The Utley Controversy
It took the Chase Utley slide controversy to wake the Yellow Seats out of its off-season slumber. We couldn’t let Chase be harangued by the unruly social media mob, so we’re here to set the record straight. First, here is the play:
Now, the question that everyone is asking: was the slide dirty? When saying a sports play is “dirty” you are implying that the player was purposely trying to hurt another player. I do not think Chase Utley was trying to hurt Ruben Tejada on that play. I’ve watched Utley play his whole career, and he plays the game hard, very hard. That is what happened here. Utley was trying to break up the double play, and went it very hard into second. Was the slide against the rules? That’s a tougher question. Obviously baseball thinks so. Here are the rules in question:
Rule 6.05 (m) A preceding runner shall, in the umpire’s judgment, intentionally interfere with a fielder who is attempting to catch a thrown ball or to throw a ball in an attempt to complete any play:
Rule 6.05(m) 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.
Rule 7/09 It is interference by a batter or a runner when —
(e) If, in the judgment of the umpire, a base runner willfully and deliberately interferes with a batted ball or a fielder in the act of fielding a batted ball with the obvious intent to break up a double play, the ball is dead. The umpire shall call the runner out for interference and also call out the batter-runner because of the action of his teammate. In no event may bases be run or runs scored because of such action by a runner.
Now, the strange thing about these rules is, as Utley’s agent has noted, they are rarely enforced. The part about the “obvious intent to break up a double play” really throws me for a loop, because that happens all the time. Players are taught to break up double plays with intent. In fact, if you don’t, and pull up short, your manager is sure to get on you. In neither of the two rules does it say anything about the runner needing to be an arm’s length from the bag when breaking up a double play, which is what you hear all the time. Is that one of the “unwritten rules”? If it is in the rulebook, then I haven’t seen it. Regardless, Utley was clearly in the vicinity of the bag. Was Utley’s slide unsportsmanlike? Maybe, but we’ll address that later.
With all of this attention, some have pointed out that these slides have happened before and few said anything, at least not to this magnitude. Granted, Tejada did break his leg, but other collisions have led to injury too. This next video is very interesting. It’s an Utley slide against that same player. In fact the slide is almost exactly the same (I orignally saw this on philly.com):
David Wright spoke after the game about it, but there was nothing from MLB. Here’s an interesting article from the SF Chronicle about a Matt Holliday slide that injured Marco Scutero. And here is the video. That slide was very similar and probably a little bit worse, although one broadcaster called it “a good clean play”. Holliday is much bigger than Utley didn’t role over on Tejada’s leg. Of course, those who think Utley’s slide was dirty would say “two wrongs don’t make a right” or “Utley’s is just the latest example of slides that must now be banned from the game”. Okay, but more on that later.
When I watched the replay, I noticed that Tejada did something that was kind of strange. When he caught the ball, he slowly spun around with his back to Utley, almost as if he had no urgency. While I am not going to blame Tejada for breaking his leg, this was a contriuting factor. He was not able to brace himself properly for the collision. It almost seemd as if he didn’t expect Utley to be there, it was kind of strange and not wise on his part. Larry Bowa saw the same thing and came to the same conclusion:
Bowa also said that Tejada “put himself in harm’s way.” The shortstop was turned around and in the midst of spinning while trying to turn the double play. “You’ve got a tying run at third. It’s the magnitude of the game. If the situations were reversed and the Met guy did that to the Dodger guy, he would be getting an award before the game tonight. If you know Utley, he’s not a dirty player. He plays hard.” Bowa also said that Tejada “put himself in harm’s way.” The shortstop was turned around and in the midst of spinning while trying to turn the double play. “That’s not a double-play ball,” Bowa said. “Once you turn your back on a runner, you get the out and get out of the way.”
Some people have really gone to extremes on this calling Utley a dirty player and calling for hard slides into second to be banned from the game. This is ridiculous. The collisions at home plate is one thing; they could be very violent. Hard slides into second a rarely that violent and it would be very, very difficult to enforce. The guy in the linked article said the rule should be that the runner would have to slide “directly into the bag”. First, you can slide directly into the bag, but with your spikes up. Second, that takes away the runner’s ability to disrupt the double play. Fielders sweep the bag to avoid the runner. If you can’t deviate a little bit, what’s the point of sliding? Look, nobody want to see players badly hurt, but you can’t take away every play that could potentially lead to injury. A contrasting view on this matter is from Craig Biggio who believes the players should police themselves on these matters.
In the end, what Utley did is no different from slides in the past, but this time someone got seriously hurt because of it. It wasn’t dirty, it was just the result of playing hard. The biggest thing wrong with the slide was that it was late, but, again, there have been slides like that in the past. However, I understand why baseball had to do something, because of the severity of the injury. While Utley’s agent has a point that should be addressed (i.e. if you don’t want players playing that way, why wait until now to do something?), MLB probably had to do something here. It’s also one of those things where if Utley was on the Mets and he took out the Corey Seager, they would be okay with it. Utley is a throwback and goes 100% all the time. All the time. And that’s what made him such a great player, that’s probably one reason his production dropped as it did a few years ago, and, unfortunately, it’s partially why the injury happene.d