Correction: A previous version of this column said Tommy Davis injured his ankle in 1963.
It’s amazing how often baseball gets lucky. Now, the game has a chance to turn a bad incident into a good rule change — one that’s at least a century overdue.
Finally, the vicious late takeout slide, which has put both infielders and base runners themselves at unnecessary risk for 150 years, can get its rightful burial if MLB and its players can agree on a new rule, as yet to be determined, that can turn the current mayhem at second base into tough but clean play.
Whom should we thank? A hint: It’ll be called the Chase Utley rule.
Utley’s slide that snapped Ruben Tejada’s leg like a stick Saturday night in Los Angeles was a dirty play to my eye, both the first time I saw it and the 20th. But the definition of dirty can be debated to eternity. Cal Ripken, who worked the game for TBS, thought the slide was within the definition of “hard play.”
On Sunday night, MLB suspended Utley for two games — though he appealed and remained eligible to play, pending his hearing — but did so with an accompanying statement by Joe Torre, MLB’s chief baseball officer, which did everything except give Utley a hug and say, “Sorry to pick on you, Chase, after your fine career, but everybody’s doing it and we have to draw the line.”
That’s the larger point: Everyone is doing it. Utley’s obliteration of the defenseless Tejada, whose back was turned, was merely the fourth-dirtiest double-play takeout slide in the first week of the baseball playoffs. Utley deserved his discipline, but for fairness, we also should see him in context.
Mike Napoli and Rougned Odor of Texas and Josh Donaldson of Toronto all tried to blow up pivot men with late hit-the-infielder-before-your-butt-hits-the-ground roll blocks that could have broken opponents’ legs or their own skulls. Donaldson, the potential AL MVP, actually did knock himself out of the game when he took a knee to the forehead for his trouble.
Torre has mentioned that MLB will speak with its union about rule changes. Here’s perhaps the simplest and most obvious starting point: The runner must not only slide so that he can touch the base as he passes it (as currently stipulated), but he must also hit the ground before he touches his foe.
If MLB wants to go further and rewrite its rules so that the runner must hit the ground a yard before the base, then go for it. You can still do damage and induce fear — but not at the current level of mayhem. Make the play reviewable and rule the batter out, too, for a completed double play, to deter sinners.
The double-play takeout slide, which endangers the brave hell-bent sliders themselves, can finally have the rule that it has always needed.
Whatever the details of a new rule, it may reverse an ugly trend. In recent days, former players have claimed that the game was meaner and rougher in their good ol’ days — chuckle, chuckle — with such slides as a perfect example. I would disagree. More players are now athletic and fast enough to execute more brutally dangerous takeout slides than in earlier times. Memory has simply exaggerated the dare-devilry of earlier days. This is exactly the era when a rule change is more needed than ever before.
Ask yourself this: Are there more dazzling acrobatic “Web Gem” plays in 2015 or in 1975? I promise there are far more now because more players are gifted enough to make them. The same is true of takeout slides that make middle infielders look like car-crash dummies.
Baseball should see all of this as good fortune and a “marketing opportunity” to position itself as the sport that is lucky enough to be able to create rules that actually address unnecessary violence.
While football fights an almost impossible battle against concussions and cumulative brain damage from playing its sport, baseball has a chance to protect its players to an appropriate but not namby-pamby degree. MLB already has changed rules to virtually eliminate the season-ending or career-changing collisions at home plate by forbidding catchers to block the entire plate.
I’ve always thought that the late, high takeout slide was one of the dumbest and most unnecessary vestiges of the 19th century that clung to baseball. For many years, my favorite trivia question was: Who was the last man to drive in 150 runs in a season? Even big leaguers didn’t know. For 34 years, the right answer was Tommy Davis (153) for the 1962 Dodgers. With dash-man speed, he had 230 hits and won the batting title (.346) at 23. He was Mike Trout. In 1965, he tried to live up to the game’s unwritten rules with a late, crashing takeout slide. Instead, he was the one who broke, snapping his ankle on the bag; it was the gruesome “Joe Theismann injury” of its day. Davis was never the same hitter or player.
Many years later, when he was an Oriole, I looked at his leg, permanently bent. To me, that’s the symbol of the takeout slide: A potential Hall of Famer was turned into a journeyman by a kill-’em code.
Davis accepted his fate with a shrug. That was how the game was played in his day if you were a hard-nosed and team-first guy. Baseball needs to change Rule 6.05 so that those who want to be both tough and unselfish in the future in their approach to the game do not feel the need to attempt violent, nasty slides like Utley. And Napoli, Odor, Donaldson and far too many others for far too long.