Records are made to be broken, not rules, and certainly not the legs of middle infielders.
Chase Utley was just trying to break up a double play. As it turned out, he not only broke the leg of Mets’ shortstop Ruben Tejada, but also one of baseball’s most ignored rules. Whether or not you believe Utley’s slide was dirty or a good clean baseball play, the MLB rule book says it was illegal. In fact, any slide designed to interfere with a fielder, as opposed to reach a base, is against the rules.
Note: Rule 5.09(2)(13) was Rule 6.05(m) in the 2014 version of the Official Baseball Rules.
Source: Official Baseball Rules (mlb.com)
Baseball’s rulebook is rife with ambiguity, but Rule 5.09(a)(13) is actually quite clear. Whenever a runner makes an obvious attempt to crash into the pivot man on the double play, instead of trying to reach the next base, it is a violation of the rules, and both he and the batter are liable to be called out. Unfortunately, second base umpire Chris Guccione didn’t see it that way, but it’s hard not to wonder if his judgment was more clouded by MLB’s tacit acceptance of illegal takeout slides than illuminated by his knowledge of the rules.
That’s not a slide. That’s a tackle.” – Mets outfielder Michael Cuddyer, quoted by MLB.com
Any reasonable person watching last night’s game would conclude that Utley’s sole purpose was to prevent Tejada from making a return throw to first. The 13-year veteran admitted as much in his postgame comments. Besides, the visual evidence is clear. Utley not only began his slide after the bag, but he was perpendicular to the baseline at the point of contact and never made an attempt to touch second base (in fact, his first contact with the base came after returning to the field from the dugout).
So, does that mean runners like Utley should simply concede the double play? Although Rule 5.09(a)(13) prohibits slides with the express intent to interfere with fielders, it doesn’t outlaw those designed to actually reach the base. Baserunners can still breakup double plays by simply sliding hard into second base and preventing the pivot man from moving forward into his throw. When fielders come across the bag, they are entering the runner’s domain and assume responsibility for contact. However, when runners go after the fielder like a heat-seeking missile, they go from trying to break up a double play to breaking the rules. This simple, logical rule of thumb should govern how the play is officiated.
As had occurred with plays at the plate, MLB has ignored its own rules for so long that it may now become time to either more explicitly define what a legal slide is, or, at least, re-educate umpires and players on what the current rulebook allows. In addition, illegal slides should be reviewable. If the replay officials were able to overrule Guccione’s out call, why shouldn’t they be permitted to evaluate his judgment of Utley’s slide? With this second layer of enforcement, major league baseball may be able to more quickly and fairly alter what has become ingrained behavior due to neglect.
The insult to the Mets’ injury occurred when the replay officials, who weren’t able to review the legality of the slide, overturned the out call and placed Utley back at second. Unfortunately, because of how the umpires on the field ruled, that was actually the right decision. Although Utley had never touched second (as we established, that was never his intention), Guccione’s out call removed that requirement. So, when the replay officials decided to overturn the call, they were tasked with determining what would have happened had the incorrect verdict not been rendered. In this case, it was more reasonable to assume that Utley, upon realizing no out signal was made, would have scrambled back to the base ahead of Tejada, who was now on the ground with a broken leg. So, not only was Utley not penalized for his illegal slide, but, he was actually rewarded because of the violent consequences.
The umpires on the field didn’t give the Mets justice, but MLB chief baseball officer Joe Torre’s cryptic comments after the game suggest a measure might be forthcoming from the league’s disciplinary office. Just because Utley may not have intended to break Tejada’s leg, his slide was an example of willful negligence. The veteran, who has a history of violent take outs, had to be aware that his actions had the potential to cause great harm, so, whether or not he viewed his slide as illegal, there should be consequences. A suspension probably won’t make the Mets, or Tejada, feel any better, but it would set a good example and signal MLB’s seriousness about eliminating a needlessly violent part of the game.
Unfortunately for MLB, the NLDS between the Dodgers and Mets has gone from a showcase of great pitching to a discussion of a lack of fairness and potential retaliation. Equally unfortunate is Chase Utley’s career could now become defined more by one dirty play than 13 years of skillful performance. Such is the price for not playing by the rules.