NFL-Style Slide Results in NFL-Style Discipline (and That’s Not a Compliment)

Chase Utley slid hard and late. Ruben Tejada took the brunt of the slide and ended up with a broken leg. Those facts, we can all agree on. Of course, the questions of how hard and how late are slightly less clear, with answers often depending more on team allegiance than anything else.

You’ve probably seen the video. But just in case, here it is again:

Was it the hardest or latest slide in baseball history? Of course not. That honor might belong to Hal McRae of the Kansas City Royals, who barrel-rolled New York Yankees second baseman Willie Randolph in Game 2 of the 1977 American League Championship Series.

In the case of Utley and Tejada, fans of the New York Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers probably have differing opinions. But most of the baseball world is made up of people who aren’t fans of either team, and their opinions are split, too. The opinions fall into two basic camps:

  1. This is just good old-fashioned hard-nosed baseball. The game has always been played this way, and there’s no reason to change it just because someone got hurt this time.
  2. Baseball is supposed to be a non-contact sport. There are rules in the books to prevent baserunners from sliding this way, and the umpires need to have the guts to enforce them.
The moment of impact.

The moment of impact.

This situation reminds me of a conversation I had with former Major League catcher Todd Greene, who now works as a Special Assistant to the GM and Major League Scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks. My podcast partner asked Greene how he felt about the “Buster Posey Rule,” which has all but eliminated collisions between catchers and baserunners at home plate. Greene has a little more insight into this than most people, as he was not just a big league catcher, but a big league catcher whose career ended because of a collision with Prince Fielder at the plate. His answer was insightful and honest:

“I wasn’t for [the rule change] initially when it first came out, and here’s why: was Buster Posey’s career any more important than Todd Greene’s? Well, maybe to Giants fans, but not to Todd Greene and his family it wasn’t. So we’re going to change the rules because Buster Posey got hurt? That’s where I had a problem with it. You know, Chad Kreuter got crushed at home plate. There’s a lot of catchers who’ve been hammered at home plate. So we’re going to change the rules because one of the best catchers in the game got hurt in a collision that was his fault because he wasn’t in a good position to protect himself? That’s why I had a problem with it.

“But now, doing what I do, and I’m such an advocate for the game — we need our best players on the field. The game needs our best players. And so, if it means keeping Buster Posey behind the plate, or Joe Mauer behind the plate, and not having them move to first base, then I’m for it, because I’m so in love with the catching position that the guys who are really good at it, I want them to stay there. It’s almost a curse if you’re a really good hitter now and you catch, because we don’t want to hurt the guy’s chances or put the guy at risk of getting hurt behind the plate so they move him somewhere else. I mean, can you imagine if Bryce Harper was still catching, the type of impact he could have on a game?

“So initially I was kind of like, ‘Oh, Buster Posey gets hurt so now we’re going to change the rules?’ But, being a fan of the game and wanting to have our best players at that position stay there, I’m all for whatever we can do to keep our players on the field.”

Why are we talking about home-plate collisions in a discussion about a slide at second base? Well, if Major League Baseball was willing to change the rules to protect big strong men decked from head to toe in protective gear, doesn’t it stand to reason that the league might also want to protect smaller, un-armored middle infielders, too?

Greene originally thought the league overreacted to Posey’s injury, but he eventually came around to the opinion that it was probably the right decision for the wrong reason. I find it pretty likely that a similar reaction will happen this winter. Perhaps people will call it the Ruben Tejada Rule, or the Jung Ho Kang Rule, or the Alcides Escobar Rule. Whatever it’s called, I think that next season, we will see a huge reduction in both takeout slides and the “neighborhood play,” a quasi-rule that gives middle infielders the benefit of the doubt at second as long as they are “in the neighborhood” of the base, allowing them to get out of the way of takeout slides like Utley’s (and Chris Coghlan‘s on Kang and Brett Lawrie‘s on Escobar).

And that’s the way it should be. Yes, the takeout slide has been a part of baseball for a long, long time. That doesn’t mean it should remain a part of baseball for a long, long time more. Some things remain because they are tried and true; others remain because of Newton’s first law: inertia. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Well, it is broke, assuming “it” refers to Tejada’s leg or Kang’s leg.

We have seen wonderful results from the Buster Posey Rule. There is a still a major issue to be dealt with regarding foul tips and catcher concussions, but injuries caused by collisions at the plate have been reduced to near-zero. We will see the same results at second base. And guess what? The game will not be any worse for it. The number of people who have decided that baseball is too boring now that baserunners don’t barrel over catchers anymore is virtually nil; in the same way, the only people who will miss takeout slides are photographers. (Actually, that’s not true. I think MLB Advanced Media will miss them, too — notice that the embedded video above is labeled “Must C,” as in, “You must see this super awesome and intense play that, oh yeah, by the way, was illegal and bad and he has been suspended BUT DID YOU SEE THAT PLAY IT WAS AWESOME WOOHOOOOOOOOOOO!!!”)

Which brings us — finally — to the question of Chase Utley, who received a two-game suspension from MLB for his slide. The suspension has been appealed, and in my opinion, it has almost no chance of being upheld. I give it a 40-percent chance of being reduced to one game and a 60-percent chance of being overturned entirely. Not because I am a Dodger fan (I am) or because I think the slide was totally clean (I don’t), but because of one word: precedent.

Simply put: the first suspension for an illegal slide should come sometime after an official statement from the league that says they are going to start levying suspensions for illegal slides.

No one has ever been suspended for an illegal slide. In the history of baseball. It just has not happened. Tejada is not the first player ever to be hurt by a slide — he’s not even the first or the worst this season. So why should Utley be the first player ever to be suspended for this particular play?

In the end, the actual suspension doesn’t matter much. The appeal won’t even be heard until after the Dodgers/Mets series is over, and Utley is neither a starter nor a huge contributor for the Dodgers. But because there is no precedent here, the league runs a very real risk of setting a much worse precedent in having the suspension overturned. That’s NFL-level embarrassing.

MLB and the MLB Players Association will put their heads together this winter, and by the time spring training rolls around, there will be both rules and penalties in place regarding dirty slides into second base. From that point, if a two-game suspension is what the league and the union have agreed upon as the suspension for a slide like Utley’s, then it will be warranted. Until those rules and penalties are in place, though, Utley and his attorneys have a pretty open-and-shut case in the appeals process.

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