Sanity vs. Reality on the Basepaths: Time to Embrace the New School

Via Buzzfeed

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:

Via SB Nation

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.

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11 Comments

Filed under Slide properly

11 responses to “Sanity vs. Reality on the Basepaths: Time to Embrace the New School

  1. Thanks for this piece. Specifically, thanks for the education that this dangerous play was so tolerated/applauded in the past. I always thought of old-school baseball as hard nosed, but not like this.

    Educate me again: isn’t a two-game suspension something of a joke when corking a bat usually gets more than a week? I would judge this more harshly than I would doctoring a bat.

    • Felix

      I think Tejada shold have understood that there was no time or room for his play, I see it irresponsible from him to expose himself like that to a runner, He ran out of time for the double play unless he expected inexcusable passivity from Utley.
      But if he decided to try for it, he had to jump, crouch his legs and turn/throw while in the air. Hard to do? That’s why baseball and sports, in general are great, because there are special situations that can only be solved with great skills and some risks. Tejada should have stopped or try the airborne version of the play.
      In the baseball I like, I don’t agree with Utley’s suspension.
      But I see it simply as my personal opinion, I understand that others don’t have to agree.

  2. Jason Turbow

    Honestly, with as much issue as I take with Utley’s slide, I don’t think a suspension is merited at all. He was playing within the boundaries of the rules. It’s the rules that have to change.

    That said, I think you’re right (and I think MLB generally agrees): Any player who breaches acceptable play and injures an opponent should be dealt with harshly. Hopefully these kinds of slides will soon fit that definition.

  3. Ian

    I honestly like everything about the slide. I like that in the bottom of the 7th, Utley was going to destroy the double play so the tying run would score, no matter what. (We fans always want players who would punch their mothers to win a game but apparently that’s just hyperbole). I like that two big markets are making boring NL games interesting and adding to the rivalry. I like that this makes baseball more interesting to people not in those markets. I hope the benches empty again. I hope the series goes 5 games. I think this is better for baseball over the long run.

  4. Jason Turbow

    All valid, save for the fact that losing a starting shortstop does’t make for a more interesting series. There are lots of ways to define hard slides & etc. without quite the same level of brutality.

  5. Jay

    Old school also meant that Utley would have been at risk of lying on the ground after his next at bat, his head split open like a rotten grapefruit. If he is willing to accept those consequences then by all means slide away. Otherwise he and his supporters should accept that the same change in norms that protects his head from being thrown behind also protects the knees he is so cavalier about taking out.

    • Jason Turbow

      Well, that’s the fear — not of the grapefruit image, per say, but of Matt Harvey giving him a taste of his own. The fear of the Dodgers, who don’t want to see it, and of Terry Collins, who doesn’t want it to come back to bite the Mets in the ass while the stakes are so high.

  6. Felix

    I still see the slide, so fair and square. Very close to the base and in direct continuation of his path. Tejada had about a “full” 0,5 second to understand that he should not attempt to complete that fancy turn! Please! There was no room, no time, sorry for him!
    As a minor league player in Venezuela I would had rammed thru (sliding)Tejada even if I was 11 years old and he 30.
    It is different when an elefant practically walks toward the infielder and goes out of his way to kick him (I`ve seen things like that) but that’s not the case in this play.
    I`m not a big fan of eliminating all the contact in baseball, which can be the result of this new regulations.
    (I tried my best english!)

  7. Jason Turbow

    Hey, your English is waaaaaay better than my Spanish. Elefante camina al jugador. That’s about all I’ve got.

    The slide WAS fair, but only because baseball’s standards have decreed it to be so. And you’re correct in thinking that Tejada should have known better than to try to complete a play he had almost no chance to complete.

    But Utley didn’t land in front of the base, he landed at Tejada’s feet. That one detail should be enough to illustrate the distinction between trying to make a play and trying to take out a player. Contact is part of the sport, but fielders have to have a chance, too.

  8. Doug Glanville had some things to say about this in today’s NY Times. One of the more interesting things:

    “My Chicago Cubs teammate Shawon Dunston, a shortstop with a rifle arm, had a defense against high-flying, take-out slides: a knuckle-scraping, low-sweeping throw that taught an opponent to slide early or he’d be carrying his head off the field, not his helmet.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/15/opinion/parsing-the-utley-play.html?emc=edit_ty_20151015&nl=opinion&nlid=72526142

  9. Jason Turbow

    Glanville is great. The technique was known as low-bridging, and was a staple all the way into the 1990s. Which is kind of the point I was trying to make. Shortstops were once taught tricks like that as a matter of self-preservation. Now that those tricks have all but disappeared, the rulebook has to provide a better source of equity when it comes to safety.

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