There are the rules in the book and there are the rules on the field, and sometimes the gap between the two is fairly obvious.
Last week, San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey was wiped out in an ugly crash near home plate. The incident led a few to ask whether there should be a new rule to protect catchers.
What some don't realize is that the collision occurred because of an existing gap between the way baseball's rules are written and the way they have long been enforced on the field.
There was nothing out of the ordinary in the collision between Posey, the National League's 2010 rookie of the year, and the Florida Marlins' Scott Cousin other than the season-ending injuries Posey suffered. Although brutal, the play was part of the game as we all know it.
The big question is this: Do we want the game as we know it, or should we aim higher?
The root of last week's crash began three decades ago when umpires started ignoring the rule that prohibited catchers from blocking home plate without the ball.
Since we see catchers doing it all the time, many fans are unaware that blocking a base without the ball--including home plate--is a violation of rule 7.06 (b).
The rule says, "The catcher, without the ball in his possession, has no right to block the pathway of the runner attempting to score. The base line belongs to the runner and the catcher should be there only when he is fielding a ball or when he already has the ball in his hand."
At some point, umpires gradually rendered this rule null and void by allowing the catcher to position himself wherever he likes, provided the ball might somehow, sometime get to him.
So much for the base line belonging to the runner.
The game as it is gives the base line to the catcher to block as he sees fit. Once the catchers took over, there was little chance of simply sliding around a tag. Runners began running catchers over.
This is what we are used to seeing: a catcher setting up on home plate and the runner plowing into him. Even if no tag is attempted, umpires will often rule the runner out if the catcher hangs on to the ball.
Last week in San Francisco, Posey was waiting for a throw near the plate as Cousins dashed home from third in the 12th inning of a tie game.
The throw came in plenty of time. Posey dropped the ball but failed to notice. Standing to one side of the plate, with the ball at his feet, the catcher still turned toward home to make a swipe tag.
As Cousins closed on home plate, he veered slightly to his left away from the open base and drove his shoulder into Posey, who broke his leg and tore ligaments in his ankle because of the way he fell and not as a direct result of the impact.
Few objective observers have found fault with Cousins, who merely meant to dislodge the ball the way runners are expected to do these days.
What was Cousins supposed to do? asked colleague John E. Gibson. "He was going to be out. His only recourse was to try to jar the ball loose."
Well, yes. The ball beat him home, giving Cousins two choices: a hook slide or a blow that would loosen Posey's molars.
No rule requires the runner to focus on the base rather than separating a fielder from the ball, but perhaps there should be.
If MLB enforced its current rules and then told umpires to call out runners who initiated collisions rather than avoided tags, what would we get?
Screams of outrage, for one.
Every player who grew up with the current game would say removing some of its inherent toughness would ruin baseball. What they would really be losing, however, would be the status quo--and few things are scarier than that.
Still, nobody wants to see large powerful base stealers succeed only because of their ability to send second basemen flying, because we're not used to it.
In the NL in the 1890s, however, that kind of thing, as well as obstruction, tripping and interference, were common-- and fans walked away in droves.
Taking some of the violence off the base paths would be a drastic change, but it would prevent a few injuries and make speed and athleticism even more important.
How is that a bad thing?