In my younger and more vulnerable years, I caught for a variety of baseball teams at different levels. I caught for eight years and bore the brunt of my fair share of dings, bruises, black-and-blue marks and home plate collisions. So when I saw Elliot Johnson run into Francisco Cervelli and the Yanks’ young catcher come up in pain, I was empathetic.
What I did not feel was outrage or this sense of injustice that seems to be emanating from some — but not all — Yankee blogs and from the Yankees and their fired-up manager himself. In fact, to me, the collision looked like a clean play between youngsters trying hard to make an impression with their Big League coaches. Cervelli’s injury was an unfortunate freak accident; it didn’t stem from any malice between the two players.
Back during my baseball days, I would spend the months from the spring through the summer playing ball. After school or in school, over the summer and into the fall, I would be on the diamond playing games. I wasn’t great, but I wasn’t terrible. I could hold my own on my high school varsity team and could have played in college too if athletics had been a priority.
Every year in March, my high school team would fly south for our own spring training. Seven or eight years ago, the weather in New York in March and April was unreliable, and with a short season, we had to get as much practice time and as many games in as possible. During out trips to Arizona and later on during our season, we would play games that didn’t count against out-of-league opponents. Some of these teams — the ones from Arizona — were really good; others — the ones from up north getting in practice in the sun — weren’t. During the season, we would play games against out-of-league teams such as Iona Prep and tense in-league contests against Poly Prep or Hackley that would determine how and when our season ended.
But day in and day out, one thing held true: No matter who we were playing, we came to win, and once we as a team stepped on to the diamond, it was very, very hard to turn it down until after the game was over. We would, in March, play to win. We would play hard; we would play tough. If that meant a tough slide or a play at the plate, so be it. Even if the games didn’t count in our overall record, we couldn’t just dial it down out of some sense of fairness. Baseball is baseball.
So now look at the Cervelli/Johnson collision. A then-23-year-old was rounding third heading home with a 21-year-old catcher blocking the plate. As any baseball player knows, you have to score, and in the split seconds between the base path and home plate, instinct takes over. Did Johnson have time to think to himself, “It’s Spring Training. I shouldn’t barrel over the catcher. I should try to slide around”?
As a former player, I can safely say, “Of course not.” Johnson knew what he had to do; he knew it from years of playing baseball, and he couldn’t just turn it off. That’s not how it works at any level. Once a baseball player hits that third base bag, years of baseball training and instinct take over.
What surprises me too are the reactions from the Yankees. Joe Girardi, an intense player and an intense manager, should know this. Shelley Duncan, mouthing off about retribution, should know this. Clearly, Don Zimmer knows this. He’s spoken the most sense over the last few days.
What happened over the weekend was unfortunate. It was also a bad accident. It involved a player trying to field his position and a runner acting as any baseball runner does. Maybe — but doubtfully — a veteran with years of experience would have tried to find a way to avoid a collision. Maybe another catcher tries a swipe tag. But Cervelli stood his ground; Johnson stood his; and neither the twain shall meet. This collision shouldn’t involve retribution; it should simply involve Cervelli’s healing as fast as he can and everyone else’s remember that a baseball player can’t just turn it down five feet from home plate.