Baseball moves toward upending tradition on slides
Joe Torre walked wearily into an interview bunker at Dodger Stadium late Saturday night. He already had gotten an earful from two executives from the New York Mets, the team that had just lost its shortstop to a broken leg, and now he had to explain why the umpires had sanctioned the play.
The Dodgers said Chase Utley had taken out Ruben Tejada with a slide. The Mets said Utley had taken out Tejada with a tackle. That debate would rage late into the night and well into Sunday.
So would this one: Are middle infielders so vulnerable to a slide that they require a protective protocol?
That issue already has been decided by Major League Baseball, even if Tejada’s injury deprived the league of a chance to make a splashy announcement.
“I don’t know if I’m supposed to say this,” Torre said toward the end of that interview at Dodger Stadium. But he let it slip anyway: In the Arizona Fall League, where baseball likes to test new rules, players will be required to slide directly into the base, not veer toward the fielder in an attempt to break up a double play.
Perhaps Utley gets his two-game suspension overturned or reduced on appeal, given the compelling argument of his representatives that many similar plays have not resulted in similar discipline. In a Fox TV interview Sunday night, Torre essentially said precedent was not his top priority.
“We’re trying to have rules that are going to keep these players on the field,” Torre said.
That’s the point, and it was not received with universal warmth throughout the league Sunday. “Everybody wants to put everybody in a bubble,” Chicago Cubs Manager Joe Maddon said.
Asked St. Louis Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter: “Are we going to wear shoulder pads when we play?”
Baseball is tradition, yes. But baseball also is a business, and the most successful businesses do not endure by shrugging and saying, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
So the Mets could throw at Utley. But what if the Mets decide to focus on the playoffs now and exact retaliation next season? Your shortstop for our shortstop, they might say, and what if Corey Seager is injured by a fastball that breaks his hand or a slide that breaks his leg?
Baseball enacted a rule last year to protect catchers from collisions. Batters, catchers and base coaches wear protective helmets. Outfield walls are padded to protect outfielders.
Never before has baseball enjoyed such a critical mass of young stars. Do you want to see Mike Trout in center field, grabbing the wall with one hand and pushing himself toward the sky to steal a home run, or would you rather see Trout in a cast because some pitcher decided retaliation was the way the game was meant to be played, now and forever?
For years, marketing experts warned the NHL against legislating fights out of hockey, because fans relished a good brawl. The NHL nonetheless instituted rules that penalize coaches for their team’s fights and forbid players to become the third man into a fight. Concussions are down. Fan interest is not.
This is amazing, really: MLB still allows bench-clearing brawls. The NHL does not.
Buster Posey’s injury attracted attention, and the momentum was irreversible toward a rule against collisions at home plate. Umpires botched too many calls in the playoffs, and the momentum was irreversible toward instant replay. Utley made the kind of slide he has made before, but this time in the postseason spotlight, accelerating the momentum toward the rule that Torre said would be tested this fall.
And why not? Monday’s New York Daily News put these words on its cover: “PUNK UTLEY.” The Dodgers should not have to deal with that kind of friendly New York greeting. Change the rule, and fans outside Los Angeles can go back to hating the Dodgers for all the money they spend.
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