On Friday, he played hard. The Mets should have expected it. Instead, they offered barely-veiled threats of retaliation.
The play in question was a slide into second base in the fifth inning, as Utley tried in vain to break up a double-play, taking out second baseman Ruben Tejada in the process. (Watch it here.)
The slide was far from perfect; it was late, it was a touch awkward and Utley didn’t begin to slide until he was virtually atop the base, leaving him to land well beyond the bag, at Tejada’s knees.
Fault the execution, but not the intent or the intensity.
This is not the tack the Mets took. Jose Reyes called it “a little dirty.” David Wright said the Mets would “have to reevaluate the way we go into second base,” a not-so-subtle reference to retaliatory basepath tactics. “If he doesn’t mind guys coming in like that when he’s turning a double play,” said Wright in the New York Post, “we don’t have any problem with it.”
These, of course, are Tejada’s fellow infielders, and they might feel obliged to stick up for their own. Their own manager, however, had a different take.
“That’s a style that needs to get back into the game of baseball,” said Jerry Manuel. “You’re not trying to hurt anybody, but you have to go hard.”
Sure enough, Utley was not hit by a pitch through the remainder of the series. One of his saving virtues might have been that he’s so consistent with his intensity. Infielders will put up with considerably more abuse from guys who play all out, all the time, than from those who pick their spots.
From the Baseball Codes:
“When I was playing second base in Pittsburgh and we were running for the pennant,” said Phil Garner, “(Bill) Buckner absolutely smoked me on a double play— damn near broke both my legs.” Garner wasn’t ticked off at the play itself, which was clean and not unlike the treatment he regularly received from players like Don Baylor and Hal McRae (who was so consistently ferocious on the base paths that the 1978 rule disallowing the hindrance of a ﬁelder who has just made a play is known informally as the “Hal McRae Rule”). Garner was angry because he’d never seen it before from Buckner. “This sumbitch slides thirty feet short for 160 ballgames, and now, in the 161st he’s going to slide in hard?” said Garner. “Fuck that. Play the game hard in Game 1 just like you did that day.” Buckner hadn’t violated any of baseball’s written rules—his play wasn’t dirty, just devious—but in Garner’s mind he’d clearly violated the Code. The next time Garner had the chance to turn Buckner into the lead out of a double play, he aimed his relay throw directly between the baserunner’s eyes. Buckner threw up a hand in self-defense; he deﬂected the ball but broke a ﬁnger in the process. Message sent.
Or take Carlos Delgado, who, while on base as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2004, took out Red Sox ﬁrst baseman Doug Mientkiewicz with a forearm shiver. One problem with the play, at least to Mientkiewicz, was that he wasn’t playing ﬁrst base at the time but had volunteered to man second after Boston experienced an unforeseen shortage of players at the position. The inﬁelder had, at that point, played all of one inning there in his seven-year major-league career and was by no means comfortable.
Also, in Mientkiewicz’s opinion, such takeouts weren’t a regular part of Delgado’s repertoire. “I’d seen him veer off on double plays for ﬁve years and not even slide into second,” he said. “Yet he sees somebody playing second who’s never played there before and he takes full advantage of it. If Aaron Rowand had knocked me on my ass I don’t think I’d have been that mad, because Aaron goes full tilt from the word ‘go.’ . . . If I were to always see Carlos taking guys out at shortstop, I never would have said a word.”
When Mientkiewicz got up screaming, the pair had to be separated. Red Sox pitcher Derek Lowe drilled the Toronto All-Star during his next at-bat, and Delgado was forced to avoid several other pitches during the course of the three-game series. (“Curt Schilling missed him once and came to me and apologized,” said Mientkiewicz.)
At least Utley hasn’t had to face that level of response. Yet.