Ordered Liberty

Chase Utley’s 'Slide' and Suspension

I am a lifelong, diehard New York Mets fan. This means I’ve spent much of the last decade having my heart broken by Chase Utley, who was the best player on great Philadelphia Phillies teams that crushed my team, especially during the Mets’ epic collapse of 2007.

Utley has always been the player you wish were on your team. He is old-school, plays hard, and does everything well … or, at least, he did when he was in his prime. He is 36 now, and not the player he used to be. But as we saw Saturday night — or was it Sunday morning? — he still plays very hard and manages to be a thorn deep in my Mets’ side.

Utley, now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, has been suspended for his already-infamous “slide” that upended Met shortstop Reuben Tejada, the play that marked the turning point of Game Two in the National League Divisional Playoff Series, a best-of-five affair that is now tied at a game apiece.

It was not really a slide. While making sure he broke up a potential double play, Utley quite intentionally plowed into Tejada. The crash broke Tejada’s leg because the shortstop’s foot was awkwardly planted near second base. Due to the way the play developed, Tejada had stretched to catch a throw from Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, tried to touch second base with his foot to force out Utley, then whirl and try to throw to first to double-up Howie Kendrick, the batter who hit the ball.

The serious injury not only ends Tejada’s season, it puts his career in jeopardy.

While a fairly good defensive shortstop, Tejada, all in all, is a mediocre player: a barely adequate hitter whose speed is average at best. This is the second time his right fibula has been fractured, raising questions about whether he will continue to have sufficient range to play shortstop at the big-league level. (Next to catcher, shortstop is the most important defensive position.) There is a very good chance the Mets will decline to offer him a new contract this winter. Other teams will be leery about taking a chance on him.

The postseason playoffs are a time of heightened public attention, and the severity of Tejada’s injury coupled with the dire consequences it may portend for him only increase the intensity of public reaction to Utley’s play. As a Met fan, I am upset at the loss of my shortstop, very sorry about his injury, and boiling mad over the way the umpires called the play, because it may have cost my team the game … and perhaps the series.

But as a baseball fan, I find the anger at Utley way overblown:

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First, if the roles were reversed and a player on the Mets plowed into Utley (who is a second baseman and, thus, a middle infielder just like Tejada), we’d be applauding the effort as a good, tough baseball play. Those of us who’ve played and watched baseball for decades know that runners are taught to make physical contact with the fielder to stop him from completing a double play. And if you think Utley’s play was over-the-top, have a look at the Kansas City Royals’ Hal McRae taking New York Yankee second baseman Willie Randolph out in the 1977 playoffs.

Intentional collisions have been a part of baseball since there has been baseball. Runners know to “come in high,” often with their spikes up and aimed at the fielder trying to make a tag or complete a double play. Fielders are taught how to protect themselves in making plays around the bases, and even to aim throws at the oncoming runner’s head in order to force the runner to slide early.

That is the way the game is played. I have seen coaches chew out more runners for not going hard enough than for making contact that could cause injury.

The game, moreover, has always policed itself: if a player for one team does something the other team regards as below-the-belt, the pitcher will usually respond by throwing at the culprit or at one of that team’s best players. A few seasons back, when the Mets thought Phillies pitchers had intentionally hit a couple of their batters, Met pitcher Matt Harvey drilled, yes, Chase Utley with a fastball to the back. Utley, who understands that this is how things go, trotted to first base without incident.

In part because of how much players are now paid and in part because our culture has changed, there is an ongoing campaign to take intentional collisions out of baseball. In fact, they have even taken a lot of intentional collisions out of football, a game that is based on intentional collisions.

In the past couple of years, runners have been forbidden from colliding into catchers at home plate (catchers, simultaneously, have been banned from blocking the plate in a way that denies runners a clear path). This change was made after a star player, San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey, was badly injured in a play at home. Tejada lacks Posey’s star power, but the heightened attention of a playoff game between teams from the nation’s two most populous cities will certainly be enough for Major League Baseball to implement new rules protecting other fielders the same way catchers are now protected.

I watch a lot of baseball and I don’t think the rule change has hurt the game. I am predisposed against rule changes, and especially frown on those that water down the game and its competitive zeal. But I don’t think the rule protecting catchers has done this. (Spoken like the father of a 13-year-old catcher!) It would be easy to come up with a rule that made Utley’s slide illegal but, at the same time, allowed legitimate slides into the base in an effort to break up the double play.

In fact, you probably would not have to make up a new rule; you would just need to enforce the rule that is already on the books — Rule 7.09(e). It prohibits a runner from intentionally interfering with a fielder attempting to make a play. The problem with what Utley did is that he never even pretended to slide into second base — his only target was Tejada.

But I won’t condemn Utley for this. He was in conformance with the practices that have been in place for over a century. He was not trying to injure Tejada, no more than any of the scores of runners who have plowed into Utley at second base over the years were trying to injure him. He was trying to break up a double play to help the Dodgers win a game — in this case, a critical game. Again, that’s what you’re taught to do.

My problem is with the umpires. Utley should have been called out.

He was originally called out, but the call was reversed on video review (a recent innovation in baseball) because Tejada never touched the base. (It was a “force” play, so Tejada just needed to tap the base with his foot to get Utley out — no need to tag him). This ruling, removing the out call and awarding Utley second base, made no sense. Utley never touched the base, either. He crashed into Tejada next to the base and, when initially called out, trotted off the field.

Major League Baseball “explained” after the game that there was no need for Utley to touch second in order to be awarded the base because the umpire had called him out (i.e., why would he go stand on the base if the ump had already told him he was out?). But I don’t see how the umpire can penalize Tejada for failing to touch the base while simultaneously forgiving Utley for failing to touch it — especially when, as between the two of them, Utley was in the wrong, having interfered with Tejada and made no effort to touch the base.

That’s the other problem with the umpire’s decision. They said Utley’s “slide” was legal because, even though he plowed into Tejada, he kept in close enough distance to the base that he could reach out and touch it. But that is irrelevant if he didn’t try to reach out and touch it. Utley’s only effort was to collide into Tejada.

Perhaps the umpires believed they could not call Utley out for interference without also calling out the batter who hit the ball and ran to first base (i.e., the potential double play Utley was trying to break up). Met fans understandably believe this should have been the call because that’s what the aforementioned Rule 7.09(e) says: If a runner interferes with a fielder trying to complete a double play, both the runner and the batter should be called out. But the problem with this rule in this situation is that Tejada — let’s be honest — had no real chance to throw the batter out at first. If Utley had not collided into Tejada, the batter would still have beaten out the throw.

Remember (if you were watching the game), the tying run scored on that play. So calling the batter out at first would have been an unfair windfall for the Mets: they would not only have gotten a double-play they had no real chance of completing, the Dodgers would also have been denied the tying run. The inning would have ended with the Mets still clinging to a 2-1 lead.

What the Mets deserved was for Utley to be out at second, but for the batter to be safe at first and the runner on third to have scored, knotting the game at 2-2. The umpires could have done this by simply calling Utley out of the baseline (since he never attempted to touch the base) and for interfering with Tejada’s ability to make any other play even if he could not have thrown the runner out at first.

Instead, the Mets were given no outs on the play. Predictably, a big inning ensued. When the dust settled, the Dodgers were up 5-2 — and the unkindest cut of all was that Utley scored the go-ahead run.

The injury to Tejada is very unfortunate. It may cost the Mets the series because they do not have a shortstop of equal defensive skills, and shortstop is a crucial position. But injuries are part of the game and it is not fair to suspend Utley for a play that has been permitted forever even if it is not within the letter of the rules.

If baseball is now going to follow the letter of the rules, with special discouragement of intentional collisions that could obviously cause injury, that’s fine … as long as the teams are notified in advance that this will be the case. Then, future incidents can properly be dealt with by fines, suspensions, etc. But I can’t blame Utley for a play I would have cheered if he had been on my team — which, for a very long time, I wished he were.