It wasn’t dirty. Dirty implies that there was malicious intent, a willful act on a dangerous and premeditated idea. Dirty implies that Chase Utley, a former and aging superstar, intentionally tried to injure Reuben Tejada. But in the seventh inning of a near must-win for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the second baseman made a poor decision to slide late in order to break up a double-play. Tejada went head-over-heels and crashed to the ground as Dodger Stadium gasped in horror and then roared when they realized the tying run had scored. After originally being ruled out, the umpires went to video review and determined that Tejada never stepped on the bag, despite the fact that the “neighborhood rule” is not allowed (in which a middle infielder need not be physically on the bad to get a force out while turning a double play) to be reviewed. This is for the safety of the defender, because slides such as Utley’s can be very dangerous.
One misinterpretation of the rules, a broken leg, and an inning later, and the Mets had gone from up 2-1 and on the verge of taking a commanding 2-0 series lead back to New York to broken on and off the the scoreboard.
Criticism of this play has gone in two direction – towards Utley, and towards the umpires. There is nothing wrong with sliding hard on a double play, much as there isn’t anything wrong with a powerful hit in hockey or football, a hard foul on a player going in for a layup in basketball, or a slide tackle in
football soccer. It’s a part of sports. It’s an athletic contest and you need players going in as hard as they can.
However, this was not just a hard slide. This sent an opponent flying into the air and the result was a broken leg.
The closest comparison that is available for this play is to compare it to a slide tackle in
football soccer. For all fouls in that game, there are three key words in determining the severity of the foul. “Careless” is used for most incidents where a player makes a challenge and casually interferes with an opponent. “Reckless” is used to determine a yellow card. “A player has acted with complete disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, his opponent”.
Even by the most conservative referees, Utley’s slide would be considered a reckless play. He should face punishment from Major League Baseball.
For red cards, a referee must determine whether or not a player used “excessive force” and “is in danger of injuring his opponent”. Because Utley starts a strong slide when he is even with the bag and while Tejada has his back turned (and thus, cannot see Utley in order to protect himself from the slide) there is a higher possibility for injury on this play than on most common cases of a slide to break up similar plays.
Major League Baseball never gave a serious answer to why the umpires reviewed the play and called Utley safe. The best explanation that Joe Torre, MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer, gave in a press conference following the game seemed to just generate more confusion. Utley was awarded second base because Tejada never touched the bag, which he doesn’t need to in that instance because of the aforementioned neighborhood rule. Mets manager Terry Collins was told by the umpires that the reason why Tejada never touched the bag was because the throw from second baseman Daniel Murphy led him away from the bag, as opposed to because he was avoiding Utley’s slide. This type of play has been succesfully reviewed before, but the difference is that the fielder in that incident was under no threat of being injured and leaped past the bag to make the play.
In last night’s play, Tejada is moving toward the bag, reaches behind to make the catch, and then is taken out by Utley. At first look, it seems as though the umpires are correct. It’s not a good throw and he misses the bag. Watch the video slowly. Tejada misses the bag in part because of the throw, and in part because after he makes the catch he looks over his shoulder to see Utley about to careen into him. Had Utley been fifteen feet away, the Dodgers would have been well within their rights to challenge it. But because Utley is level with the bag when he begins his slide, the fielder should have been afforded the benefit of the doubt because of the higher chance for injury the longer a fielder remains in the pathway of a charging baserunner. The neighborhood play exists exactly for cases like what happened at Chavez Ravine on Saturday evening.
The good news is that MLB will almost certainly now take measures to better protect fielders. How the umpiring crew misinterpreted the rule is abysmally bad, especially when you consider that their reasoning for their decision was convincing enough for Collins to not play the game under protest. The Mets have every right to be flummoxed about the bad call, and irate with Utley for a reckless and irresponsible play.
Game 3 will be played Monday night at Citi Field with the series tied at a game a piece and the intensity ratcheted up to astronomical levels.
UPDATE: Chase Utley has since been suspended for Game 3 and Game 4 of the NLDS for his actions.