The verdict was in: Jim Sundberg simply wasn’t tough enough.
In the macho world of Doug Rader, the Rangers’ manager, judge, jury and executioner in 1983, there could be no greater sin.
Never mind that Sundberg was already a two-time All-Star and had won six Gold Gloves as the American League’s best defensive catcher before Rader arrived in Texas. Sundberg didn’t block the plate as the hard-nosed Rader thought he should.
In order to “toughen up” his team, Rader was determined that Sundberg had to go. Thus, at baseball’s annual winter meetings in Honolulu in December 1983, 30 years ago this month, Rader convinced general manager Joe Klein to put Sundberg on the market.
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A trade with the Dodgers, who were thrilled at the idea of adding a catcher with Sundberg’s defensive skills, was arranged. It ultimately fell through. Infuriated, Rader quickly helped engineer another deal that sent Sundberg, at that point easily the Rangers’ most popular player ever, to Milwaukee for the immortal Ned Yost, a career backup.
Ironically, Rader’s new “tough” catcher would be forced onto the disabled list during the ’84 season with “excessive eyelid tension.”
So much for Rader getting that macho catcher he wanted behind home plate.
Now baseball is on the verge of passing a rule that will ban Rader’s favorite play, the violent home-plate collision between a fully padded catcher and a base runner charging full speed down the third-base line like a runaway freight train.
For many former big league catchers, including Sundberg, a rule change simply isn’t necessary. The problem, they say, could be solved simply by enforcing the rule that prohibits a catcher from blocking the plate without the ball, a directive most backstops tend to ignore because umpires never make a call on it.
“I think it’s an overreaction,” said Sundberg, now a Rangers executive vice president. “Players are making a bunch of money and I don’t criticize ownership for wanting to protect their investment, but it takes away one of the more exciting plays in the game.
“This seems to be one of a series of things where things are being done because of the value of the player.”
A potential rule change became a hot topic in 2011 after Miami’s Scott Cousins barreled into San Francisco’s young star catcher Buster Posey in a game two years ago. Posey’s leg, twisted beneath him, was broken and he was lost for the rest of the season.
“My response back then was that he was just inexperienced and didn’t defend the plate properly,” Sundberg said.
“He was standing right in front of the plate. Why do that when you already have the ball?” asked Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk at the winter meetings in Orlando earlier this month. “Step out of the way and make the tag.”
Fisk is one of those adamantly opposed to a rule change
“There’s not a run or a game that’s worth giving up your leg for,” Fisk said. “I know because I did it [for the Red Sox] in ’74 [when he was run over by Leron Lee]. In hindsight, I asked myself, ‘Why did you do that?’ The ball hadn’t gotten there yet.
“Give the runner the backside of the plate so he has somewhere to go besides over the top of you. But to change the rule ... what are we playing, girls softball?”
Pete Rose has wondered the same thing. Rose, of course, sees the situation from the other side of the equation, as the runner headed for home plate, intent on scoring any way that he can.
Rose’s collision with Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game is still talked about. Fosse suffered a seriously injured shoulder on the play and while he played another nine seasons, he never seemed to be quite the same player again.
“There is a rule that a catcher can’t block home plate when he doesn’t have the ball,” Rose has said in recent interviews. “Fosse didn’t have the ball and was blocking the plate.”
Not surprisingly, Rose sees the rule as another step in watering down the game he loves.
“What’s next? Are they going to eliminate the takeout slide on double plays at second base?” Rose told The Associated Press. “You’re not allowed to pitch inside. The hitters wear more armor than the Humvees in Afghanistan. Now you’re not allowed to be safe at home plate?
“What’s the game coming to? Evidently the guys making all these rules never played the game of baseball.”
Well, that’s not entirely true. Some of the biggest proponents of the rule change are former major league catchers-turned managers, like St. Louis’ Mike Matheny and San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy.
Even Angels manager Mike Scioscia, one of the game’s best plate-blockers when he caught for the Dodgers, can see why a change might be considered.
“I think everyone is in agreement that the mindless collisions at home plate where a catcher is being targeted by a runner, that needs to be addressed,” Scioscia told Fox News.
What Scioscia sees is a culture change in baseball.
“When I was growing up as a kid in Philadelphia, it was a badge of honor,” Scioscia said of blocking home plate. “You were expected to hang in at the plate, and the runner was expected to do everything he could to tag the plate. We’re going back 40 years ago, but the mindset has changed a bit.”
The change Fisk believes needs to be made is in the way that today’s catchers should be educated by their organizations. Most, he said, are woefully lacking in teaching their young backstops the proper technique in making a tag at the plate. It’s just not necessary to risk injury.
“It’s not chickening out or bailing out, it’s self-preservation,” Fisk said. “But when I came up, the collisions were part of the game. Nobody thought about concussions. You got a headache, go play. Not that you shouldn’t be aware and concerned about the effects of concussions now.
“But instead of a rule change, there should be an awareness change by the players and the organizations. They should be teaching their catchers the proper way to cover the plate, to make a tag without getting hurt. And catchers don’t need to be blocking the plate when they don’t even have the ball.”
There are many reasons why baseball would want to ban collisions. Teams have invested major bucks in players like Posey, or the Yankees’ recently signed free-agent catcher Brian McCann, for instance. MLB may also be proactive in reacting to the $765 million settlement the NFL just reached in a concussion lawsuit brought by more than 4,500 former players.
“Ultimately, what we want to do is change the culture of acceptance that these plays are ordinary and routine and an accepted part of the game,” said New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, who is chairman of Major League Baseball’s rules committee. “The costs associated in terms of health and injury just no longer warrant the status quo.”
Alderson and his committee will present the wording for the rules change to owners during their meeting Thursday in Paradise Valley, Ariz. If the Players Association approves the change, it could be implemented as soon as the 2014 season.
“We’re going to do a fairly extensive review of the types of plays that occur at home plate to determine which we’re going to find acceptable and which are going to be prohibited,” Alderson said.
Who knows, if the rule had been in place back in 1983, perhaps Rader wouldn’t have been so determined to get rid of Sundberg, who eventually helped the Kansas City Royals win a World Series in 1985.
Rangers TV color man Tom Grieve was the team’s farm director in ’83 and remembers being dumbfounded when Rader told Klein he wanted to trade Sundberg for Yost.
“My role was limited as far as major league decisions, so there wasn’t much I could say,” Grieve recalled. “I remember that Rader did not like Sunny, whether it was a toughness issue, or he didn’t cuss enough, or didn’t chew tobacco, or whatever.
“But how in the world can anyone consider trading an All-Star catcher, a fan favorite, a guy who’s meant so much to the franchise, for a backup catcher? I played with very few players who were tougher than Jim Sundberg, and that particular decision was ludicrous.”
Count Grieve among those who sees the upcoming rule change as an overreaction.
“I understand wanting to avoid those catastrophic injuries to catchers, but, for me, plays at the plate have always been a part of the game and I hate to see that go away. It just seems like it’s legislating an exciting and critical part of the game out of the sport.”
As for Sundberg, he makes no apologies for erring on the side of prudence during his career.
“If the plate is blocked appropriately by the catcher, meaning you give them a piece of the plate, they’ll try to go around you,” Sundberg said. “If you straddle the plate and basically say, ‘You have to go through me,’ then the consequences are [the catcher’s] responsibility.
“My philosophy was simple: I always figured I was more valuable to the Rangers in the lineup instead of on the disabled list.”
In those days, when watching Sundberg and his rifle arm was often the only reason to go to the ballpark, most Rangers fans felt exactly the same way.
Jim Reeves is a former Star-Telegram sports columnist.
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