October 12, 2015 0 By Dan Freedman


Two worlds collide, rival nations; it’s a primitive clash, venting years of frustrations.  Does the crowd understand?  Is it East versus West, or man against man?   (Extra points if you can reference the previous stanza (hint: it is a verse)).

It’s Biggie vs. Tupac.

It’s the Big Apple vs. Hollywood Glitz and Glamour.

It’s 1988 all over again, and the stakes are – in the words of the Mike and the Mad Dog – “uuuuuge!!!”

When the best pitcher on the planet could not – yet again – get a playoff W, Game 2 took on all that much more importance.  And when the Dodgers found themselves trailing 2-1 in the 7th inning (why is it always the 7th inning?) on Saturday night, with one out and runners on the corners, and Howie Kendrick at the plate, who knew – who could possibly have guessed – the firestorm that awaited in that otherwise innocent 100 feet between first base and just beyond second?

More than East Coast / West Coast, the battle that has ensued has spread to “old school vs. new school”.

It has extended out to guys who rub some dirt vs. the Sabermetricians who count every inning and every out in terms of dollars.

It has touched those who subscribe to the unwritten rules vs. those who abide by the official MLB rule book (see also, When is a Rule a Rule? June 10, 2015).

It has pitted in-game umpires against league officials.

It most likely has led to showdown between Matt Harvey and Chase Utley (or possibly Corey Seager and some other suspecting Dodger better).   (Editor’s Note: It has been reported that the Mets have specifically instructed Matt Harvey not to retaliate.  We shall see.)

And, the fact of the matter is, regardless of how much is said, how much is written, how many games Utley is forced to sit, no one and everyone is correct.

  • It was a dirty play.
  • It is how the game is played.
  • It was, depending on your interpretation, within the rules.
  • It was, depending on your interpretation, a violation of the rules.
  • It was, depending on your viewing angle, a “neighborhood play” not subject to replay review.
  • It was, depending on another angle, a force play perfectly subject to replay review.

Does that clear it up for everyone?  If not, and if you have not read and/or listened to everything written and/or said about this in the past few days, here is a brief summary:

Chase Utley breaks up a potential double play by sliding hard into Mets’ shortstop Ruben Tejada.  Hardnosed play?  Yes.  The way Utley has always played?  Yes.  A play that happens dozens of times every season?  Yes.  A potential rule violation?  Yes.  Could it have been ruled an inning-ending double play with no runs scored for the Dodgers?  Yes.

MLB Rule 7.09(e): It is interference by a batter or a runner when . . . [if], in the judgment 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.

Said differently if you are a Dodger fan with two working eyes: “uh oh!” and “phew!”

If you live in Queens or otherwise really like the color orange, you might also note Rule 5.09(a)(13):

A batter is out when 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.

The umpires on the field had the right – but not the obligation – to call Utley and Kendrick out.  They chose not.  We can agree or disagree with that assessment, but now let’s head around the neighborhood.

Although not technically in the rule book, for the sake of safety, umpires will typically record an out (and typically at second base – has anyone ever seen it called anywhere else?) in the course of an attempted double play without the fielder actually touching the base while in possession of the ball.  For this to occur, it must look like an out, with the middle infielder catching the ball cleanly and then turning and throwing on to the next base.  It goes without saying “but I’ll say it anyway” (tip of the cap to Vin Scully) that this is done to protect players from the potential harm that could come from colliding with incoming base runners.

So, you ask, wasn’t Tejada in the “neighborhood” when he didn’t touch second base?  Well, according to the umpires, he was not, because he was not in the process of turning a double play.  Rather, he was reaching behind the bag to receive a throw coming from an odd angle, with very little likelihood of turning the double play (which, in hindsight, is quite ironic).  Thus, Utley was not out – in the first instance – on the front end of the “neighborhood play”.

As a side note, after the play Utley was laying on the ground beyond second base and Tejada was sitting on the ground with the ball in his hand.  Had Tejada been so inclined, and had Tejada not had a broken leg, he could have tagged Utley out, obviating the need for the instant replay review.  But, since the umpire called Utley out, Tejada had no need to do so.

As for the instant replay, as I am sure you all know, the “neighborhood play” is not reviewable.  That is a judgment call by the umpire in the moment, and no drone in New York can overrule that judgment.  However, that same guy sitting in a dark room in New York can opine on whether or not a player touched the bag with the ball on a force out.  Once the umpires ruled no “neighborhood play”, it became a typical force play, which is subject to review.  I can feel blood pressure rising at Coney Island.

But, you (and by “you” I mean Keith Olbermann and others) claim that Utley “abandoned his effort to run the bases” when he left the field and went to the dugout, so he should have been called out.  Au contraire, mon frere.  Once the umpire called Utley out, he has the right – and most likely the obligation – to leave the field of play.  After the review revealed him not to be out, he had the right to reassert his position – but where, exactly?  What is fascinating, and I have not been able to find anything written about or anything in the rule book, is that Utley was not technically “safe” after the review, he just wasn’t “out”.  In the same way a batter is not to out after a dropped third strike, but he is not safe either.  Or when a runner slides past home plate to avoid a tag – not safe or out, just in limbo.  Utley never touched second base and left the field from the shortstop position.  Could the Mets have tagged Utley on his way back on the field?  Like the reasoning behind New Coke . . . no one knows!!

A couple of quick questions/asides:

  • If Ruben Tejada does not get injured, just fails to turn the double play, are we having this debate right now?  I think not.
  • If Tejada does not get injured, but Utley did, what is the collective reaction?  It is amazing to me that Utley doesn’t have a concussion or something worse.  Check out the impact of his head on Tejada’s knee and then on the base path.  Some have averred that he ran off the field without his helmet because he was so dazed and confused from the collision.  Do we care?  Is that a case – like I say to my kids – “that’s what you get . . .”?

  • This same injury happened last month in Pittsburgh to Jung Ho Kang.  As far as I can tell, outside of Western Pennsylvania, the only person who made an issue out this play was Buster Olney.  Where was the outrage when a small market player went down?

In fairness, however, a large market player got taken out at second base, and no one said a word.  Tell me if this play looks familiar:

But that was 38 years ago.  Some might say that times have changed.

Anyway, back to Saturday night.  The Mets claim a violation of Rule 7.09(e) and believe the discussion ends there.  Utley and Kendrick are out, the 7th inning ends, the Mets get six more outs and head home up two games to none with Harvey on the hill to close it out.

The Dodgers claim that the umpires properly interpreted the rules, Utley was within the baseline and within the rules of the game.  Tejada didn’t record the force out, everyone is safe, Kiké Hernandez scores, the game is tied, and the Dodgers score three more runs to even the series.

Joe Torre and MLB claim “[A]fter thoroughly reviewing the play from all conceivable angles, I have concluded that Mr. Utley’s action warrants discipline.  While I sincerely believe that Mr. Utley had no intention of injuring Mr. Tejada, and was attempting to help his Club in a critical situation, I believe his slide was in violation of Official Baseball Rule 5.09(a)(13), which is designed to protect fielders from precisely this type of rolling block that occurs away from the base.”

While I don’t necessarily disagree with Torre’s appraisal, I don’t believe we can have ex post facto interpretations or punishments.  If the crime warrants a punishment, it needs to be called a crime at the time.  Had the umpires invoked either 7.09(e) or 5.09(a)(13) on the field Saturday night, I would not have balked.  But, the fact of the matter is that they did not.  They were there, they saw it in real time, and they elected not to invoke the rule(s).  It is not appropriate for Torre to Monday Morning Quarterback and throw the book at Utley.  I feel pretty confident Utley’s representatives and the MLBPA will make a strong case that this play happens all the time without punishment.

As of this writing, Utley has appealed his suspension, and it will not be heard before Game 3.  Thus, Utley is free to play.  Whether or not he does will be Don Mattingly’s call (ostensibly, as the left-hand hitting second baseman, he should be in the lineup against right-hander Matt Harvey, but Utley hasn’t exactly been hitting balls as hard as he has been hitting shortstops, so Kendrick may get the start in any event).

But regardless of what happens in the Chase Utley Incident, this rule will be changed (or, as some might say, actually enforced).  In the same way that the home plate rule changed after Buster Posey’s collision was the straw that broken the catcher’s ankle, there will be a new rule for plays at second base.

The rule will most likely require that (a) runners actually slide, with at least one appendage fully extended (take a look at Utley’s leg when he made contact with Tejada); (b) runners must actually slide (i.e., their bodies must hit the ground prior to making contact with the fielder); (c) runners must slide directly to the base, not at the fielder; and (d) as my personal suggestion, a runner must be able to maintain contact with the base after he completes his slide (there is no reason it should be legal for a guy to end up near left field just because he could have touched the base at some point in his slide).  Some variation on the above theme will be in place before the first pitch is thrown next April 3rd.

And, as sure as I am typing this, old school guys will bitch and moan and complain that wimps are ruining the game.  And then the furor will die down, players will make plays and stay on the field, and the game will evolve in the same way it always has and always should.

For now, we have the Astros trying to out-Royal the Royals, who spent the 8th and 9th innings showing the Astros that the Royals are still the Royals.  We have the Rangers learning, first-hand, how/why the Blue Jays outscored their opponents by 221 runs this season (second most: the Cardinals with 122).  And we have Jake Arrieta – the most unhittable pitcher on the planet (he has allowed 4 runs in his last 97+ innings) – going against the Cubs’ arch-rival Cardinals in the Friendly Confines.  I know I say this often, but really, does it get any better than this?!!?