PORT CHARLOTTE - Jose Molina became a catcher because he loved everything about the position. The equipment, the fact he would be involved in every play and, yes, the jarring collisions with base runners who tried to reach home plate.
"That's catching," Molina said. "That's what a catcher should do."
Molina, the Tampa Bay Rays catcher, expressed dismay this morning at the thought that blocking the plate would no longer be allowed.
But Major League Baseball issued a statement this afternoon detailing its new rule governing collisions at home plate. Under the guidelines, runners cannot deviate from their path to the plate to initiate contact with the catcher, and catchers who do not have the ball cannot block home plate.
A runner who goes out of his way to make contact will be called out. A runner who is blocked from touching home plate by a catcher who does not have the ball when contact was initiated will be called safe.
"There's still going to be inadvertent contact, because there are going to be throws that take the catcher into the (runner's) way, up the line. There's going to be some of that," Joe Torre, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, said Sunday. "If nothing else on that play, eliminate those very vicious hits where you target the catcher, as opposed to home plate."
No one will be ejected or suspended for violating the rule, which was a concern among the players, coaches and managers.
"It's not a radical departure from what it has been," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
It does, however, force the home plate umpire to make two decisions during a play at the plate. Was the runner out or safe? Was the collision legal?
An illegal collision, as stated in the new rule, is: "The failure by the runner to make an effort to touch the plate, the runner's lowering of the shoulder, or the runner's pushing through with his hands, elbows or arms, would support a determination that the runner deviated from the pathway in order to initiate contact with the catcher."
It is less involved when it comes to the catcher's culpability. Did he have the ball when he was blocking the plate? Yes or no?
Umpires are allowed to use replay to make those determinations.
Yet, even the interpretation will be open for debate. It is one thing for the runner to take aim at a catcher. It's another for the catcher to move into the runner's path while fielding the ball.
"Now what does the runner do? It's a really tough play to legislate outside of something blatantly, physically determines the runner probably could have avoided this but chose not to," Maddon said. "But at the same time a good catcher who has the ball in time can really hurt a base runner."
Rays infielder/outfielder Sean Rodriguez has run into his share of catchers. He said he only does that when the plate is completely blocked.
"If I see the plate I'm sliding, and that's what they're trying to base the rule on, and I totally agree with that," Rodriguez said. "I'm just worried about them making it a judgment call for the umpires, because some catchers do indeed block the plate. They put their foot out there and have their body off the plate. They say, 'I'm giving you the plate.' No, I can slide into your shin guard. You can come back and throw some force on my lower half, my lower body."
But sliding into a catcher who is within the rules comes with a health risk.
"If you go head first you're really going to get hurt," Maddon said. "If you go feet fast you have a chance of an ankle or a knee (injury)."
Like most catchers, Molina said he is "old school," and that school awards badges of courage to catchers who block the plate and take the hit. Yet, Molina said he is also concerned for the safety of his brother, Yadier, who has been on the wrong end of some vicious hits over the years. Jose believes runners are going after his brother with the intent of injuring Yadier.
"Honestly, I really don't like it. I'd rather have it the same way," he said. "But then when I see my brother get knocked down like that, I'd like to see something that prevents the runner hitting the catcher when (the catcher) is not reachable. You have the plate right there, why are you going to come after me?"