Former Major League Baseball player Ryan Freel committed suicide in 2012. It’s now been confirmed he suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the national pastime’s first documented case. Neil Cohen discusses how MLB is getting proactive.
Last week at Major League Baseball’s annual Winter Meetings, a gathering of teams’ front office personnel widely known for big trades and free agent signings, baseball’s Playing Rules Committee took the first step in outlawing violent collisions at home plate.
While more approvals are necessary and the specific details of the rule need to be drafted, the decision represents the first step in changing one of the most exciting and dangerous plays, one that has become part of baseball lore.
Just ask Pete Rose and Ray Fosse.
The discussion to ban home plate collisions picked up steam following a May 25, 2011 incident between San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey and Florida Marlins outfielder Scott Cousins in which Posey, the reigning Rookie of the Year on a World Series winning-team, sustained a broken fibula and three torn ligaments in his ankle, effectively ending his season.
That Posey, one of the top young players in the game who would win the National League MVP in 2012, was taken out by a career minor leaguer only heightened the attention to home plate collisions. Some old schoolers with out-of-touch thinking worried about a “softening” of the game, while other players—especially former catchers—as well as front officer personnel who had invested hundreds of millions in players like Posey believed it was time to eliminate a play that has ruined careers.
The new rule was “endorsed” by Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench, who tweeted, “@MLB thank you for the new collision rule! I addressed this with MLB after Posey was nailed. It’s taken too long!”
But behind the scenes at MLB’s offices, there was much more to the story. On the same day that MLB announced its decision to ban home plate collisions, the family of former Cincinnati Reds outfielder Ryan Freel met with Chris Nowinski, a Harvard graduate and former WWE wrestler who is now the co-director at the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, and who has quickly become one of the most influential figures in sports. MLB was also briefed on Nowinski’s findings.
Studies performed by the Boston University group had found that Freel suffered from Grade II chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a degenerative brain disease caused by concussions and repeated blows to the head. The condition is most often associated with football players.
Dr. Ann C. McKee Nowinski’s co-director wrote in a scientific journal that “CTE is clinically associated with symptoms of irritability, impulsivity, aggression, depression, short-term memory loss and heightened suicidality that usually begin eight to 10 years after experiencing repetitive mild traumatic brain injury.” Friends of Freel had reported that he had suffered from many of those symptoms.
Freel, a hard-nosed, run-into-the-fence type of player that fans and teammates loved, had committed suicide in December 2012 at just 36 years of age, following an eight-year career cut short by concussions and other injuries. Freel’s family estimated that he had suffered upwards of 10 concussions during his playing career, including a 2007 blow following a collision with another outfielder in which Freel had to be carted off the field, and one in 2009 after being hit in the head by an errant throw during an attempted pick-off at second base.
In announcing MLB’s new home plate collision rule, Rules Committee chair and Mets GM Sandy Alderson acknowledged that there is “. . . 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. So that’s part of the impetus for this rule change as well.”
Interesting that Alderson made no mention of Freel—in fact no one did on the day of the announcement—which would have been the right thing to do. However, MLB deserves credit for taking another step in acknowledging that concussions are a serious part of baseball. (MLB already instituted a mandatory 7-day stint on the disabled list for any player suffering a concussion.)
MLB estimates that 50 percent of concussions on the field occur from collisions, though they did not break down where on the field those collisions occur. According to CNN, this past season 18 players hit the disabled list after concussions, 10 of whom were catchers. Thirteen players were disabled in 2012.
That’s a far cry from the NFL in which a player can get a concussion on every routine play, and, according to Frontline’s concussion watch website, 125 players have so far this year. A staggering 171 players in 2012 suffered some type of concussion. Whereas MLB has an issue, the NFL has a crisis.
But MLB’s issue is real and important because it ends careers. Ask St. Louis Cardinal and former catcher Mike Matheny or Milwaukee Brewer third basemen Corey Koskie or even current Colorado Rockies player Justin Morneau, whose career took a major nose-dive after getting a knee to the head while breaking up a double play. It’s thought that even the Iron Horse himself, Lou Gehrig, who reportedly had numerous concussions and was even knocked unconscious while playing, actually may have had CTE, or at least the onset of his namesake disease may have been caused in part by blows to the head.
Of course there are and will be many other examples. While MLB can eliminate certain plays that greatly increase the risk of concussions for players, the mere fact that the sport involves a hard little white ball that can be thrown upwards of 100 mph and hit even faster means that hits to the head are going to happen.
There will still be concussions, but MLB has taken a good first step to protect their players, and their wallets.
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