Current blocking the plate rule might have sunk the Tigers in ’68 World Series

Detroit catcher Bill Freehan blocks the plate and tags out Lou Brock of the Cardinals in a crucial play during Game Five of the 1968 World Series at Tiger Stadium.

There is nothing more exciting in baseball than a great play at the plate.

Home runs are exciting, but they don’t have the same lasting emotions of pulling you to the edge of your seat.

A play at the plate has everyone in motion, especially if it is a hit to the gap. There are a million questions that go through the heads of baseball fans.

How fast will the outfielder get there? How good is the outfielder’s arm? Where is the cutoff man set up? Who is running the bases? How fast are they? Who is the catcher? Where are they set up?

The questions never seem to end. There isn’t enough time to think about all of them by the time the play is developing. That is why it is so exciting.

Just ask Willie Horton, Bill Freehan and Lou Brock.

Now, it seems plays at the plate are the most controversial since Major League Baseball instituted a rule to limit injuries on plays at the plate. Now a catcher has to have the ball before they can block the plate.

It came into play in Saturday night’s Game One of the National League Championship Series between the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers.

On a single by LA’s Justin Turner, Chicago’s left fielder Kyle Schwarber fielded the ball and launched a perfect strike to catcher Willson Contreras, who tagged out Charlie Culberson. Culberson didn’t touch the plate. But it was of course reviewed and determined by MLB replay officials in New York that Contreras didn’t have the ball when his left leg was in the baseline, a failure to give Culberson a lane to the plate. The out call was overturned, the Dodgers got the run and went on to win.

It was a tough call because Contreras did everything correctly in the baseball sense, and everything he was taught to do as a catcher. But now the rule changes that.

If that rule was around in 1968, the Tigers might not have won the World Series.

The turning point of that series was a play in Game Five when Willie Horton threw out Lou Brock at the plate. Brock had tried to score standing up on a hit by Julian Javier. Horton fired a perfect strike to Freehan, who was already blocking the plate when Brock and the ball arrived at the same time, resulting in a huge collision.

Freehan hung on to the ball and Brock was out, it sparked a Tigers rally to win Game Five and ultimately the series in seven games.

Now there was plenty of controversy about that call, especially at the time, but it was not because of Freehan blocking the plate. Brock thought his foot was in there and argued vehemently that he was safe, but to no avail.

I have had the pleasure of being able to ask all three involved — Horton, Freehan and Brock about the play.

Horton became extra jolly when talking about it and how well Freehan did at the plate. Freehan got a sly grin before saying of course Brock was out. Brock was a little more grumbly and still maintains he was safe.

Of course there is a famous photo that shows Brock out by the slimmest of margins.

But the series could have been much different under the current rules. Brock likely would have been ruled safe because Freehan was blocking the plate without the ball.

It could be that kind of a series changer for the Cubs and Dodgers. We will have to wait to see.

But Tiger fans will never forget Brock trying to score standing up and how that was the key play of a World Series championship. It was the way plays at the plate were supposed to be — the way baseball is supposed to be.

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About Dan D'Addona

A Michigan native who grew up rooting for the Tigers, Red Wings, Lions, and Pistons, Dan D'Addona is sports editor for the Holland Sentinel. He is the author of "In Cobb's Shadow: The Hall of Fame Careers of Sam Crawford, Harry Heilmann and Heinie Manush."