|Monday, March 18
Don't expect rule to be enforced
By Rob Neyer
In May of 2000, Frank Robinson, said, "I understand why Jeff Bagwell wears protection on his hand -- he's had it broken. But other guys with all that body armor from the wrist to the shoulder, they do not pay the price of being hit. That's something we'd like to look at, and talk to the Players Association about. Some of these things, they won't come overnight. But we'd like to get something done by next year."
Continuing in that vein, just before Game 1 of the 2000 World Series, Sandy Alderson, Major League Baseball's executive vice president for baseball operations, said, "We'd like to eliminate the body armor, unless there's a legitimate reason for wearing it. ... We think it introduces an advantage to the hitter. When you add some of the other advantages, like the strike zone and so forth, I think you're taking some of the initiative away from the pitchers."
And the next spring, MLB did indeed announce a crackdown on the use of armored gauntlets. On February 27, 2001, the Philadelphia Daily News tersely reported, "Hitters will no longer be allowed to wear large body armor. All that will be allowed is a 10-inch pad issued by Major League Baseball. Any exceptions will be considered only with a physician's written request."
Sound familiar? It should, because last year Major League Baseball issued almost exactly the same policy.
As Bob Watson, MLB's new Discipline Czar said last week, "It's the same rule as last year. We will make sure that the rules are complied with."
As it turned out, of course, there wasn't a whole lot of compliance goin' on last year. This was due to a variety of reasons. For one thing, there was a feeling that the players didn't have enough advance warning. And for another, when the 2001 season opened, there was just one MLB-approved arm pad. And so while there was some compliance, nobody was fanatical about it. Not Frank Robinson, not the teams or the umpires, and certainly not the players. Barry Bonds opened the season with something less than he'd worn in the past, but by September there he was, wearing a gauntlet on his right arm that would put a medieval knight to shame.
This year, the players have plenty of advance warning, and by Opening Day there will be five MLB-approved pads available -- to be approved, the pad may not exceed 10 inches when pressed flat, and must have only a thin layer of hard plastic covered by nylon -- so there really aren't any excuses left to not enforce the rule.
All that said -- and pardon me for being skeptical -- but I think I'll wait until Opening Day before I believe anything is really going to change. Some of the game's biggest stars, including Bonds and Craig Biggio and Mo Vaughn, have been wearing armor for years, and I don't know if they'll give it up without a fight.
Mo Vaughn says, "I personally wear my elbow pad because if I get hit in the wrong place on my arm, it's going to break because it's been hit so many times."
And Mo Vaughn's arm has been hit so many times because ... Mo Vaughn has been hanging over the plate for his entire career. And hanging over the plate is what this "new" rule is supposed to prevent.
Andres Galarraga says, "In my case, I have to wear it because I've been hit by so many pitches. I know pitchers complain because guys dive over the plate and sometimes try to get hit. I just try to get out of the way."
And Andres Galarraga has been hit so many times because ... he's been hanging over the plate for his entire career.
As my colleague Jim Baker correctly notes, this is yet another problem that could be addressed by the umpires, if only the umpires would take the trouble. Quoting Rule 6.08(b): "The batter becomes a runner and is entitled to first base without liability to be put out (provided he advances to and touches first base) when ... He is touched by a pitched ball which he is not attempting to hit unless (1) The ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, or (2) The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball ..."
Now, let me ask you, how many times have you seen a player do little but blink as a piece of low-90s cheese came whizzing toward him? And how many times have you seen an umpire say, "Son, I'm afraid you made no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball. Return to the batter's box and continue your efforts at reaching base."
One might reasonably ask, "What's the big deal? If a player wants protection, he should have it. And isn't baseball best served if the superstars are able to stay in the lineup?"
Absolutely. If I have tickets to see the Giants play, I sure as shootin' want to see Barry Bonds. But he doesn't have to stand on top of the plate, does he? That's a choice that Bonds makes, and he should have to suffer the consequences of that choice. As things stand now, however, the only consequences are positive. He can pull the outside pitch, he can still pull the inside pitch, and if the pitcher misses too far inside, Bonds gets a pain-free trip to first base (nine of them last year).
It's often said that body armor should be limited because it will help the pitchers. Well, that's true, it will help the pitchers a little bit, but it's also the wrong reason to limit body armor. Body armor should be limited for the simple reason that it's not fair. It upsets the balance between pitching and hitting, and it makes the game less interesting because the hitter doesn't have to make that tough choice between safety and risk.
As I said, I'm skeptical. In the owners/players equation, the players have most of the power, and they might well stymie Bob Watson's best efforts. But let's hope that he at least makes the serious effort that Frank Robinson didn't.
Rob can be reached at email@example.com. And to order his books, including Feeding the Green Monster, click here.