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June 8, 2011

Clubhouse Confidential

Speaking from Experience

by Marc Carig

OAKLAND—The photograph used to hang in his office. Taken during a game at Fenway Park, the image showed a flowing swing he once called his own, the same swing he spent the rest of his career trying to replicate. He never came close.

Ray Fosse holds the pose now as he stands in an equipment room in the Oakland Coliseum—his head down to watch the ball jump off his bat, his left arm fully extended through the zone, his mind drifting back to the way it all clicked so easily throughout the first half of the 1970 season.

“I'd look at that picture in my office and I'd say, 'God, if I could ever get that back again,'” he said.

It has been nearly 41 years since that swing was taken away from him by Pete Rose. We know how. It's ingrained in our collective baseball memories (though some of us weren't born when it happened)—July 14, 1970, 12th inning of the All-Star Game, Riverfront Stadium, Rose flying toward the plate to score the winning run, lowering his head and his shoulder, launching his body at a sitting duck; Fosse absorbing the impact, toppling over onto his back, his left shoulder shattered.

Until Rose intervened, Fosse was a star in the making, hitting 16 home runs and putting together a 23-game hitting streak in the first half of his first full big-league season to propel him to the 1970 All-Star Game. Yet, all these years later, Fosse can't bring himself to believe that anything about the game should be changed.

“For anybody to even think about a change of the rules, it's ridiculous to even consider it," he said.

Nearly two weeks have passed since Scott Cousins ended the season of a great young catcher—Buster Posey—whose stature on the defending world champion San Francisco Giants has been enough to trigger the latest debate on whether home plate collisions have a place in today's game.

Fosse expects the questions. He's been fielding them ever since that fateful midsummer day in Cincinnati, and he expects to do so as long as he's around. Whether it be a regular-season game or exhibition games such as spring training and the All-Star game, his answer remains the same: leave the game alone.

“You can't change something that has been part of the game, unfortunately in some cases, for as long as the game's been played,” Fosse said. “Our objective as a team is to score as many runs as possible. Home plate you have to touch to score a run. If it means somebody's blocking the plate and have to hit him to get to the plate, to dislodge the baseball, so be it. Is an umpire going to say, okay, let's see now, you're within two feet and you ran over the catcher, and the ball... what are they going to do, have a replay like for home runs?”

He laughs at the absurdity of umpires gathered around a video monitor reviewing plate collisions like NFL referees, trying to determine the extent of a penalty.

“I was shocked when I heard that it was even brought up, that there would have to be changes to protect the catcher,” Fosse said. “It's never been done. It never will be done.”

Perhaps what's most clear after hearing Fosse speak about catching and the danger of collisions is how much the perception of collisions has changed over time. While Posey's hit and subsequent season-ending injury took center stage in baseball's universe, Fosse remembers hardly any fuss immediately after his moment of impact with Rose.

Never mind that Fosse's shoulder was so swollen that an X-Ray didn't come close to revealing the full damage—a partial dislocation and a fracture.

Two days after the collision, Fosse was in the Indians’ lineup batting in the cleanup spot and starting behind the plate. When he was introduced for the game against the Royals, the crowd at old Municipal Stadium in Kansas City rose to its feet, the most memorable immediate reaction to the hit. It was the first day of the rest of Fosse's life.

He was never the same. He hit two homers the rest of the season and prayed before every game that his pitchers didn't miss too high in the zone. If they did, he had no way of keeping the errant pitches from the backstop, because he couldn't lift his left arm above his head.

“Fortunately, I was able to play nine more years after that,” Fosse said. “People thought it ended my career. No doubt, I was never the offensive player that, projected out, I could have been.”

Fosse gutted through the injury for the rest of 1970. He made the All-Star team again in 1971, though his power was diminished by a shoulder that never healed properly. He went on to the Oakland A's, where his defense behind the plate helped the team to titles in 1973 and 1974, before returning to the Indians. He wrapped up his career with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1979.

Only years later would the images of his collision—preserved for all time by instant replay—truly resonate with players. Since then, Fosse has watched the culture change for the better, which he noticed when the A's hosted the 1987 All-Star Game. Fosse, who has been a longtime broadcaster with the A's, saw National League catcher Gary Carter before the game and wished him luck. Carter assured Fosse that he wasn't going to suffer the same fate in an All-Star Game. The image had become a cautionary tale.

"By that point, at least it was a thought," Fosse said.

The Giants hosted the All-Star Game in 2007, and once again as Fosse watched the game, he realized how much sensibilities had changed. Alex Rodriguez tried to score from third base, a decision that proved unwise when the throw from the outfield easily beat him to the plate, where Dodgers catcher Russell Martin was waiting.

Rodriguez, who is built like an outside linebacker, could have destroyed Martin. The catcher recalled recently that he had braced for a crash. Instead, Rodriguez slowed to a near stop, got tagged at the plate, and jogged back to the dugout. Now, nearly four years later, as Rodriguez got dressed in the clubhouse not more than six feet away from his new teammate, Martin called it a "nice professional gesture."

The play illustrated another of Fosse's points—there's too much money on the table to risk injuries.

“Why run over him?” said Fosse, who was making $12,000 in 1970.

“I don't blame Alex for not doing it,” he said. “Why take a chance?"

Fosse believes that in the years since he played, collisions at the plate have grown less frequent, and that financial incentive alone should be enough to discourage impact.

Because they have become rarer, when a big hit does happen, Fosse believes that it draws more attention. Countless replays keep the story alive. Consider the way Fosse saw Posey's play for the first time.

Fosse went to bed before seeing the play live. When he arrived at the ballpark the next morning for a day game, his broadcast partner Vince Cotroneo asked Fosse what he thought of the hit. Fosse pulled out his iPhone, called up the video replays on mlb.com, and watched the play on his tiny screen.

"Oh my gosh," Fosse said.

Soon, the A's public relations staff was fielding emails and phone calls from people wanting to hear from Fosse.

“In looking at the play several times, I think it was an unnecessary slide,” said Fosse, who thought Cousins was given enough of the plate to avoid contact. “If the runner to me slides to the corner or the outside of the plate, either reaches back and touches with his hand, or his foot in a hook slide fadeaway, I think he's safe and we're not even talking about it... It could have been completely avoided if the kid just goes for the plate like you normally see.”

In the aftermath of the hit, the emotions were still fresh. Posey refused to take a call from Cousins, who has reportedly been subject to death threats. Giants GM Brian Sabean took to the airwaves to crush Cousins for the hit and continue his push for reform. Of course, the harsh reactions were no surprise. After all, four decades after his infamous hit, Fosse still shows emotion when he speaks of it.

Through the years, Fosse said he's been rankled by some of Rose's comments regarding the incident. He points to a video on YouTube that shows Rose at a card show signing, asserting that Fosse was blocking the plate, an assertion that he finds dishonest.

“I didn't want it to happen to me,” Fosse said. “It's not like expected it. I didn't expect it. Home plate's here, the ball's coming a couple of feet up the line. You can see it in the replay. Pete said I was blocking the plate. Hell, I wasn't blocking the plate, I was up the line because the throw from Amos Otis was there. If I stand on home plate, I miss the ball by two feet. I went to where the ball was coming, I reach for it, boom, I'm hit.”

But Fosse accepted his spot in history long ago.

The photograph from 1970—the one of the swing he was never able to duplicate—no longer hangs in his office. But that's not to say he doesn't think about it sometimes. His body reminds him. There are still mornings where he sleeps on his left shoulder the wrong way and it still feels as if it's being pierced with a knife.

“I couldn't use my left arm to swing the bat so I had to change my swing,” he said. “I had 16 home runs at the All-Star break. I went from hitting .300 to all of a sudden, everything that I was doing the first half I could not do the second half because my left shoulder would not allow me to. As a player, the rest of my career, looking at that photo, I said, 'Okay, I'm just trying to get that back.”

A's general manager Billy Beane recently pressed his catcher, Kurt Suzuki, to avoid contact. Shortly after doing so, Beane posed a question to Fosse.

“He said, 'Had I had the ball, had he been out, but yet I sustained the same injury, would it have meant anything?'” Fosse said. “It's a good point.”

Marc Carig is in his third season as the New York Yankees' beat writer for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. He previously covered the Baltimore Orioles for the Washington Post. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Carig once believed Dennis Eckersley to be the greatest closer of all time, though seeing Mariano Rivera every day has forced him to reconsider.

Marc Carig is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Marc's other articles. You can contact Marc by clicking here

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