Sunday, October 11, 2015

Chase Utley's dirty slide and MLB's rules are both to blame

During the 7th inning of Saturday night's Game 2 of the NLDS between the Dodgers and Mets, with New York ahead 2-1, one out, and runners on first and third, Chase Utley of the Dodgers went hard into... well, not into second base, but into the area behind and to the right of second base with a hard takeout slide of Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada. Utley wanted to make sure no double play would be turned, so that the tying run would score. Tejada's right fibula was broken, and while medical personnel attended to him, Los Angeles challenged the play. Utley was called safe, and two batters later (when the inning would already have been over if Utley had been called out), the Dodgers took the lead, a lead they held onto, tying the best-of-five series at a game apiece. Debate broke out immediately about the slide, and about whose fault the play was, Utley's or MLB's. It seems pretty obvious to me this isn't an either/or situation; both sides are clearly to blame.

Putting aside for a minute whether the slide was technically legal or not, it was absolutely a dirty play. (Here's the video, if you haven't seen it.) Utley didn't begin to slide until he was at the base (or as close to it as he was ever going to get, since he never actually touched the base), and he made no attempt to touch the base. He went in late, high, and hard on a vulnerable player, and while he said after the game he didn't mean to hurt anyone, Chase Utley isn't a complete moron, so he knew there was a good chance Tejada would be injured. This isn't the first time Utley has taken a player out with a questionable slide, in fact it isn't even the first time he's taken out Ruben Tejada with a questionable slide, but last night's was the most blatantly dirty play at second base that I can remember seeing.

Reaction to the slide among current and former players on Twitter, and during the broadcast and various postgame shows was divided*, but I think anyone who believes that was a clean play has their head in the sand.

*Cal Ripken was among those supporting the play, but if someone had taken Cal out like that when he was approaching Lou Gehrig's consecutive game record, that someone would never have been able to play another game in Baltimore, because Orioles fans would have rioted.

Utley was called out, and if that had stood, Corey Seager's lazy fly ball to left would have ended the inning with the score tied. Instead, Don Mattingly challenged the call, it was determined that Tejada never quite touched second base, and Utley was called safe. This meant Seager's fly ball was only the second out of the inning, which allowed Adrian Gonzalez to come to the plate and hit a two-run double.

There was a lot of discussion about the "neighborhood rule," which allows for a fielder to miss the bag when making a force out if it is due to an attempt to avoid a potential injury. I think it's reasonable to argue that Tejada missed the bag last night because the throw wasn't just right, not because he was trying to avoid an injury, which would mean the neighborhood play would not be in effect (which is what the umpires decided), but it shouldn't even have come to that.

The rule that should've been enforced, from pages 42 and 43 of the MLB rulebook, is Rule 5.09(a)(13):

A better is out when... A preceding runner shall, in the umpire’s judgment, intentionally interfere with a fielder who is attempting to catch a thrown ball or to throw a ball in an attempt to complete any play

Rule 5.09(a)(13) Comment (Rule 6.05(m) Comment): The objective of this rule is to penalize the offensive team for deliberate, unwarranted, unsportsmanlike action by the runner in leaving the baseline for the obvious purpose of crashing the pivot man on a double play, rather than trying to reach the base. Obviously this is an umpire’s judgment play.

I can hardly think of a play that better fits that description than last night's. If properly enforced, this rule means not only should Utley have been out, the batter would have been out too, which would have ended the inning without the tying run scoring.

Utley is the one who went late, high, and hard into a vulnerable player, breaking his leg. Utley should not be excused for what he did, just because the appropriate rule was not enforced. It was a dirty play, and not his first. MLB deserves blame too though, because the rule is rarely enforced, which sends players the message that they can do pretty much whatever the hell they want when going into a base.

If when Chase Utley intentionally wrecked opposing players in previous years, he'd been called out (and suspended if it still became a pattern), perhaps he wouldn't have done it last night, having learned his lesson*. If umpires routinely enforced the rule, last night's crew might have had the common sense to call it.

*Actually, maybe not, since just last month Utley made no attempt to touch the bag, instead trying his damnedest to take the infielder out, and it was so blatant the rule was enforced.

Not long ago, MLB altered its rules (and/or started better enforcing the ones already on the books) to protect catchers from dangerous collisions. That decision was long overdue, but finally happened in large part because of the high-profile and serious injury suffered by San Francisco's Buster Posey. Ruben Tejada is not high-profile, and Chase Utley is a respected veteran, so in some ways last night was not the sort of situation that might be expected to spark a change. On the other hand, a postseason game between teams from the two largest media markets in the country is about as high-profile as it gets, so maybe MLB will get off its hands and do something about this before another player suffers a serious injury, and before another important game is completely changed by a dirty play and the refusal of umpires to do anything about it.

1 comment:

  1. Perfect analysis. Although I have not played the game since high school (Berea, 1965), between then and now the definition of common sense, fair play, and sportsmanship has not changed. But back then, people seemed to think that rules ought to be enforced, rather than ignored and personal integrity and character was important to most. However, the big bucks in professional sports clearly has folk making judgments considering "other things" rather than rules, common sense, and fair play. When team mates see their guys put out by dirty plays, what's to stop the Mets from responding in kind. By not initially taking an ethical stand because of cowardice, MLB and the umpires may be choosing to let the beast out of the cage.

    Back in the Mesozoic Era, I was pitching a Class E sandlot game at the Fairgrounds in Berea. I threw a wild pitch all the way to the backstop and I raced to the plate as the runner sprinted in from third. Unfortunately, my catcher threw the ball to the third base side of the plate. As I reached back for the ball, I was hit full on by this giant from Olmstead Falls who launched me farther than Belle did his second baseman (I was 5'8" 150 and my "friend" from OF was 6'2" 200?). When I got up, spit the dust out of my mouth, my pitching arm was injured and I could no longer throw. My "friend," could have easily slid and upended me and made our interaction perhaps less intense, but he chose to hit me as hard as he could, I assumed, to put me out of the game. As it was, the catcher’s throw never made it to me as I was leveled before it touched leather. My relief could not hold OF over the next three innings and they rallied to win the game. That's exactly what Hedley did to Tejada and clear-thinking folk don’t have to install a BS detection meter to understand it.

    The next time we met Olmstead Falls was in the American Legion playoffs at the end of the season. I pitched for our team and my nemesis pitched for OF. I threw a one-hit shutout and we won over a vastly improved OF team. Revenge is a dish best served cold…

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