Baseball’s concussion-related rules change shows NHL history isn’t to be hidden behind

Adam Proteau
ALCS - Boston Red Sox v Detroit Tigers - Game Five

Non-followers of Major League Baseball may have missed an interesting report this week – but if you’re an NHL fan, you should pay attention, because there’s a hockey connection and a very important lesson here.

Baseball’s decision to ban home plate collisions by its 2015 season – if they can get baseball’s Players’ Association on board, the changes could happen as soon as this summer – is to be applauded, toasted and hailed as an example of a professional sports league that holds tradition in its proper place: specifically, not as a shield to hide behind when time and circumstance cry out for significant change.

Under the changes recommended by MLB’s rules committee, catchers no longer will be permitted to block home plate and runners are banned from targeting catchers. If those rules are broken, the players who break them are subject to disciplinary action by the league.

“This is, I think, in response to a few issues that have arisen,” New York Mets GM and rules committee chairman Sandy Alderson told ESPN.com. “One is just the general occurrence of injuries from these incidents at home plate that affect players, both runners and catchers. And also kind of the general concern about concussions that exists not only in baseball, but throughout professional sports and amateur sports today. It’s an emerging issue and one that we in baseball have to address, as well as other sports.”

Naturally, the move was met with an outcry among baseball traditionalists. Former Blue Jays catcher Gregg Zaun was one such old-schooler who spoke out against the move.

Baseball legend Pete Rose – whose famous home-plate collision with catcher Ray Fosse at the 1970 all-star game is one of the sport’s most iconic moments – also railed against the decision.

“What are they going to do next, you can’t break up a double play?” Rose told the Associated Press. “What’s the game coming to? Evidently the guys making all these rules never played the game of baseball.”

That’s a familiar refrain from athletes – the notion they should be the only people drawing up and/or enforcing the rules. And that is, of course, utter nonsense.

Don’t get me wrong, I think any sport needs input and insight from the people who play it. But athletes are paid to play the game. That’s what they’re good at. They didn’t rise to the top of their field based on their knowledge of neurology or business. And look at it outside the prism of the sports world. Imagine if a Broadway actor attempted to dictate every element – the staging, the writing, the marketing – of a play they performed in. Odds are that production would not last for very long.

This is something to keep in mind the next time you hear an NHL player bemoan rules changes. Now, baseball isn’t a contact sport and the home plate collision isn’t integral to the game the way body checking is to hockey. But I’m talking about the principle of the matter. I’m talking about league executives stepping up to make significant alterations to an aspect of the sport after pleas from medical professionals and suffering athletes, and the knee-jerk, myopic tendency to dismiss any argument simply by saying, “Why don’t we just let the players decide”.

This happens often and although the bias is subtle, it is still there. For example, my favorite trick is when a hockey writer – who may breathlessly proclaim themselves to be objective in the fighting/head shots/concussion debate – covers the issue by only speaking with enforcers, agitators or retired players who played one of those roles. The intent of such a story is to shout down and shut down real debate, but the transparent self-interest of the people doing the complaining does the opposite: it demonstrates how the establishment circles the wagons when they sense change looming on the horizon – and more importantly, it underscores the need to challenge those people with logic, reason and science.

If you no longer can justify why you do something other than the fact you’ve done it for decades, you don’t get to claim the high ground, not when brains and lives and families are at stake. That high ground goes to people who can back their arguments up with something other than anecdotal, Al-Bundy-scoring-four-touchdowns-to-win-the-city-football-championship nostalgia.

Things change. People change. Times change. And no amount of pouting will change that, even if the protruding bottom lips belong to star athletes.