Parsing the Utley Play

New York Times
October 15, 2015
by Doug Glanville

In the slide heard round the social media world, we have (some) resolution. Chase Utley, the Dodgers veteran — and my old Philadelphia teammate — has been suspended for two games by Major League Baseball for his aggressive slide that took out (and broke the leg of) the Mets’ Ruben Tejada. Utley has appealed the suspension — the appeal will be heard on Monday — and meanwhile the Mets and Dodgers head for a series-deciding Game 5 tonight in Los Angeles.
Never mind that when I played, and Chase also played, we were taught to knock the guy into left field. There was a clean way to do it, theoretically, which even back then was no comparison to the spikes-high approach of Ty Cobb’s era. My Chicago Cubs teammate Shawon Dunston, a shortstop with a rifle arm, had a defense against high-flying, take-out slides: a knuckle-scraping, low-sweeping throw that taught an opponent to slide early or he’d be carrying his head off the field, not his helmet.
Maybe the poetry of the game has deserved a noncontact platform for some time. Ever since the three-time World Series champion and M.V.P. Buster Posey, of the San Francisco Giants, broke his leg (with torn ligaments in his ankle) while trying to block home plate in 2011, we have been living without the home plate collision, conceding runs to avoid injury. Now we are faced with erasing the last bastion of intentional contact — the take-out slide — and I am sure the game will survive once it is inevitably gone.
Yet we cannot lose sight of how we are arriving at change and what it says about our culture of technology. Now we can “get it right” with a near-infinite gallery of witnesses. Our eyes may lie to us, but our eyes looking at an instant replay will not, because we want to believe that technology is synonymous with truth. With the Utley play, any criticism of instant replay has for the moment slipped under the radar, mainly because a player was hurt and the outrage centered on Tejada’s airbooted, cart-driven exit following the collision. But there are implications whenever we go back and revise real-time history with slowed-down “nowness.”
The Major League Baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred, has always maintained that instant replay is a work in progress, and has said that he would take feedback to improve it. He has kept his word and bravely adapted mid-stream. But at these moments, interjecting patience is always a tall order.
Let’s take that Utley play. Here are some questions I initially had, now mixed with others after the benefit of days of reflection, but that the umpires had to address in an instant. (And I am sure I will think of more later, after the appeal.)
Was the slide interference?
Was the slide legal (beyond interference)? Is that the same thing?
Did Tejada touch the bag?
Did Tejada step into harm’s way and therefore lose some legal protection? Any shortstop knows that a slow-developing double-play opportunity while receiving an off-line throw, with a fast and aggressive runner coming, is not getting turned contact-free. And a fairly fast runner was going from home to first. Tejada chose not to bail out. (Understandable: No bailing in the playoffs!)
Why was it not a “neighborhood” play? (That is, a fluid feed with the momentum, requiring the fielder turning the double play to be only in the vicinity of the bag, so he doesn’t have to go back and feel for the base with a runner homing in on him. In other words, “close enough.”)
Utley left the field without ever having touched the base. What rights does he have, given that he left only because he was only “reversibly” called out?
We learned later that the Mets could have tagged him as he headed to the dugout. But why would they have bothered to tag a baserunner who’d already been ruled “out”?
All of which leads us to conclude that somehow the reversed call (from out to safe) was deemed more deceptive to Utley than the guy with the broken leg and the ball or the entire Mets defense. Utley was awarded second because he was misled into thinking he was out, when he was actually safe. The Mets never tagged him, so his being deemed “reviewably” safe became a veritable “safe” (though Utley didn’t even bother to tag the bag in the first place).
Oh, one more thing: No one actually touched second base. Is this relevant?
If you are lost, you’re on the right track. You should be lost.
We are talking about tagging players who are already out. We are talking about giving players bases that did not seem to want them. We are talking about reviewing already-reviewed plays, reviewing the reviewers themselves, and in turn setting precedent.
All while we’re trying to speed up the game.
We have to be careful here. Umpires have to judge intent, and safety, and do it in ways that prevent the game from lasting 12 hours. We have found that getting the rule right, retrospectively, does not always align with what is equitable or even safe. Keep in mind that with replay, “getting it right” means we can deal only with the parameters of what is reviewable, much of which is about the letter, not the spirit of the law. Calling it interference would have worked like a charm, but that is not reviewable… for now.
Oh, boy, slippery slope.
We can discuss the intent of the slide and the dirtiness of the slide, which despite the outrage and the broken leg (and the pending suspension) is not as conclusive as one would think. I believe the commissioner will eventually ban the “take-out” slide, and I would support that. After all, we banned stopping runs (and gaining runs) through intentional contact at home — much easier to do the same for a measly out or two.
Umpires are already in a tough spot because they’re only regarded as doing a good job when they are invisible. If we don’t trust their judgment in some semblance of real time, they’d become irrelevant as keepers of the flow of the game, which would be a shame: Despite being under constant surveillance, they are very good at what they do. (Only one in four games had a reversed call during the 2015 regular season.)
We’re still not answering a fundamental question: What do we really seek from instant replay? Is it equity? Is it “rightness”? Do we want it to function as a kind of moral police? Can we do all of this and keep the game moving along briskly enough to not invoke the “baseball is too slow” vitriol?
I am sure we will figure it all out. After all, typically, there was a litany of hard slides this year, some as risky as Utley’s, that went virtually unnoticed. (See Didi Gregorius on Jose Altuve in the wild-card game.) Because of Tejada’s serious injury, now we are paying close attention, and even looking for change.
Nevertheless, we should heed the words of the baseball aficionado George Will, who once said, “When we try to make something perfect, we make it worse.”
Republished from the
Photo Credit: Gregory Bull/Associated Press


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