Johnson on plate collision debate: “We don’t need any more rules”

VIERA, Fla. - This has been the most vanilla of spring camps for the Nationals. No positional battles. No roster intrigue. Nothing but minor injuries (knock on wood). And barely any kind of controversy at all.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Just making an observation.

That makes the daily media session with manager Davey Johnson a little different. The chats are generally brief - last year’s could last upwards of 20 minutes, but this spring it’s been more like 10 minutes or so, with Johnson routinely busting the chops of reporters when they start asking questions to flesh out notebooks and feature stories.

One such instance came yesterday, after the media had inquired about Rafael Soriano’s wisdom tooth, Roger Bernadina’s return from the World Baseball Classic and when Cole Kimball might pitch next. The topic was Johnson’s stance on plate collisions between runners and catchers, and whether he felt baseball’s rules needed to be amended to take away the inherent injury risk associated with such violent clashes of irresistible forces and immovable objects.

Johnson’s take on the subject was pretty simple. He called runners ramming catchers blocking the plate “clean, hard-nosed baseball” and placed himself squarely in the old-school camp of baseball lifers who see no reason to change rules that really don’t need changing.

“Shoot, take it too far,” Johnson said disdainfully. “Now guys are wearing padding. Now the halfback (in football) can’t lower his head and run over the defensive back. When are you going to stop it? Sometimes, things happen. We don’t need any more rules as far as I’m concerned.”

Never mind that Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos missed most of last season after a freak May mishap in which he reached to grab a ball behind the plate and ripped his right knee apart. The play was ruled a passed ball, salt in the wound considering Ramos missed the rest of year following reconstructive knee surgery.

Had Ramos been plowed over by a runner, Johnson probably wouldn’t change his tune. Washington’s Kurt Suzuki is considered a pretty good defensive backstop, the kind who knows when to block the plate and when to keep himself out of harm’s way. After all, the object of the game is to stay in the lineup.

“We teach that you don’t straddle home plate without the ball,” Johnson said, explaining the organizational philosophy. “So generally you’re in front of the plate, you leave the base open and when you catch it, you collapse on it. It’s like anything else. You teach footwork down at second base and if you know what you’re supposed to do, the chances of getting hurt are slim and none. It’s when you don’t have proper techniques and you don’t concentrate on mechanics, you leave yourself open and vulnerable.”

Johnson knows a thing or two about bang-up crashes at the plate, having been involved in a couple of memorable collisions during his playing days. One came in the 1971 Word Series, when he tried to run Pirates catcher Manny Sanguillen over. Sanguillen held on to the ball and told reporters that Johnson had tried to kill him.

“It’s part of baseball,” he said. “I ran over two catchers - more than two catchers - but they messed me up more than I messed them up. I had to have my labrum repaired for a guy named Duane Josephson and then a guy named Larry Cox ducked and there went a couple ruptured discs. So, in reality, I’m not really worried about the catcher. Seems like the other end of it gets it (worse).”

But some high-profile injuries in recent years have resulted in some managers calling for rules prohibiting full-on collisions. Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who lost All-Star Buster Posey two years ago to a broken leg and ligament damage to his ankle after he was run over by Florida’s Scott Cousins when he wasn’t blocking the plate, is stumping for new rules to protect catchers by banning collisions. Cardinals skipper Mike Metheny, like Bochy a former backstop, is in the same camp.

Johnson, however, thinks teaching catchers proper positioning will go a long way toward eliminating collision-related injuries. The rest of any problems, real or imagined, will police themselves, he said.

“There’s always a few guys that get a reputation, a la Mike Scioscia that comes to mind from my era, who had a reputation for blocking the plate whether they had the ball or not,” Johnson said. “But guys are getting a little bigger and it’s a little more dangerous. A guy coming 20 mph hits you and it could be your ankle. But if you’re in proper position and going hard, the chances of getting hurt are slim and none. You usually get hurt when you’re trying to do something and not in position.”

And Johnson’s advice to Ramos and Suzuki?

“You don’t stand there without the ball, blocking,” he said. “But you get in position to catch it and come down with shin guards and all that protective gear and put a hurting on. That’s what they did to me my whole career, so I’m expecting they didn’t change that.”

Note: A reminder that today’s game against the Tigers will be broadcast beginning at 1 p.m. live on MASN HD. Bob Carpenter and F.P. Santangelo will have the call from Space Coast Stadium.

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