A dissenting opinion on the Cervelli-Johnson collision

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Honoring Yankee Stadium through overkill

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.

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Honoring Yankee Stadium through overkill
  • mike

    for your information shelley was NOT mouthing off about retribution, in response to a question from a reporter be basically said he’d do whatever the third base coach would tell him to do.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Ben K.

      In my opinion, these views are a little more aggressive than just saying he’ll do whatever the third base coach tells him to do.

      • J.R.

        I know I would not want to be a catcher between Shelley and home.

  • LiveFromNewYork

    I think that the Rays manager is encouraging that kind of stuff. Both Girardi and Yogi said they were run down plenty during the season but never in off-season.

    I think that Joe is doing two things here: one telling the Rays to stop with the aggressive crap and two sticking up for his team.

    I think that he’s aware that Torre was too huggy or nonchalant about things. There needs to be fire in the dugout somewhere between Billy Martin fire and Joe Torre snoozing. I think Girardi is capable of that.

    I don’t think it was an accident and if the Ray weren’t being actively encouraged to play hard ball I would think the Yankee reaction was over the top. But they are and Joe rightly responded.

    The most important thing is he was out there sticking up for his players. We WANT to see that after the midge disaster in Cleveland. Good for Girardi.

  • LiveFromNewYork

    *I meant spring training, not off-season.

  • jon

    Could not agree more. Girardi is out of line.

    There are 2 major factors in favor of the Rays view, like you mentioned:

    1 – the runner is trying make an impression on his manager – the risk of pissing him off by NOT trying to score is greater than the risk of pissing him off by risking injury
    2 – it happened in a matter of seconds – an instinctive play

    If, and only if, time could be stopped as the runner was rounding 3rd, he went to Maddon and said “Hey, I would normally barrel over him but it’s spring training and there’s no point”, and Maddon agreed, then you would say the Rays were wrong if it still occurred.

    So in short – that shouldn’t occur during spring training, but you can’t blame Johnson or the Rays.

  • http://www.dugoutcentral.com/blog/?author_name=Matt%20Bouffard Matt

    I’m of the opinion that the collision was certainly unnecessary in a spring game, but I don’t think it was necessarily dirty. I can understand a marginal prospect wanting to make an impression. I can understand the Rays wanting to shed their loser image.

    As for Zim, I’m not sure he’s the voice of reason here. I respect the guy a bunch, but I think he has an axe to grind with all things Yankee. I don’t know if that explains the following excerpt from this article http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/spring2008/news/story?id=3285035

    Zimmer was New York’s bench coach from 1996-2003 under Girardi’s predecessor, Joe Torre. Zimmer recalled a meeting in the Yankees’ clubhouse in which Torre once told his players to not slide into the plate with Mike Scioscia catching.

    “He blocks the plate. You’ll break your legs. So the story was he didn’t want none of his players sliding. Bowl him over,” Zimmer said.

    Scioscia last played a major league game in 1992. He last appeared in a major league camp as a player in 1994. Zim, Girardi, and Torre all arrived in the Bronx in 96, by which time Scioscia was a minor league instrcutor with the Dodgers.

    Perhaps Zim has a case of Andy Pettitte’s misrememberitis, perhaps it’s just age, perhaps he’s thinking of his time with Girardi with the Cubs or Rockies, but if this conversation was in fact about Mike Scioscia, there’s no way it took place in a Yankee clubhouse.

  • JD

    Of COURSE you could have played college baseball. Just like every guy I ever met in a bar when I played swore he could have played pro ball, too, but he never returned the phone call the Orioles left offering him a tryout or how they could have gotten a full ride to play at Auburn, but they thought the associates degree in bartending at their local community college was a better investment in their future. When offering your opinion on a collision at the plate during a MAJOR LEAGUE spring training game, it’s best to leave your credentials out when they are limited to high school baseball.

    Man, I just read what I wrote and it sounded pretty harsh.

    Ha..I actually agree with your take on the collision, but just couldn’t resist the urge to bust your chops.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Ben K.

      To unnecessarily defend myself from a post that has no basis in reality, my college team sucked. I could have played but decided to edit the paper instead. I would have easily, easily made my college team. But I had no future playing baseball beyond that and went another route. It’s worked out a-ok for me.

      Anyway, the attitude in competitive sports is the same. You don’t become more or less competitive by playing Major League Baseball.

  • Drew

    I think the important thing to consider here, is not that Giardi was not geninely angry. I’m sure he can understand the intensity and the drive to try to make the team, or get noticed before he goes back to AAA. Perhaps he just used this as an opportunity to get his team fired up. In football events like this are frequent and can drive a team, in baseball they are few and far between. Perhaps this was simply another way to motivate the team to work harder to crush their opponents.

  • http://www.mvn.com/mlb-rays Eric SanInocencio

    I did play college ball. I agree that the play was far from “dirty”, but again its place in a Spring Training game is the question. What I felt happened is that these two fan bases, who aren’t particularly fond of each other to begin with, used this as a wedge issue to attack each other instead of sticking to debating the merits of the play.

    I’ve rounded third countless times, and I always felt I had plenty of time to decide my course of action depending on what was occurring around me. To make up your mind to run the catcher over that early is reckless, I mean what if the throw is up the line? Too many factors to decide any sooner than three or four steps from the plate. But in the end, it is baseball.

    But is it Spring Training baseball? That’s a better question.

  • AlexCT

    There is no question that the hit was clean. I remember watching it, thinking that it was a good hit. problem is it was in spring training. I am not totally outraged like some fans are, but it does make you think. Its a shame the kid got hurt, and we all know that Johnson was trying to prove himself and played hard, thats ok i guess. Personally i think would have attempted more of a puch hit that would bowl him over but not relly knock into him. after all the rays were winning at the time, it wasn’t a crucial play. what makes it a little more interesting is to hear about the carl crawford hit the previous week. what business does he have wrecking a catcher? it does speak to a questionable philosophy by the rays team. I think it was bee blown out of porportion, and i hope the yanks don’t let this situation distract them by carrying into the regular season.

  • zack

    I don’t take issue with the play itself, or rather, its occurance in ST as much, though it is ridiculous, but with the entire notion of crashing into the catcher.
    Home plate is the only place where it is accepted in baseball to actually try to dislodge the ball by force. At first base if a player lowered his shoulder into the pitcher who was standing there with the ball to tag him out, there would be an outcry (and you certainly can’t do what A-Rod/Slappy mcBaldy did, as that is ‘bush league’). As long as a player has the ball, it is generally accepted to try and AVOID the tag but not try and end his career by running full speed into a stationary object with your shoulder lowered. But yet, at home plate, its okay, and even encouraged.

    Its a different story in those “throw arrives at the same time” plays where the catcher doesn’t quite have the ball yet and the runner is right there, but even then he shouldn’t be lowering his shoulder. But most of the time the runner is heading to be out by feet and then proceeds to hit the catcher as hard as he can.

    You can call that playing hard, playing to win, playing the right way or whatever you want, but its 1) basically against the rules 2) Not in the spirit of the rest of the game and 3) very very dangerous. The catcher has no choice but to be there, and the runner has every choice to try and slide and avoid the tag. Its a stupid, potentially devastating play that pisses me off every time. Its a play for those who love Pete F’ing Rose….

    • Bogie

      Zack, please explain then why it was considered “OK” for Eddie Stanky to kick the ball out of Phil Rizzuto’s glove in the ’51 WS (although Rizzuto was pissed at that play for most of the rest of his life).

  • YankCrank20

    I played high school ball, and i played division 1 baseball in college. In all of those years of games, when we had exhibition games either in the northern states or flying down south, every player knew they wanted to win but were clearly instructed not to slide spikes first or run over the catcher. Of course we all want to win, but not at the expense of hurting somebody to where they can miss a college scholarship or miss being drafted by a pro team due to time missed from injury. If you want to impress your manager or coach, gets some hits and play stellar defense. We all know “baseball is baseball,” but these games can end in the 5th inning if both teams are out of pitchers. I’m not outraged by the play, it was clean, but in regards to your post on doing what you have to do to win at the high school and college level, my prep school and division 1 team weren’t instructed to win exhibition games at any way we can. However, there were plenty of bean-ball and fighting bench/bullpen clearing incidents.

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  • pounder

    Its different in pro ball during the spring.Especially in the lower rungs. The managers at the lower levels are under orders,written or verbal,to protect their kids,especially the blue chips.Maddon is a ML manager so its somewhat different at that level,but the mantra remains the same,don’t get the talent hurt.

  • http://mybaseballbias.com YANKEE BIAS

    I think you’re missing the point Ben. I think the blame for this incident should be placed at the feet of Joe Maddon. Carl Crawford had barreled over Astros catcher Humberto Quintero just a few days earlier and right there he should have said, “Guys, play hard, but be smart. It’s spring training and our goal isn’t to win the Grapefruit League. Don’t put yourself in a position that might cause an injury”.

    But he didn’t say that. Instead he condoned what Crawford did by saying afterwards that it was a “good, hard-ball play”. In the regular season and the playoffs, no doubt. But why is taking out another teams catcher so important in the spring? I can’t imagine that a play like that would be the difference maker in winning a job on the roster. So when Johnson got the opportunity on Saturday to take out Cervelli, he took it with the blessing of his manager.

    There’s no harm in telling your players to be careful, especially when the exhibitions are meaningless to the end game. I thought Maddon was completely careless for not relaying that point to his team.

  • Craig

    How refreshing to see a Yankee manager stick up for his players!!!
    I can see both sides of the argument, but the Yankee manager is doing what he’s suppossed to do…stick up for his team!! For that matter, so is the Rays manager….

    From the “HA” incident to Jeter getting hit 50x against Boston, the players now have a manger who has his back. How many times do you hear Francona criticize when he does something stupid…You don’t because the managers job is to defend his players. What he tells them in private can be completely different from the public message……But AMEN for Girardi!!!!

  • http://nyyu.blogspot.com Mike_@_NYYU

    I disagree about playing to win. In a game last week BOTH managers agreed to end the game after 9 innings in a 7-7 tie. Who was playing to win there?

    Also, as a girls softball coach for many years, if that was one of my players plowing over a catcher in a meaningless game, I would have been very angry.

    Your job as a coach/manager is to prevent injury to your players, the runner could have been injured on the play too.

    I would have told the runner that I appreciate the hustle but I appreciate some common sense too.

  • Kanst

    I dont think this was a big deal at all. Lets flip it around, if Nick Green was rounding third and there was a play at the plate do you expect him to pull up and get tagged? The guys is trying to make a team and earn himself 300k a year, I fully expect him to try and bowl the catcher over, thats what you do. Its unfortunate that Cervelli got hurt but the play wasnt dirty at all it was just a marginal player trying to get noticed

  • CaptainCargo

    A well thought out presentation.

    I’ll ask you one question, just answer yes or no. Your answer will decide whether your “differing opinion” has merit or not.

    The question: “If” it were a star player doing the sliding say a Jeter or ARod or a Josh Howard or even a Devil Ray star if they had one, would you encourage that star to slide like that in spring training and “risk” being out for the year? Just answer yes or no. If you answered no then you have a weak case. If you answered yes then you’d make a piss poor manager.

    Turn it off, turn it on is a wonderful idea. But ballplayers have to play smart too. It could just as easily been the D-Ray player that was sliding being the guy that got hurt.

    In spring training it was a stupid slide plain and simple. If nobody had been injured on that play and I was the manager of the D-Rays and that guy was one of my star prospects you damn well better believe I would have said, nice hustle kid, but don’t you ever do that shit again in spring training. I need you “during” the season son.

  • cbeck3

    I think you are right on. The play was hard but clean. IF the catcher wasn’t willing to be hit, he wouldn’t block the plate. Look at what Zim said. “The plate was blocked”

    You have to practice like you play and hone the instincts so you react in real games without thinking.

    Didn’t we have a play last season where some team complained about a Yankee (Arod?) running over a catcher (MAybe a Japanese one)

    I hope Frankie can come back OK. It’s a shame he got hurt. Move on.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph P.

      Josh Phelps blowing up Kenji Jojhima.

  • Jeff

    I don’t think Giardi is out of place to call the play into question. That said Johnson did everything he is supposed to do while playing ball.
    The real mistake was made by the third base coach who sent him on a course for a collision. The coaching staff is crazy to put players at risk over meaningless games.
    Maybe TB thinks they really need the wins in ST… perhaps it’s because it is the short lived part of the year when they are not at the bottom of the division.
    In the end I hope TB uses a little sense. Two dangerous plays in the course of a week is something that I don’t see as right.

  • pete c.

    Live from NY got it right at the begining. It’s probably Girrardi showing the players he’s going to have something to say when somebody does this type of thing. I think there’s a time and a place for everything, his opinion was that was neither. It’s nice to see a manager who stays awake in the dugout and speaks his mind. If he’s realy that upset about it then somebody gets plunked on wednesday.

  • Hollaforskolla

    I agree 100000% If anyone plays baseball they understand this. NYC high school rules dont let you run into the catcher. You have to slide to avoid him, which is really an extreme advantage for the defensive team at the time. I too used to go down to florida for high school spring training and one year when I was in 8th grade I went down with the varsity team. In an intersquad game there was a play at the plate and i ran into the catcher, who was a sophmore in highschool. Now the coach and the players could have been mad at me considering i may have hurt their starting catcher. And worse for me it couldve made my highschool experience worse, but everyone respected that I did it. I was showing I would do anything, and in florida you could run over the catcher. They told me not to do it back in NY and that was it.

    Im so suprised Girardi responded like after being a Major League Catcher. He should understand this play more than anyone.

  • Chris

    As a manager, wouldn’t you want your players (particularly your young ones) to make the smart play, not the macho play? In this case, what if the pitcher had cut off the ball in the middle of the infield. Would the runner still be ok to run over the catcher? There would be very little time to make the decision, but you’d want him to make the right one.

    I have a bigger problem with the manager encouraging this kind of play than I do with the runner following through on it. The manager should explain that you don’t need to have a huge collision at the plate to prove you belong on the roster. Once that’s said, if someone can’t make a decision on the fly, they shouldn’t play baseball. In this case, it’s particularly egregious because there was a similar collision a few days earlier, so the manager could have easily made the point.

    Also, I’d like to point out that Cervelli wasn’t blocking the plate. His foot was blocking the plate and he was standing out front. The runner had to ignore the plate to hit Cervelli.

  • http://yankeesetc.blogspot.com/ Travis G.

    the stupidest thing about the play is the guy clearly would have been safe IF he had just slid. there’s obviously something about this devil ray team in which they feel the need to bowl over catchers in ST, even when sliding is the better choice. that falls at the feet of the manager.

    in last night’s game, the Meacham held Arod when it would have been a close play at the plate. in the regular season he probably sends him. notice a difference here?

    was the play dirty? no. would it be ok in the regular season? sure. in ST? nope. that’s the problem.

  • bkight13

    Don’t block the plate if you don’t want to get run over. Cervilli is just as responsible for the collision as Johnson. Both guys are trying to make an impression and maybe make the team. I do like that fact that Girardi is using it as a rallying point and defending his guys, something Torre didn’t do enough.

  • Colin

    There seem to be a lot of former D1 players and guys who played varisty in 8th grade who commented on this post. Anyways..

    As a a Red Sox fan who reads this blog, I think you have to look at this in an unbiased way. Of course you guys will get upset over this happening because it happened to a Yankee catcher. However, if George Kottaras (Red Sox’ AAA Catching prospect) got barreled over in a spring traning game, I’d sure you wouldn’t see a problem with it.

    Also, the TB kid is trying to make a living and is playing the game hard. How can you expect him to let up? I know it’s spring training, but they are still expected to play hard every game and every play counts. Plus, do you expect any baseball player to make that split second decision to pull up? No, they will do what they’ve been taught to do…make sure you’re safe no matter how you do it.

    Has the Yanks catcher commented yet?

    • Hollaforskolla

      No cervelli has not made a statement yet…

      they just showed the replay again on YES and they show that cervelli hide the pack corner of the plate and that shows the runner you are ready to get hit

      again no problem with it

    • Hollaforskolla

      and for the record I didnt play varisty when I was in 8th grade…you werent allowed to do that. I just trained with them in Florida.

  • Curramba

    There’s nothing wrong with playing hard but come on to get someone hurt in a meaningless game is redicoulous. What I want to know is what will Maddon’s spin be if one his key players like Crawford gets hurt in a meaningless ST game. One thing is all out hustle when games matter not ST.

  • toby k.

    Does anyone else notice that this is the only major/minor injury to key Yankees player/prospect during Spring Training? Props to Girardi, Cashman, and the training staff. Looks like a change was needed with the strength training department.

  • Barry

    its not like Johnson used his arms to get under him and throw Cervelli on his back, he basically speared him, stupid play by Johnson. I played baseball my whole life and I never ran a catcher over like that, I’d use my arms and upper body to get under the catcher and push him onto his back but I’ve never just speared the shit out of a catcher.

  • babe’s ghost

    according to my (selective) memory, the Rays have made a habit of beaning yankees and getting away with it. preumably driven by frustration and resentment at their richer neighbors. so my feeling is that giardi is sending a message, one that needs to be sent. whether we retaliate by drilling crawford during sp or the regular season is immaterial after all baseball is baseball… and yes I do miss roger. if he were out there there’d be no question. unless giardi specifically calls for it, i’m not sure who does the deed. andy is the putative leader, but my money is on Joba. 100mph to the thigh… “er sorry carl, i’m having some trouble with my control.”

    • LiveFromNewYork

      They also pick fights with the RS. Not that there’s anything wrong with that :) but it seems like they pick fights with the big boys. I think it’s a head game thing.

  • Colin

    Yanks would be stupid to let Joba retaliate. Why not let Farnsworth do it? It won’t hurt the team when he gets suspended..

  • LiveFromNewYork

    The play was not wrong. Catchers get run over all the time.

    It was wrong in spring training and it was wrong that it’s encouraged by this ball club when he could have slid into home.

    Girardi was right to blow his lid not just because the Rays seem to be honing a senseless bash ball philosophy (is that a head game?) but because he’s a new manager protecting his players.

    I don’t want more of Joe Kumbaya Torre. I want Joe Fire In The Belly Girardi.

    And that’s what we got. We all should be going hoo-ah!

  • Rob_in_CT

    1. Cervelli did block the plate. I’m all for “don’t do that stuff in Spring Training” and all, but if so then Cervelli shares the blame. He could’ve backed off as easily as the runner could have (that is to say not easily).

    2. I hate the whole block the plate/tackle the catcher thing. Not just because of this incident. I held my breath when Texiera (sp?) flattened Jorge in ’06.

    3. So the Rays wanna play fiesty. I hope the Yanks do too. Especially the scrubs (I don’t want a good player hurt in this stupidity).

  • Rich

    I don’t think it’s that clear that Cervelli blocked the plate. Irrespective of that, you don’t act like a warrior in a ST game. That’s primarily on Maddon.