A requiem for catchers: Why home is worth defending

January 27, 2014

“Half guru, half beast of burden,” is how columnist Thomas Boswell once described baseball catchers (Why Time Begins on Opening Day, 159). Most baseball players simply don their uniform but catchers gird themselves for battle. Resembling a medieval warrior, the catcher wears a protective mask and body armor that allude to the uniqueness of his responsibility on the baseball diamond. It was Herold “Muddy” Ruel of the Washington Senators in the 1920s, a lawyer turned catcher, who lovingly dubbed catcher’s gear “the tools of ignorance”—a fitting name, only if you understand that the ignorance does not refer to intellectual capacity but in the audacity of willingly embracing such a burdensome and self-destructive task.

The indignity of the catcher’s body armor and the inglorious squatting position he assumes about 150 times each game belies his vital role as field general. An effective catcher possesses simultaneously a vast array of mental and physical skills. Whereas most players react to what is happening in a baseball game the catcher initiates and shapes virtually all action during the course of the game. As he relays signals to the pitcher he is not simply concerned with a single pitch but how any given pitch will fit into the entire sequence of pitches throughout the game. Particularly gifted catchers possess a keen baseball intellect and lightning fast judgment. His task calls him to understand the temper and ability of his pitcher. He must also be an expert in the tendencies of each hitter on the opposing team and the strike zone of the umpire that day. With every pitch this baseball guru must process information about the score, the inning, the count, the positioning of all the fielders, the base runners, the strategic tendencies of the opposing manager while catching 90 mph fastballs and blocking sliders in the dirt.

An excellent catcher is a baseball savant, though his body often bears the scars of a roughhewn frontline combat soldier. Anyone who has ever shaken the hand of a man who spent a couple of decades catching is reminded that he paid a price to play the position. A former catcher’s fingers are usually described with words like gnarly, disjointed and twisted. His hands often look as though they possess several thumbs. The beast of burden’s well-worn exterior disguises his aptitude as a baseball chess master. Catchers are brutish but graceful, stout but quick, rugged but able to delicately frame a pitch, field generals but also competent psychologists. It is not at all surprising former catchers are more likely to become major-league managers than any other position player.

So many things about baseball exhibit a nearly perfect tension. Famed sportswriter Red Smith once said, “Ninety feet between bases is perhaps as close as man has ever come to perfection.” Everything is so perfectly calibrated: the pitcher stands 60 feet six inches from the catcher, the bases and home plate are 90 feet apartand outfield fences are just close enough to make home runs a constant possibility but far enough away so they do not dominate the game. The result is an almost mathematically precise competitive balance on every pitch and play. Baseball is not a collision sport; it is patient and measured with sudden bursts of intense action and is occasionally punctuated by a collision—usually involving the catcher at home plate. 

A catcher who is doing his job well will largely go unnoticed but there is one moment when a baseball catcher has every eye riveted. The catcher is charged with the responsibility to protect the most sacred spot in the baseball universe, that irregular pentagon with two parallel sides called home plate. Bart Giamatti asserted that baseball is a narrative epic about going home and how hard it is to get there (Take Time for Paradise “Baseball as Narrative, 71-91). The catcher must position himself to receive from a fielder the urgently hurled ball while preparing himself for a potentially savage collision. Courage and toughness are daily demands on a catcher but blocking home plate from an adrenaline filled base-running missile is his seminal moment of truth. The hit, the catch, the throw, the runner, the catcher, impact, a cloud of dust, the umpire leaning in as closely as he can without getting demolished himself, he holds his call to see if the catcher held onto the ball. With every eye fixated on baseball’s ground zero, a breathless stadium waits for seconds that seem like hours, the umpire finally makes the call. The stadium exhales with either joy or grief.

For 150 years of baseball, home plate collisions have been considered good, clean, hard baseball; extremely rare, but a part of the game. They have been a part of the (almost) perfect competitive balance found in the sport. Home plate is utterly unique from all of the other bases because the runner does not need to possess it to score safely. A fleeting second of contact by any portion of his anatomy or attire with that disputed white rubber pentagon before being tagged and he is welcomed home in celebration by his teammates. The runner’s advantage of only having to touch, not possess, home plate is countered by allowing catchers who possess the ball to defend the plate. He cannot block the plate without the baseball, the MLB rulebook states, “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” (7.06).

Peter Morris, in his book Catcher: The Evolution of an American Folk Hero argues that the baseball catcher emerged as an iconic American hero because he embodied the traits Americans most revered: courage, resourcefulness and extraordinary skill in a specific task. Morris explains, “His rise to prominence occurred simply because he was able to resolve the long list of contradictory requirements that had thwarted earlier prospective heroes” (25). Morris contends that because of catchers’ skill and courageous toughness they became “American folk heroes in the tradition of frontiersmen, mountain men, and cowboys” (26). The catcher’s bravery on full display when blocking home plate at risk of personal injury provided young men an inspiring flesh-and-blood stalwart of self-sacrificial toughness. He was not the initiator of violence, but equal to the task when the violence came.

The quintessentially American game rarely changes anything that would tamper with the essential character of the game (the abominable AL DH rule in 1973 being the exception). Baseball is a game of tradition and relishes its continuity with the past. If a baseball fan from a century ago were dropped in an MLB park today, some things would surprise him. However, unlike other professional sports, he would have no problem following the game. Nevertheless, in the name of safety Major League Baseball voted to tamper with the character of the game by banning collisions at home plate effective 2015. The ban amounts to a league mandate for catchers and base runners to stop being courageous at home plate.

When the topic of injury producing home plate collisions arises the Pete Rose and Ray Fosse All-Star game collision in 1970 immediately comes to mind. The 1987 collision when Bo Jackson steamrolled Rick Dempsey at the plate and, more recently, the 2011 collision between Scott Cousins and Buster Posey which resulted in a broken leg for the catcher also comes to mind. There have been other home plate collisions resulting in injury, but what is most noticeable is how infrequently injuries occur. The catcher is in far more danger from 95 mph foul tips consistently careening off his catcher's mask than he is from home plate collisions. The Rose collision that hampered Fosse’s career is the most famous (infamous?), but it is important to note the immediate reaction to the incident was praise for Rose’s hustle and both players toughness. Rose also had to have medical attention as a result of the collision. The American League manager Earl Weaver responded to the play by asserting, “I thought Rose got there a little ahead of the ball, and Fosse was trying to block the plate. They did what they had to do.” Rose and Fosse have both spoken out in vigorous opposition to the coming ban.

What has changed? Baseball has not significantly changed, but we have. Our contemporary safety-centric worldview counts bravery and courage as vices not virtues. Merriam-Webster defines courage as, “the ability to do something that you know is difficult or dangerous.” Courage demands a dose of danger. Our cultural cult of safety treats willingly pursuing a difficult or dangerous task as foolish, sinful even—not heroic. G.K. Chesterton argues, “Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. 'He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,' [Matt. 16:25].” Genuine Christian courage, according to Chesterton, combines “a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying” (Orthodoxy, 170). Recklessness and self-protecting safety both have the same sinful root: self-centeredness. A culture where everyone values safety-first is a very dangerous place to live. Biblically, safety is not a virtue, but self-sacrificial courage certainly is.

I know it may seem as though I'm making too much of a simple rule change in the national pastime. It is certainly not the most significant issue at hand in our culture and it will not dampen my delight in the great game. But ideas and actions do have consequences. In 2015, when my family and I are watching the game we love and the catcher swipes at the runner crossing the plate instead of blocking it, I will mourn. One of the things that made a catcher heroic will soon become a relic of a bygone era. I think we were wiser when we rightly appreciated men who would courageously take up “the tools of ignorance” and risk safety to defend “home” for the sake of their team.

David E. Prince

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24