King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Is it OK to play hard in spring training? Answer for Yankees: Not when the other team does it.

By King Kaufman
Published March 11, 2008 11:30AM (EDT)

There's a little brouhaha, or maybe just a brouha, this week over just how hard you're supposed to play in spring training games.

New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi got the brou haing, or the ha brewing, when he complained about a home-plate collision Saturday that injured a Yanks farmhand named Francisco Cervelli. After a Tampa Bay Rays minor leaguer named Elliot Johnson smashed into Cervelli, a catcher, at home plate, breaking his wrist and putting him out for eight to 10 weeks, Girardi called it "disheartening" and said he didn't understand a play like that in a spring exhibition game.

"Plenty of times during the season, that's part of it. I understand. He was playing hard," Girardi told "But to me, that's just not the time to do it."

Yankees first baseman Shelley Duncan told the New York Daily News that it never would have occurred to him to bowl over a catcher in a spring-training game. Until, the paper noted ominously, now.

"What it does is it opens another chapter of intensity in the spring training ballgames," Duncan said.

Come on.

Spring training games aren't intense? A strange sentiment coming from a baseball lifer -- Duncan's dad is St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan, who was a big-league catcher for a decade -- who at 28 has yet to play a full season in the majors. Shouldn't Shelley Duncan, who took four years to graduate from A-ball, know that guys trying to make an impression in spring training would run through a brick wall if they had to?

What's some 175-pound catcher compared to that?

Also: There are 175-pound catchers?

This column is rarely one to take the side of Don Zimmer, but the Rays coach had it right when he told the New York Times, "I can't believe that he went after it the way he did; that's not Joe Girardi."

"You block the plate," Zimmer continued. "If I slide into him and break a leg, nothing is said. Instead of breaking my leg, I bowl him over and it's not the right play? Well, to me it's the right play, spring training or no spring training. Play the game the right way.”

Zimmer, it should be noted, is 77 years old, so yes, absolutely, if he bowls over the catcher, something's wrong. He should have learned his lesson when he tried to bowl over a pitcher four years ago.

Elliot Johnson is a 23-year-old second baseman who hit .207 at Triple-A last year. Not to get all prospect houndy on you, but that's not too good. If you're a star, if you're Carl Crawford, let's say, the Rays' fine left fielder, you can note that it's March, pull up, politely let yourself get tagged out and say, "If this were a real game, of course I'd go all out to score the run."

Then again, Carl Crawford bowled a catcher over last week too.

But the Elliot Johnsons of the world -- and friends, aren't most of us Elliot Johnsons when it comes down to it? -- can't afford to talk about what they might do in real games, because they're not going to get to a real game unless somebody somewhere takes a shine to them, likes the cut of their jib, the brew of their ha.

So hell yeah, you bowl over the catcher, and why are we even talking about it? Shoot, in my day -- like, back in 'ought-six, they used to have brawls in spring training! That's when men were men and brouhahas were brouhahas.

Girardi's argument is a variation on that regular-season chestnut about how it's against baseball's unwritten rules to try to steal a base with a big lead, the answer to which is: "I'll stop playing hard when you do, Mr. Losing Team." It's a second-cousin to "How dare you bunt when I've got a no-hitter going," the reply to which is: "Shut up." The judges will also accept "Bite me."

If spring training games aren't real games played with real intensity, why was Cervelli, the now-injured catcher, really blocking home plate? Don't answer that. It's rhetorical. The answer is: Because that's what you do in a baseball game, especially when you're trying to win a job, or at least get the manager to remember your name. Johnson.

But perhaps we're being too hard on Girardi here. It's spring training for him too. Maybe he was just getting his whining practice in, in case somebody gets ahead of the Yankees by five or six runs this summer and then tries to steal a base.

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Is it worth the pain? [PERMALINK]

So this whole brouhaha got me thinking: Is it really such a great idea for guys like Carl Crawford to go bowling over catchers? Baserunners slamming into catchers, who are usually big guys -- the light-heavyweight Francisco Cervelli notwithstanding -- and always clad in hard plastic, are at a disadvantage.

If the game's on the line in the late innings, sure, you do what you can to score. But what's the cost-benefit analysis on a good player risking injury to score a single run in, let's say, the third inning of a scoreless Tuesday game in early May? We all love hard-nosed guys who'll get their uniforms dirty and all that, and we heap scorn on those who seem to believe discretion is the better part of valor. But are we backing the right horse?

Moving the question to another part of the field, which would you rather have: Bobby Abreu in the lineup after shying away from the fence in pursuit of a double, or Aaron Rowand on the disabled list after going face first in pursuit of an out? Are two bases and an out worth two weeks on the shelf? Is a single run worth it?

Bill Walton says that John Wooden used to tell his players never to dive for a loose ball. The injury risk was too high, the legendary UCLA coach believed. Just go play defense.

Basketball teams get more possessions than baseball teams get scoring chances, but the idea's the same, and that Wooden had some pretty good ideas.

By the way: I'd rather have Rowand and his bloody nose, and I love home-plate collisions. But nobody pays me to win ballgames.

Previous column: Mark Cuban interview

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    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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