
And lo! Just hours after the news of Cervelli discarding the tools of ignorance came forth, there came a play in Houston that gave his alarm too much credence.
Astros outfielder Jake Marisnick, inserted into the game against the Angels as a pinch runner for left fielder Yordan Alvarez, attempted to come home from third on a long bases-loaded fly to right by Astros center field star George Springer. Angels right fielder Kole Calhoun fired a strike home.
Marisnick came booming down the line as Angels catcher Jonathan Lucroy awaited the Calhoun throw. Mindful of the oncoming Marisnick, Lucroy moved out front and slightly left of the plate, which (read carefully) opened the lane for Marisnick to stay on a straight line, with Lucroy, a well-seasoned catcher, leaving himself concurrent room to apply a tag.
Except that Marisnick jinked left, right into Lucroy, blasting Lucroy into a heap, the impact compelling Marisnick to double back to touch the plate, before he bent over Lucroy in obvious alarm for the veteran’s health as the Angels’ training staff arrived at the plate.
The play was reviewed out of New York and Marisnick was ruled out. He would have scored the go-ahead run in a ten-all tie; the Astros ultimately won the game 11-10 in the tenth inning.
Social media seemed to bristle with Astros fans fuming over the out call, but the call was indeed correct according to the rule that’s been in place since 2014, when the Giants and most of baseball became fed up over how much playing time injuries and plate collisions cost their star catcher Buster Posey:
A runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate). If, in the judgment of the Umpire, a runner attempting to score initiates contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate) in such a manner, the Umpire shall declare the runner out (even if the player covering home plate loses possession of the ball).
I watched as many replays of the play as I could. My conclusion:
1) Lucroy did indeed move to allow Marisnick a more proper lane, just before Lucroy took Calhoun’s throw to the plate on the short hop about a foot forward left of the plate. (The longtime rule was that catchers were not allowed to block the plate, a rule rarely enforced, but Lucroy acted within the letter of the current rule, too.)
2) Marisnick did indeed move left and into Lucroy’s way in a bid to move him off the play when he was indeed given a clear, straight line to the plate. If you see the play from the camera angle behind the plate, you see Marisnick look as though making a quick turn left, the pivot on his right leg, and into Lucroy.
3) Read this very carefully, too: From all appearances, Marisnick had no intention of relieving Lucroy of his limbs or his brains on the play. He wanted simply to knock Lucroy off the play and relieve him of the ball he speared seconds before impact. The ball was indeed knocked right out of Lucroy’s mitt at the moment Marisnick turned him into the high priced spread.
4) The foregoing said, Marisnick was very remorseful over Lucroy’s injury, as he tweeted subsequently: Through my eyes I thought the play was going to end up on the outside of the plate. I made a split second decision at full speed to slide head first on the inside part of the plate. That decision got another player hurt and I feel awful. I hope nothing but the best for [Lucroy].
5) Properly remorseful but momentarily blinded. Full speed or otherwise he couldn’t possibly miss Lucroy moving forward to allow him a proper lane, which, I repeat, would still give Lucroy a fair shot at tagging him out and Marisnick a fair shot at scoring.
The Angels sent Lucroy to a local hospital for a CT scan and concussion evaluation, not to mention to determine whether his nose was broken on the play. Lucroy’s week already included mourning the unexpected deaths of his Angels teammate Tyler Skaggs and his coach at Louisiana-Lafayette College, Tony Robichaux. Crowning such grief by being blown to smithereens wasn’t exactly on Lucroy’s radar.
It soiled both the Astros’ otherwise splendidly hard earned win and the afternoon on which Mike Trout, the Angels’ and baseball’s Mr. Everything, bombed his way into his team’s record book, his two launches making him the Angel with the most home runs prior to an All-Star break, ever. (The previous record, 26, was shared by Trout, future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols, and former Angels star/World Series hero Garret Anderson.)
It also spoiled such Sunday milestones as Mets rookie Pete Alonso, one of the few bright lights in a Mets season described at best as grotesque, breaking the National League’s record for runs batted in by a rookie before an All-Star break and tying the Mets’ team record for home runs before the All-Star break. (Dave Kingman set it in 1976.)
And it punctuated Francisco Cervelli’s decision with an exclamation point that might as well have been fashioned into a stake.