Let’s talk about Chase Utley. You know about it. You’ve seen it. You may not have an opinion, or you may be incredibly passionate about it. Dozens of professional analysts, current and former players have weighed in. Now, a blogger is going to give his two cents (big shock).
What happened last Saturday to The New York Mets and their shortstop is inexcusable and it’s not only because shortstop Ruben Tejada broke his leg. There are way too many moving parts to this to pick a singular piece to cause upset.
First, let’s discuss Utley. He “slid” into second, crashing into a pivoting Tejada whose leg was ultimately broken and his post-season hopes dashed in an instant. Utley’s attempt to reach the base began once he already passed the base and he was a good foot and a half to the right of the bag. Not exactly an effective strategy for a player just trying to reach base safely.
Utley was trying to break up a potential double play. No one is denying it, and every team does it…at literally every opportunity. That’s not the issue, at least not in my opinion. But Utley wasn’t just trying to stop the double play. He was trying to break-up the play by taking out Tejada.
Traditionally, when a runner is on first and proceeding towards second base on in field play, the runner will slide toward the direction of the fielder attempting the double play (meaning not towards second base) while holding up a hand in an effort to block the throw to first base. This is known as breaking up the double play. The only person who puts themselves in danger is the person who decided, “Hey, I’m going to slide towards the thrown baseball and hold my hand up to it.” It’s just something that everyone accepts as part of the game even if it’s a little shady.
Look at the image here.
This isn’t how a player slides. He’s practically standing up. If a little leaguer slid like that his coach would correct him immediately. Why? Because someone will get hurt. You just can’t call this a slide. This is an attempt to disguise a tackle as a poor slide when it’s really just a tackle. In football terms, this is a tackle against a defenseless receiver. So if this were a football game this would be an immediate penalty. There is absolutely no reason that a non-contact sport has more leeway in this situation than one of the most violent sports in the country.
Utley could have, and should have, made more of an effort to block the throw without throwing his body into another player. You can’t say that he wasn’t trying to tackle Tejada without saying a 12-year veteran doesn’t know how to slide properly and I don’t think anyone will say that. But what he did is only a portion of what went wrong during this whole debacle.
Utley was originally called out at second. While Tejada was being treated for his broken leg, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly came out and challenged that Tejada never touched the base. Upon review, the umpires determined that he did not touch the base, therefore, Utley was called safe, sent back out to the field of play from the dugout, and the out was removed. The umpires blew this call. First look at the play. In order for a play to be reversed, you have to say without a shadow of a doubt that he didn’t touch the bag.
Look at this image.
It’s close. It’s really close. But would you say there was absolutely no way that he touched it? You don’t think he grazed it or tapped it and the pixels just don’t show it? I think he did, but I’m biased. Do you think differently? Fine, what if I told you that he could still miss the bag and Utley still be out.
It’s called the neighborhood rule. The neighborhood play is “a force play where a fielder receiving the ball in attempting to force out a runner at second base, catches and quickly throws the ball to first base in a double play attempt without actually touching second base, or by touching second base well before catching the ball.” Basically, if a fielder is close to the bag in an effort to turn a double play, its good enough and doesn’t actually have to physically touch the base. Should it have applied in this situation? Yes. Why didn’t it? We will have to wait for an answer that we will likely never receive although analysts have speculated that it was because of the way Tejada’s body was turned, or the attempt at an acrobatic play, or a poor throw on second baseman Daniel Murphy’s part, but I’m not sure I’m buying any of those explanations either.
But at least Utley tagged the base cleanly and was awarded the base he felt he deserved, right? Wait a minute…he never did! If you wanted more proof that the attack on Tejada wasn’t intentional, then why didn’t Utley at least try to touch the base? The purpose of the slide is to get to the base while avoiding the tag. He had no intention of touching second, in fact, after he sacked Tejada, he trotted off to the bench because he knew he was out. He forfeited the base. But the umpires felt differently, they felt that since he was called out he before reaching second (which he had no intention to do) then he wouldn’t have a reason to touch second. But why run away from the bag to begin with? Yet another question that won’t be given an answer.
This fiasco led to the Dodgers getting an extra out in the seventh. An extra out allowed them to score three runs. They won by those three tainted runs.
And after all this information has been dispersed, after all the frustration and anger that comes when a man who busted his ass to get from the bench to being a starter for a division championship team breaks his leg over some idiots actions, how do Utley’s teammates react? Did they stand up and say “Yeah, he did it. Winning is all that matters.”? No, they didn’t say that. Did they say “Yeah, I know it sucks that he got hurt, but Utley wouldn’t do that on purpose. It had to be an accident.”? No, they didn’t say that either. What did they say then?
After the third out in the ninth, reporters sprinted for comments. It was almost scripted (it may have been). “What can you say about Chase Utley?,” reporters asked. Universally, every player made immediate eye contact with the ground and quietly whispered “I…he plays hard.” He plays hard. A man’s playoff dreams are over because another guy plays hard. He doesn’t play hard. He plays dirty. His own teammates won’t stick up for him, that’s how disrespectful this guy is.
On Sunday Night MLB stepped in and suspended Utley for two games. This isn’t to punish him, but to protect him. He is public enemy number one in New York City and Met’s starter Matt Harvey had already hinted that he would retaliate. For those who are unaware, if a player intentionally hurts the opposing teams player, the responsibility of revenge rests on the pitcher. A fastball to the ribs or back is the going rate.
Unfortunately a stinging pitch to the torso won’t heel Tejada’s leg. Nor, does it make them even. Old school logic says hit him inside and bring your best stuff. But unless the pitch breaks his leg then this may not be over. Old school logic also says that the Dodgers may want to plunk the first Mets’ hitter who comes to the plate. However, his fellow teammates didn’t seem too enthusiastic to come to his side Saturday, they may not be willing to defend him in the old “you hit our guy, we hit yours” game.
The first NYC game of the series was played last night and because Utley appealed the suspension he was still eligible to play. Out of the options that Mattingly had for the starting second baseman, Utley has the best record against Harvey so it only made sense to start him, right? Apparently Mattingly didn’t think so and Harvey’s promise to “do what’s right” never came to fruition. Maybe that will be the end of it and if Utley does step into the batter’s box against the Mets again during this series – assuming his suspension is overturned or the appeals process takes too long – he can breathe a little easier, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
[Editor’s Note: The Mets laid the smackdown 13-7 and now have a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series. Karma?]
So if anyone is still with me as we approach the conclusion of this article. What, if anything, should MLB do in the future for situations like this? When catcher Buster Posey was tackled at home plate they changed the rules. Is that necessary in this situation? Maybe. Changing the rule about the ability to break-up a double play probably isn’t necessary. It makes sense and if a guy is willing to put himself, and only himself, on the line then who am I to judge? It’s when you spear the guy in front of you that the rule book deserves some new ink.