- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Eight years after a serious concussion ended his career and "impacted my life," St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny is grateful that baseball's new home-plate collision rules are "trying to change the culture." But he's still worried that "ambiguity" in the new rules leaves open the possibility of more dangerous collisions and devastating injuries.
"It will be interesting to see how the league reacts when someone maliciously goes after somebody," Matheny told ESPN.com on Saturday, before his team's 6-2 victory over the Braves. "And I hope they come down on him hard. And I'll tell you right now, the way our guys are [being taught to handle plays at the plate], if we give the plate and one of our guys gets hammered, I'm going to be making some serious noise."
Matheny was one of baseball's strongest advocates for a complete ban on home-plate collisions. However, after negotiations between Major League Baseball and its players union, the wording was changed to permit collisions if a catcher already has fielded a throw and sets up to block the plate before the runner arrives.
Despite the softening of the original wording, he said, the Cardinals are still teaching their catchers not to block the plate and their baserunners to slide into the plate. But Matheny will be watching closely this season to see if there are still runners looking for an opportunity to bowl over catchers.
"I mean, every once in a while, you're going to run into a guy who's got to prove that he's a tough guy by how he runs somebody over, or a catcher who tries to prove that he's a tough guy by trying to stick somebody hard," he said. "But it's a no-win situation for anybody. The real challenge to prove your toughness in this game is when you get out there every day. The every-day grind is the challenge in this game, and not the occasional physical contact."
Matheny's own concussion issues in a 13-year big-league catching career were caused not by a collision, but by a series of foul balls off the face mask. However, his difficult battle with post-concussion syndrome, and his account of that battle to major-league officials such as Joe Torre, became a driving force in the sport's quest to protect catchers from similar issues.
Torre has said that his conversations with Matheny changed his own mind about the need for a new collision rule. And he isn't alone. However, Matheny says now he wishes he had done more to tell his story years ago. And if he had, he wonders if it might have helped baseball sooner.
"I did a very poor job, at the end of my career, of really telling people how weird and how tough the circumstances were for me after getting that last concussion, how that impacted my life," Matheny said. "Because I didn't want to be the guy for change. I didn't want to be the guy whose name was on this. I also didn't want to look like a guy who was bitter and trying to gain something personally. None of those were true.
"What I did was, I kind of sat back. And the only people that really knew were my family, for about 18 months. I aged 50 years in the blink of an eye. And every time I'd read these articles about some of these hockey guys and football guys, I'd know exactly where they're coming from."
Matheny said he'd "apologized to the league" for not coming forward earlier, and said he feels guilty "because it was only a matter of time" before other catchers suffered similar issues, or other serious injuries, as a result of a collision.
"When you look at the dynamics of that play, as big and strong and fast as guys are getting, [a catcher is] basically a punt returner without the punt-returner equipment," he said. "And the way I look at it now, even as a manager, is that I'm not going to deny the thought of someone coming in and cleaning our catcher out isn't something I'd like to see. But on the bigger scale, it's a no-win situation.
"Just do a risk-reward assessment of the situation. What's the reward? The reward is, the fans come to their feet. You may get a little rise out of your team because your catcher stuck his nose in there. But what's the risk? The risk is injury to both players that's not necessary -- period."
Even after the rule change, Matheny continues to hear people within the baseball community expressing skepticism about whether this change was necessary, and he shakes his head over that sort of talk.
"There are a lot of former players out there -- as well as current players, too -- that are saying, 'Hey, we don't need to change this,' " Matheny said. "But you know what? I would have been the exact same guy. I needed somebody to help me make a better decision, for the long term of my career. I had no idea that would end my career. And these guys never suspected, either.
"I never even came out of a game because of a concussion. Never once. I never was knocked out. Never missed a game because of a concussion. Even the next day, it was no big deal. Until you get that last one, when your brain doesn't run anymore. I'll tell you. It'll change your life. It changed mine. And I think a lot of people should read these stories from these other sports. I mean, scary stuff."
The new rules go into effect this season, but are being described by both sides as "experimental" and subject to review after this year. So Matheny understands he will have to continue to speak out, to help prevent a return to the collision rules, or lack thereof, in the past.
"Again, I don't want to be a big part of something just to have my name on it," he said. "But there's just too much information out there for us not to stop and think, OK, is this just one of those things with this position? Is there a real benefit to it?
"Or," he asked, "can we possibly help save these kids from themselves?"
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