LOS ANGELES, CA – OCTOBER 10: Ruben Tejada #11 of the New York Mets is carted off the field after sustaining an injury in the seventh inning on slide by Chase Utley #26 of the Los Angeles Dodgers in game two of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium on October 10, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
David Schoenfeld on the pivtoal play in game 2:
This is the reward you reap as an industry. Chase Utley’s “slide” that sent Ruben Tejada out on a stretcher with a fractured fibula in the seventh inning of Game 2 of the New York Mets-Los Angeles Dodgers Division Series was within the boundaries of how the game is played and called by the umpires but also clearly dirty and malicious. Just a few weeks ago, everybody fell all over themselves saying Chris Coghlan’s slide that sent Jung Ho Kang to the sidelines for the season wasn’t dirty. So this is what baseball deserves for letting this nonsense linger 45 years after Pete Rose destroyed Ray Fosse 38 years after Hal McRae crushed Willie Randolph and just a couple of years after they actually did move to protect catchers in home-plate collisions: A stinking heap of controversy, angry baseball fans across the country, casual fans turned off by obvious rules lunacy and a crucial playoff game that turned because baseball has been too gutless to call this the right way.
Look, there was a time when this is how baseball was played, when John McGraw and the famous Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s played baseball with spikes up, looking to draw blood whenever possible. Of course, it also was a time when players would frequently fight umpires or even jump into the stands and brawl with spectators. The remnants of those times still exist today, whether it’s that “eye for an eye” mentality in intentionally throwing at batters or runners sliding viciously into middle infielders at second base, even if they’re several feet off the bag, several feet past the bag or barreling in more like Kam Chancellor on a running back than a baserunner sliding into a bag.
A new rule would be easy to write: The baserunner must slide directly into the bag. This is how the game is played at the high school and college level, and nobody suffers their manhood as a result. Slide hard, but slide safe.
Now, I can even say that Utley’s slide did break the rules and that, in fact, not only should he have been called out (Tejada not touching the bag is another issue completely), but the batter should have been called out, as well.
Deliberately and willfully? Again, yes. CALL THE RULE. IT’S ALREADY ON THE BOOKS.
Utley, as you probably know if you care about such things, has been suspended. Schoenfeld applauds the decision, and I agree that Torre probably picked the best of his bad options. Still, I can understand Utley and the Dodgers thinking they’ve been given an unfair ex post facto punishment. Utley’s slide was illegal by the letter of the law, but while assertions that the rule is never enforced are obviously false it’s fair to say it’s not called more than it’s called. I personally have no problem with consequences being taken into account in the disciplinary process — a major issue in the NHL in particular — but some people disagree.
Let’s step back and consider the more unambiguous way in which the umpires blew the play. The neighborhood play is, by rule, unreviewable. Utley should have been ruled out. The defense of the umpires is that they’ve developed an informal norm where it’s not a neighborhood play if a throw pulls the pivot man off the bag. In the abstract, there’s a logic to it — it’s not a neighborhood play if the pivot man isn’t able to touch the bag because of a bad throw rather than because he’s trying to avoid a sliding runner. But as applied in this case, it’s absurd — Murphy’s toss wasn’t perfect, but it left Tejada in a situation where he could touch the bag, but in his haste to avoid the runner, Tejada messed up the footwork. If that’s not a “neighborhood play,” the term has no meaning. And, of course, this is why the umpire’s kludge makes no sense. I mean, I’ll never say never as long as Phil Cuzzi is employed by MLB, but in general plays are only going to be challenged when the pivot man is close enough to the bag to make a play, because if a fielder is pulled so far off the bag by a bad throw he can’t get near the bag the runner is almost always going to be called safe. The umpires have just decided not to enforce the rule.
So what we have here is a real mess. Utley’s slide was, by the letter of the law, illegal, but most such slides are not ruled illegal in the field because it’s been decided that in most but not all cases throwing a block to interfere with a fielder while not even making any effort to touch the bag is GOOD HARD CLEAN AMERICAN BASEBALL LIKE THE GAME IS SUPPPOSED TO BE PLAYED. (As a commenter noted, Utley didn’t do something really bad like stay in the batter’s box for an extra second after homering or not run full speed on a pop up in a meaningless game or look excited after a strikeout while being Latin American.) Alongside of this, umpires have developed another norm that second baseman have to be given a sporting chance to avoid contact, so in some but not all cases runners are called out even if the pivot man fails to touch the base while trying to avoid the runner. The replay rules reflect these norms, but it’s been blown up because for reasons I can’t explain umpires won’t apply the neighborhood play to challenged calls.
As with most cases in which the umpires take it upon themselves to unilaterally change the rules, the situation is a complete mess. Runners have no idea what slides are legal; pivot men have no idea when they have to touch the bad when trying to turn the double play. The best solution, as Schoenfeld says, is to forget all of these arbitrarily enforced kludges and just further clarify the rule and enforce it properly. Players have to slide directly into second and cannot start their “slides” as they arrive at the bag. Slides that don’t conform to these rules result in both runner and batter being called out, and in egregious cases an illegal slide can result in a suspension. Pivot men have to touch the bag and if they don’t the runner is safe. If this rule is perceived as resulting in too many double plays, then it’s another excellent reason to institute Bill James’s proposal of limiting unsuccessful pickoff throws to two. This would have the salutary effects of increasing pace by limiting a tedious play and placing more value on speed. Can anyone dispute that it’s better to avoid double plays by having runners try to steal second rather than having them try to injure second basemen?