In announcing Chase Utley’s suspension for games 3 and 4 of the NLDS for his takeout slide that broke Ruben Tejada’s leg, MLB pointed to its rulebook. As if anything here could be objective.
MLB’s suspension cited Rule 5.09(a)(13), which declares a runner out if he “intentionally interfere[s] with a fielder who is attempting to catch a thrown ball.” This law carries its own exegesis in the rulebook, in the form of a comment:
The objective of this rule is to penalize the offensive team for deliberate, unwarranted, unsportsmanlike action by the runner in leaving the baseline for the obvious purpose of crashing the pivot man on a double play, rather than trying to reach the base. Obviously this is an umpire’s judgment play.
In the judgment of the umpires on the field, Utley didn’t do anything wrong. Even after viewing the replay, they awarded Utley second base—leading to the slightly absurd sight of Utley jogging out of the dugout to assume a base he had never managed to touch in the first place. The in-game ruling was an explicit statement that what Utley did was legal. So what changed? Tejada’s injury, MLB’s attempt to head off ugly scenes at Citi Field, and a wider, welcome discussion over whether the takeout slide has a role in baseball anymore.
The NHL, though it’s gotten much better with this, has long been accused of suspending for the result of a play instead of the action itself. Illegal hits that result in injuries stir up enough outcry and momentum to bring discipline, even as identical hits go ignored. That’s what this feels like. If Tejada stays in the game, no one even remembers Utley’s slide.
That’s also going to be Utley’s defense. At his appeal hearing in New York today, Utley is expected to present video evidence of similar takeout slides that have gone unpunished. It is a compelling argument: there are endless examples of late slides, where the runner barreling into the infielder clearly had no intention of reaching the base, and by letting them all go, MLB has made very clear that it considers a takeout slide legit.
A statement from Utley’s agent, Joel Wolfe, read in part:
“A two-game suspension for a legal baseball play is outrageous and completely unacceptable. Chase did what all players are taught to do in this situation – break up the double play. We routinely see plays at second base similar to this one that have not resulted in suspensions.”
MLB will never admit this, but all the factors that went into this particular slide dominating headlines—it’s the playoffs and it’s Dodgers-Mets—must surely be affecting baseball’s decision to act swiftly and firmly.
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly has to be on his guy’s side, but he makes a valid point that MLB is responding to the reaction to the play. He cites the 24 hours of frothing coverage from the New York tabloids as driving the conversation.
“So I know how the kind of the New York media gets a little bit going, and it gets dramatic, but for me you can’t have it both ways. If David [Wright] would have done it, it wouldn’t have been any problem here in New York.”
The media’s not the only one out for blood. Utley’s public enemy No. 1 in Metsland right now, and if he were to take the field in Flushing tonight, things could get hairy. Forget the fan reaction: manager Terry Collins dodged a question on whether his team would retaliate, but said, somewhat ominously, “players always took care of stuff themselves.”
Mattingly responded to that by saying “we really don’t start anything, but we’ve never backed away.” Benches have already cleared twice in this postseason; a full-on brawl is the last thing MLB wants.
So what does MLB want to come from this? Takeout slides are dangerous, and just about all of them, even ones much milder than Utley’s egregious tackle, already violate the strict letter of the law that bans slides with the “obvious purpose of crashing the pivot man on a double play.” But in baseball especially, a rule isn’t a rule if it’s not enforced, and MLB can’t further legislate this away. It would need a specific example to point to as something worth bringing the hammer down upon. Suspending Chase Utley for two playoff games feels like exactly that.
MLB has already taken steps to protect catchers and base coaches, and is trying to figure out a way to protect pitchers from comebackers. After them, middle infielders face the most risk. The takeout slide has been a part of the game for a long time, but it doesn’t have to be. If MLB sincerely wants to enhance player safety, if MLB is serious about cracking down on takeout slides, and if MLB intends to punish similar slides going forward (these are all very, very big “if”s), there’s no better chance to make the statement that things are different now.
Dodgers partisans would not be wrong in declaring that MLB is only discipling Utley because everyone’s paying attention. But when everyone’s paying attention is the most effective time to set precedent.