Commentary

Avila's collision a signal for change

An ugly home-plate collision in Game 5 shows why MLB must tweak rules

Updated: October 18, 2013, 4:04 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- The most memorable moments of Game 5 of the American League Championship Series occurred at home plate Thursday. Unfortunately.

In the first inning, Miguel Cabrera tried to score even though left fielder Jonny Gomes already had the ball in his glove just about the same time Cabrera rounded third base. Out by several yards, Cabrera tried to knock the ball loose by slamming into Boston catcher David Ross. It didn't work.

[+] EnlargeAlex Avila
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsAlex Avila tagged out David Ross in the second, but ended up leaving the game as a result.

The next inning, Ross was the baserunner on a closer play when he plowed into Alex Avila, bowling over the Detroit catcher. The play was much closer and Ross hit Avila much harder than Cabrera had hit him. Avila held on and Ross was out. But it came at a price. Avila, who also took a beating from a couple foul balls and bounced pitches, later left the game with a strained patellar tendon in his left knee. He is listed as day-to-day.

The irony of that play is that both players are catchers and both have suffered concussions that sidelined them this year. Ross has had several concussions in his career. Which is why Ross made sure he patted Avila on the leg and talked to him about it.

"I respect the guy a lot," Ross said. "I was just trying to make something happen. He had me out dead to rights -- that's part of the game. I hope he's all right. I told him I didn't have a choice. I was just going hard. He understood. We both just talked the other day about our concussions. I know what he's been through and he knows what I've been through."

Given those dangers, does baseball needs to change the rules on home-plate collisions?

"I've been asked that question ever since Buster Posey got hurt," Avila said. "I've been hit a bunch of times. I've never seen anything wrong with it. It's part of the game. You do what you can as a catcher to protect yourself -- and I have over my career -- but sometimes you can't and you have to deal with it."

Avila is wrong. Catchers should not have to deal with it. Young athletes earning millions of dollars to the cheers of millions of fans are not in a good position to decide what is best when it comes to their long-term health. Leagues must protect them, because as Avila said, they cannot protect themselves.

The rules must be changed to stop collisions at home plate.

"Definitely, because that has a lot to do with our health," said Detroit's Brayan Pena, who replaced Avila behind the plate. "We're not talking about weak catchers. We catchers know our responsibility, we know exactly what we signed up for. But at the same time, we're talking about concussions. I know Major League Baseball is doing a great job, especially making sure we get off a week to get back to 100 percent from a concussion. But still, those collisions at home plate -- those are some big boys coming after you and you have to stay there and take it like a man.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ross
Jim Davis/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesRoss was able to avoid a collision with Miguel Cabrera in the first and still get the out.

"But I think they should be doing something about that. But, hey, they have been talking about it for a little while."

And yet nothing ever changes. It's high time for change.

I didn't feel this way before. I, too, was thrilled by Pete Rose barreling into Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game. This is big-time sports, not grade school where kids aren't even allowed to play tag. These are athletes competing against each other. You can't eliminate every risk. And this is the way baseball has always been played.

But times have changed. We know things we didn't know before. We now know how devastating concussions can be to the brain and to a person's long-term health. This isn't the era of Ty Cobb. Even someone as old school as Detroit manager Jim Leyland said the rules need to be changed.

It's rough enough being a catcher. The biggest blow Avila took might have been the ball Ross fouled directly into his mask in the fourth inning. Catchers constantly take foul balls off their mask, their chests, their legs, their cups. It's easily the toughest, most demanding position in baseball. They shouldn't also have to be hit by 250-pound players running at full speed. This isn't football.

Ross admitted he was out "dead to rights." Why should he have been allowed to slam into Avila? Why should Cabrera have been allowed to slam into Ross in the hope he could jar the ball loose?

This should be no different than Alex Rodriguez being called out for slapping the ball from Bronson Arroyo's glove in the 2004 ALCS. Players should not be allowed to intentionally knock the ball out of a fielder's glove, regardless of the position.

This is what the new rule should be: Home plate is the same as any other base. The catcher is the same as any other fielder. The runner must slide. The catcher cannot block the plate. The runner cannot slam into the catcher.

Will this change the way the game has been played? Yes, but baseball does change. Not swiftly. Not often. But it does change.

When Ray Chapman was killed by a pitch from Carl Mays, baseball changed the rules. It outlawed spitters that discolored the balls and made them difficult to see. Baseball later mandated batting helmets, even though players complained that they were not manly to wear. No one would suggest such a thing now.

Times change. The game must change as well.

"It's very scary," Pena said. "Remember, at the end of the day, it's a game."

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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