BENITO SANTIAGO played 20 seasons in the big leagues, for nine teams including the Phillies. He was a good player on a bad Phillies team in 1996, but what I will always remember is that he never, ever, put himself in harm's way during a play at the plate.

He was a sweep-tag artist, pretty good at it. Did more runners score on close plays against him than on average? I was stunned to find out that, amid all the numbing numbers charted around this sport, nobody keeps that one.

It will just have to be one of those questions to ask The Almighty.

This I do know: That facet of his game drove me crazy, made me think less of him. And judging from how the debate over protecting catchers has taken form in the last week, I was far from alone.

Buster Posey had barely been helped off the field early Thursday morning when his agent Jeff Berry triggered what has become an intriguing debate. Should catchers be protected by rules the way the NFL has done with quarterbacks and, to a lesser extent, receivers? Or the way hockey has over the last decade by enforcing goalie-interference penalties?

"You leave players way too vulnerable," Berry said in the wake of the 12th-inning home-plate collision in which the Giants' second-year catcher broke his lower left leg and suffered career-threatening ankle ligament damage. "I can tell you Major League Baseball is less than it was before [Posey's injury]. It's stupid. I don't know if this ends up leading to a rule change, but it should. The guy [at the plate] is too exposed.

"If you go helmet to helmet in the NFL, it's a $100,000 fine, but in baseball, you have a situation in which runners are [slamming into] fielders. It's brutal. It's borderline shocking. It just stinks for baseball."

Berry was a former college catcher who spent a season in the Red Sox minor league system. Joe Torre and Mike Scioscia were both longtime major league All-Star catchers, although Torre became a corner infielder after he was traded to the Cardinals in 1969.

As players and later as managers, both are old-school when it comes to the game and not supportive of Berry's proposal.

"That's the game," Torre said on ESPN Radio the day after Posey got hurt. In his first season as executive vice president in charge of baseball operations, Torre was the first stop in Berry's campaign, and given his response, maybe the last.

"Even at second base - if you're there, you're in harm's way," Torre said. "We teach get in there and knock the ball out of his glove, or try to knock the second baseman over. That doesn't mean you want him hurt. But you don't want him to make that throw to first."

There are a few differences, of course. Rarely is the infielder stationary, and then only for a moment. And he has to track a ball thrown a few feet, not from the outfield, a ball that often reaches the plate on a bounce.

The home-plate collision has a dynamic mimicked nowhere else on the field. Imagine Raul Ibanez catching a fly ball while an opponent readies to put a hit on him. That was more akin to what happened to Posey last week.

But you don't need a rule to avoid it. Just ask Santiago. Posey had exposed most of the plate when the Marlins' Scott Cousins ran into him, but he was positioned as if he was going to obstruct, not sweep a tag. Cousins, as all ballplayers are taught, focused on the ball and Posey, not the exposed plate.

Really this is one of those dilemmas where the game's economics and its traditions collide. Catching is a brutal job even without the collisions, which is why so many good young ones, like Jayson Werth, become good young outfielders.

What if Posey had set up for a sweep tag instead? Would fans think less of him? After giving Posey a $6.2 million signing bonus, the Giants entertained moving him out from behind the plate. That's what the Cardinals did after they acquired Torre, who played 18 years and finished with a career average of .297.

Posey told the Giants that he loved the job too much, that he was born to play it. He probably was. But I'm sure the Giants wish today that he played it more like Santiago did for them 9 years ago. At 37, Santiago played in 126 games that season, hit 16 home runs, drove in 74, even stole four bags. He was the MVP of the National League Championship Series.

Made some sweet sweep tags too, I'll bet.

Send email to donnels@phillynews.com.

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