An Utley Situation at 2nd Base

I love baseball but sometimes it brings out the stupid in the guys who play the game and later comment on it for television. Fresh example is Los Angeles Dodger-come-lately Chase Utley’s vicious “slide” into 2nd base in the NLDS playoff game that broke the leg of New York Mets’ shortstop Ruben Tejada, followed by the knuckle-headed remarks from MLB vets absolving the former Philly star of culpability. I have never understood why the baseball rule that states a runner is out if he strays outside the baseline or deliberately interferes with a defensive player fielding a ball is not enforced around 2nd base when double-plays are in progress. Sure, the runner coming down the line is entitled to slide legs high and spikes up, making it harder for the shortstop or 2nd baseman to execute an accurate throw to 1st, but umpires routinely allow runners to go well beyond that, targeting infielders for punishment who’ve already moved off the bag and even hurtling into them like a blocker in football. You hardly ever see a runner called out for this (and the double play made automatic) as the rule stipulates. It’s one of those mysteries that make you wonder if major league baseball is governed secretly by Skull and Bones or the Tri-Lateral Commission, whose grand wizards keep the unofficial rule book and definition of the strike zone in an underground missile silo in North Dakota.

The day after Utley flew over 2nd base and crashed into Tejada, the MLB jockocracy was at the mic debating whether his bone-breaking take-out of the defenseless shortstop was a dirty play or not. Really. This was a spectacle akin to U.S. military leaders trying to defend a drone strike that somehow killed the members of a wedding party or blew up a hospital. “It’s just baseball,” said former slugger Frank Thomas on Fox, upset that MLB ethicist Joe Torre meted out a 2-game suspension to Utley. “The rules have been there for 100 years.” Rather than try to locate the logic in that statement, I chose to see Thomas merely toeing the party line while upholding the hoary code of baseball machismo.

Amazingly, it occurred to no one, at least not on the Fox panel, to say, at least that, well, from the evidence, the rules have been ignored for 100 years. No, Eric Karros, the former Dodger whom I once respected, echoed big Frank’s analysis and affirmed there was nothing illegal or inappropriate about Utley’s violent maneuver, especially since it helped the Dodgers win! Oh, well, then. Fired them up! Next to Karros sat that paragon of virtue and finesse, Pete Rose, who famously dented Cleveland catcher Ray Fosse’s career by running over him in the 1970 all-star game. Pete seconded the motion that the game can be rough and what’s the problem? This was one for the time capsule, which will one day reveal these three geniuses to have a lot in common with the players of yore who greeted the introduction of batting helmets as something for sissies.

Over on the MLB Network, broadcaster Brian Kenny, tried to inject some actual thought into the discussion by digging out the rule about interference and concluding (logically) that Utley was in violation and should have been called out — and the batter Howie Kendrick as well. Which would have ended the Dodger threat with the Mets still ahead. Instead, Utley was called safe, and the boys in blue went on to score the tying and winning runs after Tejada was carted off the field.

But Kenny’s probing, sensible comments seemed to infuriate former Reds slugger Sean Casey, who vigorously defended Utley and repeated those same cliches about the tradition of the game and being sure Utley didn’t want to hurt anybody (right) and that you never wanted to be the guy going back to the dugout with your teammates asking you, “Why didn’t you break up the double play?” In other words, forget fair, it’s all about cojones and your band of brothers.

Kenny held up a piece of paper containing the interference rule, and said, “But Sean, he was out.”

“No, he wasn’t!” Casey shouted.

Possibly Casey was not on the debating team in college. He did hit 130 home runs in his 12-year MLB career, but I wonder if it’s possible his strong sentiments in this matter might be influenced by the fact that he grounded into 27 double plays in 2005, tying for the NL lead in that category?

When all-star Giants catcher Buster Posey was severely injured in 2011 after a violent collision at the plate, MLB decided to change the rules to prevent runners trying to score from flattening the often vulnerable catcher waiting for the throw home. Everyone, except maybe Pete Rose, agrees this has been a positive step for the game. Because of the Utley-Tejada incident, this winter the dons of baseball are likely to address the unnecessary carnage at 2nd base now as well. Really all they should have to do is ask the umpires to enforce the rule that’s been in effect for, like, a century. But that would suggest major league baseball has pretended not to know what’s in the official rule book for all this time. Inconvenient that. No, they’ll have to spin-doctor a new protocol, but however they do it, the long overdue protection of infielders from the malevolence of players like Chase Utley will be too late for Tejada and the Mets.

 

About Sean Mitchell

SEAN MITCHELL is a journalist, critic and former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Dallas Times Herald. His articles and reviews have also appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, USA Today and other publications. He is the recipient of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music and the George Jean Nathan Award for distinguished drama criticism. Born in Bethlehem, Pa., he grew up in Dallas and is a graduate of St. Mark’s School of Texas and Brown University. He lives in Dallas.
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2 Responses to An Utley Situation at 2nd Base

  1. Diane Werts says:

    Great piece, Sean — loved reading of Brian Kenny bringing some sense to the situation. We’ve been immersed in the playoffs this year, having lived in Mets territory for 30 years and just moved back to the Cubs territory of my childhood. (The NLCS will test our marriage.) MLB playoff umpiring has been overwhelmingly terrible. This is the best they’ve got?

  2. wow, what a nice surprise to hear from you! more later.

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