On Chase Utley, Broken Legs and Busted Ribs

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As Chase Utley left first base headed for an appointment with baseball destiny – or what many Mets fans would characterize as “infamy”, I doubt he intended “The Slide” to cause a broken leg. However, that’s how fast a play at the major league level happens, and that’s how hard they play the game up there.

On his way to second base Utley wasn’t breaking things down with the benefit of multiple slow-motion camera angles. He was running on pure baseball instinct and playoff adrenaline. At that point in time Utley saw only one job before him – and everyone from his teammates in the dugout to living rooms and sportsbars across L.A., was willing him forward to do it – Just break up that double play!

However Miguel Tejada had the opposite on his mind – Just turn two! He could have taken the safer route by attempting to force Utley at second and allowing his momentum to carry him toward the outfield with the out recorded. However, Tejada was also giving his all in the heat of the moment. He attempted to spin and complete an unbelievable, highlight worthy, rally-crushing, double play.

As we watched the play unfold in real time, our collective jaws dropping, I doubt any of us knew we were witnessing baseball lore and legend being cast.

It’s unfortunate Tejada was lost for the series, but injury is always a possibility in the violent ballet those men on the field are paid unimaginable amounts of money to perform – and to win.

If placed in the same situation, every Dodger would have had the same responsibility of breaking up Tejada’s play, and they all would have executed it in their own fashion. This time it was Utley, who has always played the game with a nod to the Pete Rose school of base  running, which can best be defined as the “Get the heck outta my way!” style.

The umpire had the authority to penalize Utley and the Dodgers for interference, but he didn’t. It wasn’t a blatant violation of the rules to him. Furthermore, he determined Tejada was taken off the direct path to second base by an errant throw from Daniel Murphey, thus invalidating the “neighborhood” play, which would have declared Utley automatically out, and stopped any attempt at an instant-replay request.

In other words, the umpire saw The Slide as a legitimate play. However, the high impact zone was proof it was late and high. It was deemed technically within the rules, but a man was injured. Tejada was spinning at the moment of impact, trying to make an impossible throw to first. Utley caught Tejada just as he pirouetted and launched him head over heels. A hard-nosed play became an unfortunate accident.

To be honest, I’m surprised Utley wasn’t the guy carted off the field. He took a heckuva blow to the face from Tejada’s knee, and then violently bounced the back of his head off the infield clay. For whatever cosmic reason, Utley suffered no immediate effects from the collision, and Tejada caught a broken bone. Of course the Mets and their fans felt short-changed.

Chase Utley is no Ty Cobb, but for right or wrong, he plays the game the way it is constructed today. He doesn’t run the basepaths motivated by what many wish the game would look like under a different set of rules. Charging in high  isn’t practiced by everyone, but it is just as much a part of today’s game as a Purpose Pitch. When those get away from pitchers and unintentionally bean players is it dirty play or an unfortunate accident?

Most Dodger fans, myself included, feel Joe Kelly intentionally hit Hanley Ramirez in Game One of the 2013 NLCS. He broke one of Hanley’s ribs, and mortally wounded the Dodgers as a result. The Cardinals wanted to go to the World Series, and they were playing the game with no holds barred. However, what happened to Ramirez was no accident on a bang-bang play. Kelly blatantly aimed and drilled a defenseless batter with a major league fastball, fully intending to inflict harm on the Dodgers’ best hitter.

Was that pitch “dirtier” than Utley’s slide? Baseball players tend to extract their own justice for those incidents, and it is usually through another player being intentionally hit in retaliation. Is backing up and protecting your players dirty? It’s definitely part of the game.

Clayton Kershaw eventually hit Cardinal Matt Holliday in the name of Ramirez. He was pinpoint enough to hit him in the buttocks, but if that pitch got away and nailed Holliday in the ribs, or the wrist, would that be a dirty play?

Chase Utley has now been suspended for two games, and baseball’s rules will probably be tweaked next year. Whether we like it or not, or if we wish the rules were different now makes no difference to those men on the field, who will do whatever it takes, including sacrificing their bodies, to win it all.

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