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Chase Utley broke a dude's leg, and the rules will eventually change

Don't blame Chase Utley. This is just how baseball is played, even if it won't be for long.

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

We've been here before. You and I, talking about takeout slides and the ethics behind them. In 2012, Matt Holliday gorilla tumbled into second base, and he ensnared wee Marco Scutaro and broke him. It was a big deal back then, and there was an honest discussion about it.

In that article, there was a picture.


There was a poll.

Small samples, and I tend to attract whiny Giants fans, but I'm pretty confident that's not too far from the general consensus. Maybe instead of 2:1, it was more of a 50/50 thing. Everyone forgot about it because Scutaro kept playing that series, but the play might have ended his career.

Before you move on, look at that picture again. Now, here's what happened on Saturday night:

It's worse. It's clearly, unambiguously worse. Holliday slid earlier, and he slid toward the bag. Utley slid later and he targeted the fielder. Judge for yourself:

There are some letters of the law to discuss. First, that Ruben Tejada didn't touch second before he was broken, even though Major League Baseball has codified the right of the middle infielder to get the hell out of the way before he's broken. Second, that Chase Utley never touched second base until he slithered out of the dugout and stepped on it after a weird umpire review. But those are minor points. We're here to talk about the concept of a takeout slide.

Think about the play. It's a baseball play. And on the broadcast, Cal Ripken, Jr. -- famous in part because he's damned lucky this never happened to him -- vacantly said it was a good, solid baseball play. Other ex-middle infielders suggested it was just a baseball play. Just hard-nosed baseball, everyone.

This also used to be hard-nosed baseball:

hal mcrae

No one was ejected, no one was suspended. No one even tweeted about it at the time, if you can believe it. Hal McRae was one of the more ... enthusiastic practitioners of the takeout slide, but it was still allowed.

Eventually the folks in charge, not wanting to explain a severed spine, passed the Hal McRae Rule. That is, a runner had to be close enough to the base to touch it, or else he was called out. Utley could have touched second base. (So could McRae in that GIF, mind you.)

Utley didn't, and he was ruled safe. Even though he was called out. Which means that the only reason he was safe on appeal was because the dude with the BROKEN LEG didn't roll over and give him a love tap after the runner was called out just to be sure, even though there's no reason to do that. But I digress. Utley could have touched the base. In theory. So he didn't do anything wrong.

That was the old rule, though. This is the current rule:

Rule 5.09(a) ... The objective of this rule is to penalize the offensive team for deliberate, unwarranted, unsportsmanlike action by the runner in leaving the baseline for the obvious purpose of crashing the pivot man on a double play, rather than trying to reach the base. Obviously this is an umpire’s judgment play

Did he leave the baseline? Depends. Here are some baselines:

Perhaps those baselines extend into infinity.

The rules don't say that's not the case! So you might be on Team Utley. Around the bag, beyond the bag, it's all fair play. It's all hard-nosed baseball.

Let's forget Utley's culpability in this, then. Even though he had absolutely no intention of "reaching the base." Even though he has long been accused of being a little more Hal McRae than his peers. Even though he's done this before.

We'll just assume Utley plays hard. Wants to win. Can't stand losing, and this is the postseason. He gives 110 percent, and he lies awake at night wondering how to give 111 percent. Let's assume that Utley was a team player trying to win. Here's what he was thinking:


He's probably not thinking about murdering Ruben Tejada. I write "probably" because that would be a perfect cover for a sociopath, to become one of the most skilled athletes in the world and then demolish people when you get there. But, no, Utley was probably thinking only of the double play and how to stop it. What you term "the dirtiest player in baseball" might be synonymous with "guy who stops .03 seconds later than his peers when trying to do what he's been taught to do his entire life." It's a fine line.

If baseball allows this, then, it's saying that breakupthedoubleplaybreakupthedoubleplaybreakupthedoubleplay is something so pure, so intrinsic to baseball's algorithm, that it's worth the broken legs and ruined careers that come from it. It's not Utley's fault. It's the implied idea that this is a part of baseball's beauty and balance.

That's probably not true.

There's precedent, here. It's the Alex Avila Rule, commonly known as the Buster Posey Rule, even though the rules didn't actually change until it was the son of a baseball executive who was sucked into the garbage disposal of tradition. Under the Alex Avila Rule, runners were prohibited from bowling catchers over on purpose. They couldn't attempt to dislodge the ball by force, and the catchers couldn't block the baseline. For a few months it was really confusing, as catchers who were kinda/sorta/maybe in the baseline started costing their teams runs. It was an uncomfortable transition. There was grumbling.

And then, goodness, home plate collisions were just gone forever. Fewer stretchers, fewer updates with the words "had feeling in his extremities." They went away, and the confusing ambiguities went away as the catchers became more experienced. When a runner is out at home plate after a swipe tag, about 1.2 percent of the baseball-loving population screams "NO, NO, NO, THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN A RUN IF HE HAD JUST SEVERED HIS HEAD WITH A WELL-PLACED FOREARM." The other 98.8 percent know those people are loons who will die alone and angry.

No one misses home-plate collisions anymore. Not anyone we care about, anyway. The people who lament the passing of a dead rule are a dying breed. It's all going extinct. Takeout slides are going extinct, too, and you just watched a death rattle.

Here was why I was ambiguous about takeout slides three years ago:

Unlike the brutality and brainlessness of a home-plate collision, a good takeout slide fits with the timing and geometric precision of baseball. It's a late slide, designed to use the letter of the law for a temporary advantage. A player can slide a foot from the bag whenever he wants, but there's only one time when it makes sense.

Any changes to the existing rule could mess up the flow of the game. Runners could be wary of takeout slides altogether, preferring to slide normally instead of risking an automatic out, ejection, or fine. I'm not sure if that's worth it.

Here, then, is a perfect example of a late slide that had nothing to do with the timing and geometric precision of baseball. It had nothing to do with getting to second base by any means necessary. It had nothing to do with sliding a little late, tee hee, to mess the other player up. It was about physically deconstructing another player -- in a way that often leads to injury -- because that's just what you're supposed to do.

In the next couple years, it won't be what you're supposed to do. The new rule is going to be something like, "You can slide late. You can slide just before you reach the bag. But so help me, if you peel off and destroy a fielder trying to get out of the way, we will send you to the moon without a phone and you will eat moon cheese for food and drink your own urine for hydration." It will make sense. There will be a transition period. And then we'll all get used to it, and fewer stretchers will carry baseball players off the field.

The only caveat is that baseball already has those rules. So it's more about tightening them up and adhering to a strict no-foolin' policy. Late slides probably aren't going anywhere. Slides to the far reaches of the bag, in a clear attempt to screw up the play, even if there's a risk of injury, are going away.

Do you remember how the season started? Everyone was arguing about whether cleats were too high.


That's adorable. It's all fun and games until a leg is broken and a Division Series game is lost.

We'll look back at articles like this in five years and laugh. They'll be the tattoo you got when you were 18, the quote in your yearbook. What were we thinking? How could it possibly be okay to obliterate a player at one base, but not the other? How did it make sense to risk career-threatening injuries just because that's the way it's always been?

It won't make Ruben Tejada feel better, but he's prevented future broken legs. Rest in peace, garbage takeout slides at second base. Rest in peace, and let's just start shoveling dirt on you, just to make sure.

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SB Nation archive presents: Baseball's unwritten rules