An Utley Situation:
Last night on baseball’s biggest stage, during Game 2 of the post-season National League Division Series, an assault on NY Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada was committed in clear sight of millions of viewers across the country. It was captured on camera of course, and its painful outcome which was sickening to watch was replayed ad nauseum. Tejada was placed in an air cast, driven off the field and taken for x-rays which revealed a fractured right fibula. At best, he is out for the season. Hopefully this will not impact the young player’s future career.
Dodger second baseman Chase Utley committed the assault, ostensibly to break up a potential double play that would have prevented the tying run from scoring in a closely fought game. Sliding hard into a base to prevent the fielder from continuing the play has always been a part of America’s pastime.
But what occurred last night was well beyond. It was an ugly, dirty play. If it occurred on the streets of Los Angeles the LAPD could have issued an arrest warrant. Rather than slide cleanly into second base, Utley waited until he was already at or beyond the bag, went out of the base path to the right and assumed the role of a defensive tackle in football, throwing his body at and barreling into a defenseless Tejada who was pivoting in mid-air and didn’t see what hit him.
To quite literally add insult to injury, Major League Baseball (MLB) severely mishandled the incident. To begin with, Utley should have been called for interference, an infraction of not one but two separate MLB rules. Rule 709 states:
(e) If, in the judgement of the umpire, a base runner willfully and deliberately interferes with a batted ball or a fielder in the act of fielding a batted ball with the obvious intent to break up a double play, the ball is dead. The umpire shall call the runner out for interference and also call out the batter-runner because of the action of his teammate. In no event may bases be run or runs scored because of such action by a runner.”
Rule 605 states:
A runner is out when…
m) a preceding runner shall, in the umpire’s judgment, intentionally interfere with a fielder who is attempting to catch a thrown ball or to throw a ball in an attempt to complete any play.
Rule 6.05(m) Comment: The objective of this rule is to penalize the offensive team for deliberate, unwarranted, unsportsmanlike action by the runner in leaving the baseline for the obvious purpose of crashing the pivot man on a double play, rather than trying to reach the base. Obviously this is an umpire’s judgment play.”
If they had decided this correctly, it would have been an automatic, inning-ending double play (the batter would also be out because of his teammate’s indiscretion). However, second base umpire simply called Utley out, allowing the tying run to score.
Mets manager Terry Collins should have protested this but ironically, it was Dodger manager Don Mattingly who appealed the play for further review by the MLB remote umpiring tribunal who judge disputed calls from a studio in New York. Surprisingly, they too missed the clear interference call based on existing rules and further mishandled the situation, by overturning the “out” call. They ruled that Tejada missed touching the bag and therefore Utley was safe. In order to protect their safety, MLB allows players to miss the bag in these close plays under what is termed a “neighborhood play” but for some bizarre technicality, they chose not to apply that here. One has to ask, if not now, when would this be more relevant?
In all my years watching baseball I’ve never seen a more blatant infraction of the rules. Players cannot be allowed to assault each other without consequence. With slow motion instant replay from 15 different angles and after-the-fact umpire review, there is no way MLB should have allowed this to go unchecked. Every baseball analyst on the air (except for Cal Ripken Jr., the lone apologist for Utley’s aberrant behavior, and for whom my respect has diminished) called this for what it was. In a recent rule change to protect player safety from collisions, catchers are no longer allowed to physically block the plate and yet Utley’s “slide” is allowable?
And now what? The Mets players will most certainly feel they must protect themselves from such dirty attacks and will likely retaliate in some way to get even which could get even Utleyer (pun intended). Matt Harvey, Mets starter for Game 3, will feel pressured to protect his players, perhaps (regrettably) by hitting a batter with a fastball. Mets fans will be angry and who knows what one lone irrational fan might try to do to “even the score.” None of this is good for the sport.
After the game, former player and manager Joe Torre, now an employee and spokesperson for MLB discussed the call with reporters. While he was not particularly articulate when discussing MLB rules and customs he did say he was concerned about the nature of the “slide” which he termed “late” and would continue to review it.
MLB needs to nip this in the bud by acting quickly and decisively. Some are clamoring for a change in the rules. But clearly the rules do not allow for this type of dangerous behavior. Ultimately they simply need to ensure that the rules are enforced. But in the meantime, Utley should be suspended for the remainder of the post-season and heavily fined for unsportsmanlike conduct. They can’t heal Ruben Tejada’s broken leg or change the outcome of Game 2 for the Mets but MLB can and must take action to impose some sense of justice to salvage the remainder of the post-season and ultimately, the integrity of the game
LATE CITY EDITION UPDATE: Joe Torre announced a 2 game suspension of Utley. Considering the severity of the injuries suffered by Tejada and the potential impact on the outcome of the series this is a well intentioned but insufficient response.