We knew it was coming. From the moment the Chase Utley Rule went into effect, we knew there would be a game where a slide would be the de facto Corn Nuts™ Player of the Game, something that sucked the attention away from anything else that happened over nine innings.
This wasn't the introduction we were expecting, though:
The timing was pretty sweet. Two division rivals in the ninth inning. A play that would have tied the game, unless it ended with the other team winning. What a perfect storm to make people yell at each other on the Internet. It's a clear case of someone violating the rules, unless it's a clear case of EVERYTHING THAT'S WRONG WITH OUR COUNTRY. And the one above it, apparently. You have to choose which side you're on: Do you only cross at crosswalks, or do you fondly remember the days when kids didn't have to wear helmets to ride a danged bike around the neighborhood?
Except, hold on. This isn't about safety. This is about the aesthetics of baseball, how it should look in its ideal form.
As several others have already pointed out, Bautista's slide didn't need the Chase Utley Rule to be illegal.
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
It was already a rule. Bautista clearly stuck his hand out, and it wasn't to swat a yellow jacket away. He was willfully and deliberately interfering with a fielder in the act of fielding a batted ball with the obvious intent to break up a double play. The ball is dead, dammit, dead. And Jose Bautista killed it.
However, this rule wouldn't have been reviewable without the Utley Rule, so it falls under the same umbrella. People who are mad about the rule get to be mad about this play. Fair enough.
My question is this: Do you think baseball is a better game when people sliding into second base get to grab the fielder at the bag? Would it improve the sport if players could use their arms to disrupt a play at second and only second?
Before you answer that, hold on, let me get something.
OK, here we are. Really, it's hard to know if Bautista's interference affected the throw enough to cause the error. It looked innocuous, but throwing a baseball is a surprisingly complicated mechanical endeavor. It certainly could have been enough to disrupt the throw, but it's impossible to say with any certainty.
So pretend that Bautista didn't reach out and tap the ankle with his arm. Pretend he went up and yanked on Logan Forsythe's beans like he was trying to tell the bus driver he wanted to get off at the next stop.
Would that have been OK? It would have been against the old rules, sure, but do you think a slide like that would improve the game in theory? If you have the magic wand, maybe you wave it to allow all forms of interference.
Or maybe you make Major League Baseball include a list of body parts that are acceptable to swat or tug. Anything below the knees, happy tugging. Happy swatting. Because that apparently makes the game better.
Before you answer that, watch one more video.
This was a base runner willfully and deliberately interfering with a fielder's ability to tag him. Everyone agreed at the time. Everyone agrees 12 years later. You have never, at any point in your life, been daydreaming in a hammock and thinking, "Golly, I sure wish base runners could slap the baseball out of a fielder's mitt at first base." It would be a different game. The strategy would be altered drastically.
That was a controversial play because people thought A-Rod was a ninny, not because it was an example of the wussification of society or whatever. You don't get to slap the baseball out of a player's hands. You learn that when you're 5. Actually, it never even occurs to 5-year-olds to try it. It's innate.
It shouldn't be different at second base. That goes for slapping the ball out, grabbing an ankle or tying a shortstop's shoelaces together. Touch the base before the fielder touches the base, or walk back to the dugout. Touch the base before the fielder can tag you with the ball, or walk back to the dugout. That's how baseball works.
You can tell this is how baseball works because it was already in the rules. The only thing that changed with the Utley Rule is that umpires can now go back, look at the video and determine that a player like Bautista is unambiguously trying to disrupt the play. He wasn't balancing himself or sliding awkwardly. He was sticking out his arm because he hoped it would make the second baseman throw the ball where he wasn't supposed to. It worked! Kind of. Until the rules were enforced properly.
As a trial balloon for the Utley rule, this was a bit of a dud. It wasn't a player sliding violently into a middle infielder. It wasn't a base runner sliding juuuuust to the right of second base and affecting the play. It was a runner swatting at a fielder. Don't swat at fielders, runners.
You might think that baseball is better as a contact sport, where runners should have the ability to block shots, deflect passes and force fumbles. I strongly, strongly disagree. And I don't get what's so special about second base (and home plate, for that matter) that should make it so very different from everywhere else on the field.
When a game ends because a runner annihilates a middle infielder to break up a double play, we'll have much different thoughts. This isn't about safety, though. It's about aesthetics. Touch the base before the fielder touches the base, or walk back to the dugout. Touch the base before the fielder can tag you with the ball, or walk back to the dugout. Anything else is a mutation of what baseball should be.