Was Chase Utley’s Slide Legal?

In game 2 of the National League Division Series the Dodgers came from behind with a 4-run 7th inning to tie their series with the Mets at 1 game each. The pivotal moment that everyone in talking about was when the first run of the inning scored to tie the game. The Dodgers were trailing 2 to 1 at the time. They had two runners on base, Enrique Hernandez was on third and Chase Utley was on first and there was one out. Howie Kendrick faced Bartolo Colon and hit a ground ball up the middle. The Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy flipped the ball to shortstop Ruben Tejada to try to start a double play, but Utley slid in with his head striking Tejada’s legs and knocking him on his back and breaking his leg. To literally add insult to injury, the replay review determined that Tejada never touched the base and because the throw pulled him out of position the “neighborhood play” where infielders just need to be close to second base on a double play didn’t apply.

Now the Mets and their fans are all incensed saying Utley’s slide was dirty. Upon further review, Joe Torre and Major League Baseball has agreed and decided it was an illegal slide and suspended Utley two games, pending an appeal. But honestly, MLB’s suspension seems more like a reaction to the severity of the injury and fan response, than a consistent enforcement of the rules. Attempting to break up a double play by sliding toward a middle infielder happens all the time. The only time I see the illegal slide rule enforced is when the runner is so far out of the baseline, that they can’t possibly touch second base. That was not the case here. Utley was close enough to the bag to touch it if he chose to. He probably assumed he was going to be out and was only interested in preventing the double play so that the critical tying run would score. He did slide high and late, but that has not been considered illegal before. I’ve seen Yasiel Puig slide high and late, not because he was taking out a fielder, but because he had bad judgement on when to slide. Sadly, a big reason why Tejada was injured, had nothing to do with Utley. Tejada was out of position with his back to the runner at the moment of impact. Whether that was because of Murphy’s throw or because he was unadvisedly trying to pirouette to throw to first, he shares some responsibility for not being set for a collision that he should have known was coming. There have been lots of slides to break up double plays that have looked far worse than what Utley did and they were not ruled illegal before. Players have also been hurt before; ask Jung Ho Kang of the Pirates. The umpires ruling during the game was correct, based on how the rule had been interpreted in the past. If MLB wants to outlaw sliding toward fielders to break up double plays, they need to set that precedent ahead of time and pass the memo out to all the umpires and players.

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