Blowing Up the Catcher: Buster Posey and the Clean Play Club

Scott Cousins barrels into Buster Posey, out in front of the plate

(Article first published as Blowing Up the Catcher on Technorati and on Roving Camera: Bill Zarchy’s Blog.)

The collision was so violent that, for a moment, I feared he was dead, then paralyzed. But Giants catcher Buster Posey started to move almost immediately, clawing the dirt in agony, and I knew he had sustained a devastating injury.

Posey was hit on a play at the plate in last week’s second game between the Giants and Florida Marlins, when substitute Scott Cousins, who had entered a tie game as a pinchhitter in the 12th inning, attempted to score after tagging up at 3rd base on a shallow fly ball out. Giants right fielder Nate Schierholtz, who had been throwing out runners at various bases on an almost daily basis, released a bullet throw on one hop to catcher Posey, who had stepped out in front of home plate.

As Cousins approached home at full speed, he veered to his left to launch his body toward the catcher with great force. He lowered his right shoulder and twisted his body away from the plate to slam into Posey’s right shoulder, inches below his neck. Posey had been facing right field to take the throw from Schierholtz, then spun to his left to tag Cousins. The collision sent Posey’s hockey-style catcher’s mask flying, as well as Cousins’ batting helmet.

Posey had a 20 lb advantage over Cousins, but the impact knocked him backward with such force that his left ankle was twisted underneath him, fracturing the fibula and tearing three ligaments in the lower leg. The sight of one of baseball’s brightest lights writhing on the ground in pain disturbed fans everywhere. Ironically, Posey had never caught the ball, which fell to the ground as the play concluded.

Got Buster? Nope, his season is over

In a widely reported story earlier that week, to add to the irony, the San Jose Mercury had reported the Giants were concerned about Posey continuing to catch, since he had “taken another nasty foul tip off his mask, further heightening fears that he is compromising not only his offensive potential but his long-term health by playing such a demanding, dangerous position.”

The Giants were particularly concerned because their onetime starting catcher, Mike Matheny, had been forced to retire after suffering multiple concussions. After the collision with Cousins, Posey, still chewing gum, eventually rolled onto his back as the training staff removed his catcher’s gear. Later he was helped off the field, walking on one leg, leaning heavily on two trainers. Cousins’ run counted, and the Giants lost the game.

The collision was big news. The next day, many players, writers, and sportscasters repeated the common baseball mantra that Cousins’ hit on Posey, often disturbingly described as “blowing up the catcher,” was a “clean play,” that the consequences were an unfortunate accident, but it was all part of the game. Cousins, who lives in San Francisco and grew up a Giants fan, was distraught over causing the injury, but said “I’ve gotten 65 text messages and Facebook postings saying I did nothing wrong,” including one from Giants outfielder (and former Marlin) Cody Ross.

Most of the time I appreciate baseball players’ stoicism, the unwritten law of severely contained emotion on the field throughout the game. Players stay calm and unsmiling with grim game faces, the opposite of the celebratory showoff mentality so prevalent in football and basketball. I love that no baseball player would announce his decision on where to play next year in a hyped-up TV special. That would show up his teammates, and baseball players never do that. But in Posey’s case, I found the macho Code to be tiresome.

I wasn’t the only one to disagree with this Clean Play Club.  A’s announcer and former catcher Ray Fosse, victim of one of the worst catcher blowups years ago when Peter Rose ran him down in an All-Star Game, an exhibition that meant nothing, described Cousins flattening Posey as “unnecessary.”

Fosse said, “I think he could’ve gotten to the plate without doing that. I just think if you give the runner part of the plate, and if the runner is going to do it correctly, he slides toward that part of the plate.

“It was unfortunate. Catchers are very vulnerable. A lot of things have happened. I’m not even talking about my situation.”

Posey, through his agent, issued a statement saying he was grateful he hadn’t sustained a spinal cord injury and called for rules changes to protect catchers, a sentiment echoed by Giants Manager Bruce Bochy, also a former catcher. Bochy and the Giants are appealing to Major League Baseball’s new Executive Vice President Joe Torre, former manager of the Yankees and Dodgers, and also a former catcher in his playing days.

According to The New York Times, “Bochy said he would propose a fine and suspension — and an automatic out — for a runner who has a path to the plate but chooses to bowl over the catcher.”

It’s no coincidence that so many catchers often become coaches and managers. Right now ten of the 30 MLB managers are former catchers. A few years ago, the figure was 12. Catchers run the defense during the game, relaying the desires of the bench, working with the pitchers, the only players who face the whole field, from a reverse angle compared to the other fielders. They are usually considered, like pitchers, as primarily defensive players.

Rookie of the Year 2010

A fine hitter whose promotion from the minor leagues last year coincided with the beginning of the Giants’ surge to the World Series, Posey is an exception. His first season featured a 21-game hitting streak, second among Giants rookies behind Hall of Famer Willie McCovey. The Giants had so much confidence in Posey’s sweet swing that they batted him cleanup toward the end of the year and in the postseason, highly unusual for a catcher. He has won praise for his defense, including quick reactions at the plate, a rocket arm, and elegant agility for a guy who’s 6’1” and 220 lb. He finished the year batting .305 with 18 HR and 67 RBI in 108 games. The whole package won him National League Rookie of the Year honors.

And for the Giants and their fans, coming off the high of a World Series victory, Posey’s the jewel in the crown, a player for whom they’ve had the highest expectations.

“He’s a humble champion,” said Giants announcer Mike Krukow the day after the injury, “And they love him.” After surgical repairs to his leg, his loss for at least the rest of the season is a bitter pill to swallow.

Not everyone considers Posey an innocent victim. Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench and home-plate umpire Joe West, though sympathetic to Posey’s terrible injuries, both expressed the opinion that he had defended the play incorrectly, that if he had caught the ball, he would have been in a better position to defend himself against Cousins’ hit.

“(Marlins catcher John) Buck, in defending Cousins, also suggested that the problem stemmed not with the runner but with Posey’s footwork,” reported the Mercury News the next day. “Buck noted that the way the catcher absorbed the blow with his upper body was technically perfect.

“But, he said, catchers are taught to keep the left foot straight up the foul line and, as the ball approaches home plate, to shift the body to the left. Buck said Posey’s left leg was angled elsewhere, leaving him vulnerable to an awkward collapse.

Another Marlins catcher, John Baker, currently on the Disabled List with a shoulder injury, supports both players, saying that “what Scott Cousins did was in no way dirty, malicious, or outside of his rights as a baserunner. Second, what Buster Posey did on defense was exactly right. Both men put their respective teams before themselves and sacrificed their bodies in their attempts to win the game.” Baker also called for rule changes to protect both catcher and runner.

Giants catchers from their World Championship year: Posey, Eli Whiteside, Bengie Molina

Reaction in the blogosphere has varied from deep sympathy for Posey and hopes for his recovery, to extreme vitriol, name calling and insults. Even discounting the opinions of many largely uninformed sportsfans and those who populate the forums with the attitude “all you idiots are wrong,” I find it difficult not to get upset when writers and commenters blame Posey for blocking the plate (he didn’t), or call him a “wimp” and “immature” and Bochy a “whiner” for suggesting rules to protect catchers. A blogger for the Diamondbacks even took pleasure in Arizona’s enhanced chances to take the National League West with Posey’s injury reducing the Giants’ effectiveness.

The next day, Mike Krukow, in discussing the accident, said on the air that he “wouldn’t be surprised if someone got plunked today by the Giants.” But Cousins sat out for that game, and there were no incidents. Mike Matheny hinted at retaliation a few days later, when he said the collision was needless and avoidable, but revenge should come on the field, not in a rules committee.

“I don’t think you legislate,” Matheny said Monday. “You just put a mark in the column. Next time I get the ball and he’s coming, I’ll stick it to him.”

Matheny criticized Cousins for taking out Posey when he had a lane to slide.

“He went hunting,” Matheny said. “Buster gave him the option. He didn’t take it.”

Giants General Manager Brian Sabean made things worse on Friday with angry comments about Scott Cousins. His reaction was over the top, but I do understand his anger. I don’t hate Cousins, and I wish him no ill fortune. Though he aimed directly at Posey and only fell to his side, onto the plate, after the collision, runners are trained to blow up the catcher, and he did his job and scored the winning run.

But I do bemoan the fact that this rookie, described as “a veritable afterthought on the Marlins’ roster” by Bruce Jenkins in the San Francisco Chronicle, has sidelined one of the great young stars in the game, one the most entertaining players to watch. Though I hope for Buster’s complete recovery and rehabilitation, I wonder if his leg will heal well enough to withstand the unnatural squats, twists, turns, leaps, and shocks necessary to be an agile catcher and productive hitter again.

Giants fans hope for Posey's full recovery, but we have to wonder if he'll be able to get back in the catcher's squat.

Bruce Bochy and Joe Torre are conferring about possible changes, consulting with other managers and catchers, considering whether baseball should change the rules somehow. It’s already illegal for a catcher to block the plate if he doesn’t have the ball, but if he’s got the ball, he can get in the runner’s way and the runner can clobber him. Some of the arguments I’ve heard against protecting catchers:

  • Too much tinkering by the safety Nazis destroys the integrity of baseball. When I was a kid, batters wore their cloth caps at the plate. Many players greeted the introduction of mandatory batting helmets in 1971 with disdain, and veteran major leaguers were “grandfathered in,” allowed to wear their caps, with no helmets, till they retired. Even then, earflaps were not mandatory until 1983. Did batting helmets destroy the game?
  • It’s always been that way. So what? It’s still wrong for any player in a baseball game to wreak such violence on another. Just because it’s always been that way doesn’t mean that it always must be. “The other side argues that the rule is fine as it is,” writes injured Marlins catcher John Baker, “and that contact is a part of the game. It is part of the game, but so were spitballs, hitters without helmets, segregation, head-hunting pitchers, steroids, amphetamines, outfield fences without padding, taller mounds and train rides on road trips. In other words, things can change for the better and the game can get safer.”
  • This issue is only getting attention because it involves a high-profile player like Posey. True, but again, so what? It’s still wrong to allow players to be maimed like this, and it can be changed.
  • Devastating collisions don’t happen much, so why bother? In fact, they happen all the time. The same week Posey went down, collisions sent both Astros catcher Huberto Quintero and Pirates catcher Ryan Doumit to the Disabled List. The week of Posey’s collision, I watched a TV commentator note that three catchers besides Posey (the Marlins’ John Baker and Brett Hayes, and the Indians’ Carlos Santana), have had season-ending injuries since the start of the 2010 season, yet he used the fact that collisions are common and dangerous to justify lack of action, claiming that the current hullabaloo was attributable to Posey’s status and popularity, and therefore, somehow, not valid.
  • The catcher wears protective gear. True, but the supposed “tools of ignorance” are not made to protect against collisions. The chest protector is a lightweight, flexible foam pad that deadens the impact of foul balls. It’s nothing like football shoulder pads, though Scott Cousins’ clobbering of Posey resulted in a football-like impact and a football-type injury. Similarly, both traditional and hockey-style catcher’s masks (as well as batting helmets), are designed to deflect balls, not protect the head during violent collisions. Yes, the catcher wears shinguards, but they didn’t help Buster Posey avoid a lower leg fracture.
  • Injuries are part of the game. Man up. Of course they are. When I took these photos of Posey and Kung Fu Panda Pablo Sandoval at Giants Fanfest in February, little did we know that Panda would be out with a broken hamate bone in the first few weeks, and that Buster would be done for the season, with his career possibly threatened, before the end of May. But that’s no argument for inaction. Baseball has previously legislated against takeout slides at second base, ruling that runners must slide toward the base, not headhunt middle infielders trying to turn a double play. The NFL, which specializes in violent plays, has continually added and beefed up rules designed to protect vulnerable passers and kickers against roughing and runners against knee tackling and helmet spearing.

Fracture Fraternity: Panda and Posey at Giants Fanfest in February

Clowning around with a panda hat at February's Fanfest

Panda, Posey, and pitcher Madison Bumgarner at Fanfest

In their excellent book The Baseball Codes: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime, authors Jason Turbow and Michael Duca discuss this issue in a chapter called “Running into the Catcher.”

“Catchers don’t much enjoy being run over, but it is part of their job description—most of the time. If a catcher is prepared for impact, virtually anything goes. If the runner catches him before he can set up, however, the catcher is exceptionally vulnerable, which is why the Code offers protection in that situation, approving collisions only when necessary.”

If that’s true, then the Code and the Clean Play Club have failed Buster Posey.

I think Bruce Bochy said it best: “We’re getting close to somebody getting hit in the neck area and getting paralyzed there. These guys are coming in hard. It’s part of the game, I was a catcher, I’ve been hit; believe me, I know that. But I just think if there’s a way we can get an area there where we can’t go after a catcher, that allows him to make a play without getting busted up.”

Two nights after the Cousins-Posey collision, Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle described an “are you kidding me moment” involving another Giants catcher and a 275 lb runner.

“The Giants preserved the win when Posey’s replacement, Eli Whiteside, won a collision at home plate with Milwaukee’s semi-truck of a first baseman, Prince Fielder … everyone in packed Miller Park knew that Fielder would be sent home in a bid to tie the game.

“Whiteside knew it, as did Cody Ross, who made a perfect one-hop throw. Ross admitted to a Posey ‘flashback,’ but this play was so much different.

“With the throw coming from left field, Whiteside could see the entire picture. The throw was so quick getting home, and the hop so high, Whiteside also could remain upright and prepare for Fielder.

“Whiteside was right on the plate, too, so Fielder had no option but to slam into the catcher, which he did with a fierce shove. Whiteside then showed a side not seen before, in public, anyway. With his bare hand holding his glove shut, he slammed his hands into Fielder’s chest.

“After the ‘out’ call, Whiteside tossed the ball past Fielder toward the mound dismissively, with attitude. Fielder walked away wearing a sly smile.”

I wish all plays at the plate had such happy endings.

These video clips of the Cousins-Posey collision from the MLB website are graphic, repetitious, and a bit depressing.

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