- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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SARASOTA, Fla. -- He was steamrolled at the plate by Sean Rodriguez in 2012. He was flattened by Ryan Kalish at Fenway in 2011. So to Matt Wieters, the issue of "protecting" catchers is more than just a fascinating talk-show debate.
"I've been fortunate," the Orioles' catcher said Monday, on the day Major League Baseball and the players' union announced the sport's new rules governing collisions at home plate. "I've gotten lucky a few times, really, that I never got hurt worse than I did."
But Wieters has thought a lot about what might have been. So while some catchers remain skeptical, or even downright opposed to the new rules, you can count Wieters as one of its biggest supporters.
"There are always going to be catchers who want to leave it on the field," he said. "You want to be strong for your team. And stopping runs is the most important part of this game. It's whoever scores the most runs. So you want to be able to stop those runs at any cost.
"But the bigger thing, that I think really comes into play here, is you look at the NFL and the effect that concussions have. You know, we're not just talking about a career. You're not just talking about missing a season with an injury. You're talking about a couple of head-to-head collisions, and you could have quite a bit of memory loss, and quite a difficult time functioning later in life. And for me, I think that's the one issue I'm glad is hopefully going to be straightened out."
Nevertheless, Wieters has questions. And he hasn't hesitated to voice them to the union in the past few weeks, as officials on both sides struggled with how to word these rules.
So let's start with this: The collision rules say a catcher "in possession of the ball" can still block the plate. But Wieters, like a lot of catchers, would like to know exactly what that means -- and, in fact, needs to know what that means.
"That's part of a big concern for me," he said. "If a ball beats the runner and I'm not allowed to even block the plate then, a good sliding runner could still be safe, even if he would have been 'out' by 10 feet. So that's one thing I want to [ask]: What is blocking the plate? How much of the plate do you have to give? Hopefully, we'll go through that in spring training and get a real substantial feel for what's legitimate and what isn't, going into the season.
"But I think the one thing for me is, if the guy is out and the ball beats him, you want the guy to be called out. And if the guy's safe, you don't want a guy to be called out who would have been safe."
Another topic that Wieters said he's voiced a lot of concerns about is what happens when throws inadvertently take catchers into the path of the runner. That's an issue jam-packed with gray areas.
"You don't want a runner being called safe because a catcher had to back up to field the throw to get a better hop," he said, "or to have the throw coming into the line. And that's one thing that we've had to work through -- to make sure the catcher had the liberty to play the ball."
But Wieters also knows there are going to be times when these plays aren't going to be clear-cut, where it's difficult to tell whether it was the throw that took the catcher into the path of the runner or whether the catcher intended to block that path all along.
And when that happens, no one is too certain how anyone is supposed to react -- not the catcher, not the runner, not even the umpire. Yet.
"That's the hard part," Wieters said. "Part of it is obviously going to be a judgment call that the umpires have. And I think that's one of the things going through it. You don't want the umpire to have to make six or seven different judgments on where he's standing and where he's going. You want him to be able to make one judgment of: Was it a violent collision? Could it have been avoided? And I think that's the biggest thing in this rule: Is it contact that could have been avoided at the plate?"
Wieters' manager, Buck Showalter, attended a briefing on the new rule by baseball officials Sunday. And as a manager who still cringes when he thinks of some of the hits his catcher has taken, Showalter is grateful for a rule that aspires to all but eliminate "the cheap-shot collision."
"We're talking about where the [catcher] is completely exposed, doesn't have the ball and some guy hunts him," Showalter said. "We've had it happen with Matt a couple of times. And as you remember, we were real unhappy about it. I can still remember the players who did it. With no intent to score. Had the plate given to him. Could have slid. And just [hit him] very maliciously. We're going to get that out of the game."
But Wieters wanted to make one thing clear: This isn't just a rule designed to protect catchers.
"You know, catchers don't want to see runners getting hurt, either," he said. "So you want to be able to protect the runner, too. And I think that's part of the issue of why it's taken so long to put something together. You've got to be able to protect both parties. You can't just say: The catcher can do whatever he wants, so now you're going to have a bunch of runners getting hurt. It's a fine line of trying to keep the game the same, but at the same time, coming up with a rule that also eliminates some injuries."
And he and Showalter both believe baseball accomplished that Monday.
"You're probably not going to see, with the naked eye, a lot of the changes," Showalter said. "Just hopefully, we won't be showing on 'Baseball Tonight' these violent collisions that shouldn't have happened."