The old-timers called it: On Saturday, Chase Utley played ball the old-fashioned way. Hard-nosed. Team-first. Selfless and aggressive and by the book.
What the old-timers fail to acknowledge is that the book has changed. Once, it was permissible to barrel roll into a fielder, back first, and knock him nearly into the outfield grass:
Once, a runner had to make no pretense about touching the base when hurling his body at a fielder.
Once, middle infielders were sitting ducks, with virtually no recourse against whatever liberties opponents unleashed upon their legs. Now, at the cost of Ruben Tejada’s continued participation in the postseason, recourse might finally be forthcoming.
Utley’s slide fits the litmus described above, and fell well within the rules. He was within arm’s reach of the bag. His goal was an important one: breaking up the double-play. He’s known not only for playing hard, but showing unyielding consistency when it comes to this type of takeout. Hell, this wasn’t even the first time he’s wiped out Tejada in such a manner. As a middle infielder himself, Utley knows whereof he slides.
What Utley’s slide also did was allow us to explore the ludicrousness of viewing such a play as acceptable. He went too far the moment he decided to aim not at the bag, but at Tejada’s plant foot. He certainly did not intend to injure the guy, but neither did he appear to care if that was a likely outcome. Which is entirely the problem.
Take a look at Hal McRae, taking out Willie Randolph in the 1977 ALCS:
Soon thereafter, baseball passed what became known as the “Hal McRae rule,” clarifying the need for a baserunner to be able to reasonably claim reaching base as within his purview. Utley satisfied that requirement by remaining somewhat close to the bag, but his goal was far different. That’s what has to change.
The curious part is that it hasn’t already. Matt Holliday took out Marco Scutaro in the 2012 NLCS with a slide that, while on top of the bag, had similarly little to do with preserving his presence on the basepaths. A Chris Coglan slide ended Jung Ho Kang’s season a few week’s back. Pablo Sandoval and Brett Lawrie stirred up similar controversy earlier this year. Once, when such slides were relatively commonplace, infielders’ reactions were far more instinctive. Today, they are focused strictly on completing the play, not on self-preservation. The Mets are left to deal with the most recent fallout.
MLB has already implemented rules to protect catchers from unnecessary collisions, which have drawn nary a complaint since they were implemented. It also has the “neighborhood play,” which allows middle infielders to drift across the bag without necessarily touching it while turning two, specifically to avoid such collisions. (Umps claimed that Tejada, having spun around, was exempted, and ruled Utley safe on the play.)
Something mandating that slides land in front of the base would take care of much of the issue. Even without such a change, of course, baseball already has enough rules in place to have not only called Utley out on the basepaths, but Howie Kendrick out at first for Utley’s interference. Never mind that they weren’t invoked on Saturday—the fact that they’re wildly underutilized in general speaks to the institutional apathy about the issue.
Hopefully, Joe Torre’s decision to hand down a two-game suspension to Utley (as much as anything, perhaps, to short-circuit potential retaliatory thoughts in the Mets’ clubhouse as the series returns to New York) portends a change in this line of thinking.
(What might not change is the Mets’ desire to respond. Tonight’s starter, Matt Harvey, alluded to it in the New York Post when he said, “Doing what’s right is exactly what I’m going to do.” If Utley does not play—he’s appealing his suspension—Harvey’s version of “what’s right” will likely wait until next season if the game is anything short of a blowout.)
Utley’s not ashamed of his actions, coming as they did within the acceptable definition of “playing the game the right way.” And maybe as an old-school player he shouldn’t be.
The rest of the sport, however, needs to embrace the new school on this one. It’s embarrassing that it hasn’t been done already.