Baseball is not a contact sport. Soccer and lacrosse, while not contact sports per se, see a lot of banging and hitting. In soccer, there is plenty of body contact going for the balls, especially those ferocious header plays, and even though I encouraged my son David to play soccer and would have tried to stop him from playing football if that were even an option, the concern about him getting a concussion always was in my mind. Lacrosse has all that stick checking and body banging, and my goalie brother Kevin used to measure the success of his game by how many black and blue marks he received from body saves. So yes, they are contact sports.
Basketball, too, is a contact sport, as tall goliaths jostle for rebounds and loose balls. The number of sprained ankles I got playing basketball is too high for me to count. Hockey is a contact game that, I think unfortunately, has evolved, at least at the professional level, into a game in which grace and beauty takes a back seat to the body checking and fighting, which fans love. Football, well, is there any discussion necessary about that? My friend John says that football is not a contact sport, it is a collision sport. On every play, 22 men go down and the opportunity for injury, serious injury, is invited on every play, not because it is an accident, but because it is the nature of the play and the game. Where else do you see fans cheer a non-score, i.e. a sack of the quarterback or a mind-numbing tackle of a wide receiver in mid-air, as much as a score?
Baseball is not a contact sport. There is nothing about the game, other than a slide into a base to break up a double play, or jostle the ball from the catcher’s hand, that demands contact. Of course, when a small, hard ball is thrown in the 90 mile per hour range, and control of the ball is not always guaranteed, there can be injury. Countless batters have been victims of the hit-by-pitch and seriously hurt; broken wrists, hands and fingers are not uncommon. But again, that is not the design of the game. Players pull their hamstrings by doing the most basic thing that takes place in the game, running, or turn or break their ankles by stepping poorly on a base. Pitchers, and now position players, are tearing their obliques. Shoulder and elbow issues are, of course, notorious for pitchers, but let’s not get into that one right now. The vast majority of injuries are either accidents or conditions that develop over time.
There are of course some notable exceptions to my contention that baseball is not a contact sport. Some recent plays come to mind; I want to point them out as examples but NOT get involved in a discussion about whether the plays were dirty or intended to hurt.
Fresh in everyone’s mind is Chase Utley’s slide into second base that resulted in Ruben Tejada’s broken leg (trying to stay objective on that one even though I have my opinion, which you can likely guess). In 2012, Matt Holladay likewise, slid into second in the playoffs against the Giants’ Marco Scutaro, which resulted in an injury that seemed to manifest more significantly the next year. In 2011, Scott Cousins of the Marlins infamously took out Buster Posey at home plate, breaking his leg in about 200 places, in order to score (okay, I probably could have written THAT ONE more objectively too). So, let me amend that to say there was a collision at home plate to dislodge the ball. That of course resulted in a rule change about blocking the plate and contact, and I really don’t want to get into THAT controversial hotbed.
Remember Pete Rose taking out Ray Fosse at home plate in the 1970 All-Star game? AN ALL-STAR game, for Pete’s sake, pun intended. Okay, all pretense of objectivity has now sailed out the window as quickly as an Aroldis Chapman fastball. That play became so controversial because it was just an exhibition game, nothing on the line, like home-field advantage in the World Series.
But I diverge from my basic point, that injuries in baseball are usually accidents. Outfield collisions, cleats getting caught in the turf, running into the outfield wall, these go way beyond tearing a hammie running up the line. And they can be quite horrific. Let’s look at a few notable ones.
In the 1960 World Series, Bill Virdon of the Pirates hit a ground ball that took a bad, very bad, hop, because of a pebble, and hit Yankee shortstop Tony Kubek in the throat. Aaron Rowand, playing for the Phillies in 2006, made a spectacular catch of a fly ball and then had a serious and bloody collision with the outfield fence, resulting in a broken nose and face lacerations. In 1976, Dodger catcher Steve Yeager was in the on-deck circle when Bill Russell’s bat shattered, with nine pieces of wood piercing Yeager’s throat. These are some serious, serious injuries.
There have been a number of players seriously hurt in that ultimate baseball mano-a-mano, pitcher vs. batter, confrontation. Of course, the ball bounces, metaphorically, both ways. Batters hit in the head by pitches, pitchers nailed by line drive come-backers.
Tony C, Tony Conigliario, the next great Red Sox outfielder following Ted Williams and Yaz, had an incredibly promising career ended, essentially, in 1967 by a Jack Hamilton fastball. He had a couple of productive seasons afterwards, but then vision problems curtailed his career. Giancarlo Stanton of the Marlins was hit in the head by a Mike Fiers pitch. Fortunately for him, that did not prevent the offer, happily accepted and signed, of a career-long $30 trillion contract. Of course, horrifying as these were, neither had the impact, so to speak, of Ray Chapman’s story, the only major league ball player killed during a game, the result of a beaning by Carl Mays.
Line drives back at pitchers are equally frequent, disturbing and devastating. Promising young Indians’ pitcher Herb Score’s career was permanently affected by a line drive off the bat of Yankee Gil McDougald, who actually ignored usual practice by running to the mound and checking on him. Brandon McCarthy was pitching for the A’s when he was nailed with a line drive to the head. This has happened to pitchers countless times.
I was at one such game. Little known rookie Joe Martinez was pitching for the Giants early in the 2009 season when Mike Cameron came to the plate for the Brewers and promptly hit a line drive off of Martinez’ forehead. My seats are down the right field line, just beyond the infield dirt. I could hear the crack of the ball against Martinez’ head, and watched him crumple to the ground. What I remember, paradoxically vaguely and clearly at the same time, is Cameron’s reaction. I remember that, with the ball in play, he had no choice but to run to first, which he seemed to do reluctantly. The ball rolled all the way to the stands, so he ran to second, at which point he doubled over, looking like he was just going to lose it. Ironically, Cameron, acknowledged to be a really good guy, was also comforted by some of the Giants players who knew how upset he was. I am getting chills right now recalling this scene. I can only speculate that his horror was perhaps even more intense because he had been in his own horrific head clash with Carlos Beltran when they both went after a ball in the Mets’ outfield in 2005. He literally knew what it felt like. I will never forget that day.
So, I will conclude by re-stating my original premise: Baseball is not a contact sport. Or is it?