Column

Four months later, feelings still mixed on Chase Utley's slide

Not that Dodgers fans need any more soul-searching angst these days, but it showed up anyway Thursday, flying at them like a Chase Utley body block.

Sorry, folks, but one of your team's most memorably successful plays of last season has officially been ruled a dirty one.

The endless arguments over the merits of Chase Utley's bone-breaking collision with the New York Mets' Ruben Tejada in the playoffs have ended with baseball powers formally outlawing it.

In a rules change approved by Major League Baseball and its players' union, a runner must now make a "bona fide slide" toward second base, cannot change his path to initiate contact with a fielder, and must finish that slide in a position to reach second base with a hand or a foot. Officials are so intent on deterring the play, umpires have been given the leeway to call out not only the offending runner, but also the batter, creating a one-thumb double play.

The new rule, which was clearly sparked by the furor over Utley's slide, is a fundamental change in baseball's longtime baserunning traditions. But more important locally, it raises a fundamental question about how long-suffering Dodgers fans view their team as it enters the 28th year of the World Series drought.

Were you one of the many fans who cheered Utley for what you perceived was his old-fashioned aggressiveness, even as Tejada was wheeled off the field on a stretcher? If so, how do you feel now, knowing that the play was considered so heinous, baseball rewrote its rule book just four months later?

Or were you one of the fans who was uneasy watching a Dodgers player act so dangerously, but then ecstatic when that seventh-inning slide in Game 2 of the National League division series helped turn a 2-1 deficit into a 5-2 victory?

At this point, are you so tired of seeing the Dodgers pushed around during the postseason that you are willing to accept victory at any reckless cost? Or are you holding out that they can still win like they did in 1988, when Orel Hershiser was a "Bulldog"' who never took an unnecessary bite, when Kirk Gibson was dirty only on his face, jersey and knees?

The Dodgers' view on this issue is clear. The players publicly supported Utley on the night of the incident, then the front office supported him this winter by giving him a one-year deal worth $7 million even though he is 37 and will start the season as a reserve.

One could surmise he is here not in spite of the slide, but because of it. The Dodgers love his old-school attitude. They love his tough-guy edge. They hope it rubs off. They cheered the slide on that October night, and they cheer it now.

"He plays emotionless,'' said A.J. Ellis told The Times' Andy McCullough. "Cold and calculating…he embraces that. That's why he's respected, but not liked, by a lot of teams.''

The Dodgers indeed need more players with Utley's grit. But do they need that Utley two-game suspension? They need to play with more emotion, but they also need to maintain control of that burn, and is it possible to do both? Do the fans care either way, as long as they win? On the night of that Oct. 10 game, that conflicting sentiment appeared in this column space.

"The slide was questionably legal and arguably dirty," the column began. "Even if you were watching it through blue-colored glasses, you had to admit that the slide was recklessly dangerous."

But the column ended with, "Reckless, dangerous, even dirty? After those 27 years' worth of a World Series drought, the Dodgers will take it any way they can get it.''

That column generated 321 web comments that were similarly divided in opinion, even among self-professed Dodgers fans. Some were tired of the Dodgers being pushed around and want to push back at any cost. Others were embarrassed by the perceived unnecessarily dirty dive on a potential double play that wasn't going to be completed anyway.

The problem here, both sides are right. The recent Dodgers postseasons are filled with Dodgers' failures to strike back. But several times, when mistaking showboating for strength, they have also lost control.

Remember when the Philadelphia Phillies constantly pitched inside while winning eight of 10 games in consecutive NL Championship Series in 2008 and 2009? The Dodgers' lack of fortitude was so evident, during one day off a since-departed Dodgers coach stood outside the clubhouse and hissed insults to the pitchers.

Remember when Joe Kelly of the St. Louis Cardinals hit Hanley Ramirez in the ribs to start — and essentially end — the 2013 NLCS in the first inning of the first game? Not once did the Dodgers stand up to that clearly intentional move.

Yet there were times when their attempted aggressiveness became transformed into a bubble-machine, Mickey-Mouse ears silliness that served only as a distraction.

On the weekend of May 27-29, the Dodgers' supposed new feistiness under Manager Dave Roberts will be tested when they visit the Mets at Citi Field for their first trip there since Utley was booed across all five boroughs last October. There probably will be payback. It probably will get chaotic.

Here's hoping the newly christened Utley Rule reminds the Dodgers of the foolishness of Utley's maneuver. But here's hoping it also reminds them of the importance of Utley's fire.

twitter: @billplaschke

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A version of this article appeared in print on February 26, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "They can't just let it slide" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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