The word precedent is defined in the following manner — “an earlier event or action that is regarded as an example or guide to be considered is subsequent similar situations.” When Chase Utley slid hard into Ruben Tejada in an attempt to break up a double play, Major League Baseball had no precedent for handling overly aggressive, late slides into second base. The league had no historic play or decision to fall back on when determining if it should discipline Utley. Forced to act quickly, as the court of public opinion chastised the league for bungling the ruling on the field, a decision was reached, and Utley was suspended for Games 3 and 4 of the NLDS.
The Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman, Utley, is sure to appeal his suspension, citing the fact that he (and plenty of others) were never suspended in the past for a slide of this nature. When a precedent is set, it represents a break from historical rulings. A new way of handling situations is created going forward, and anything that was allowed or acceptable before the new ruling was handed down is no longer fair game. Utley can be displeased with the suspension all he wants, but the league finally saw fit to get around to addressing dangerous plays at second base in the same way it has already addressed home plate collisions. If Chase Utley has to be the one player made an example of so the league can begin protecting its middle infielders, so be it.
For years, baseball has been a non-contact sport with a contact problem. Is Pete Rose barreling over Ray Fosse in an exhibition game to be celebrated? Unlike football or hockey, baseball players do not collide violently with each other on a daily basis. There is an impetus for the other leagues to clearly define what is and is not acceptable when making contact with another player because contact is at the root of those games. A chop block is illegal in football because it places undue risk for injury on linemen. Baseball was never forced to firmly outline acceptable and unacceptable forms of contact because it could always sit back, cross its fingers, and pray to God that no one ended up with a broken leg.
Well, now we have a New York Mets player with a broken leg. The Pittsburgh Pirates also have a player with a shredded knee — their starting shortstop Jung Ho Kang. That Kang suffered his injury on a borderline clean play should not matter. Buster Posey broke his ankle on what was a clean slide at home plate. One could make an argument that Tejada, like Posey, was out of position on the play where Utley slammed into him. Cal Ripken acutally made that point on air. Player positioning is not the point to focus on here. Tejada was at his most vulnerable trying to make a difficult play and Utley went straight for him.
Chase Utley’s suspension is not about the way things were done in the past. For baseball, it’s about moving forward and making progress as a league that is willing to step up and protect its players. Yes, an argument could be made that the suspension would not have been handed down if Tejada had popped right back up after the slide without a broken fibula. There may be some validity to that. On the other hand, the league’s action is commendable because it finally realized that a very dangerous play was going unpunished. What’s more, issuing a suspension is a clear mea culpa from the league. The correct call was not made in the heat of the moment.
Chase Utley will not find his suspension fair, and you cannot blame him for that. He was playing the game on Saturday night the same way he had played it for 13 years. There is nothing wrong with playing hard, but there is something wrong with playing dangerously. Major League Baseball had never quite been forceful enough in drawing the line in the sand between the two, but Utley’s slide, with all eyes on baseball’s postseason, became the boiling over point. When a precedent is set, one party in the case is going to walk away unhappy. That’s Utley in this case. While it’s unfortunate that Utley had to be made an example of, the decision is fair.