The unwritten rules strike again

On June 21, during a Stearns County League game between Spring Hill and Meire Grove, I slid hard into second base to take out Tanner Klaphake, the Grovers’ second baseman.

It wasn’t an illegal slide, or a particularly egregious one, relatively speaking: I went in hard and — I’ll admit it — a little high with my legs, but I stayed in the baseline and slid into the bag.

When I made contact, when I felt the solid thud as our legs connected and his body toppled over mine, I knew that my takeout slide had been successful; I had disrupted Klaphake’s turn enough that he was unable to complete the double play.

As I dusted myself off and jogged off the field and into the dugout, my teammates were there to greet me, offering congratulations and high-fives for successfully “doing my job.”

I could already feel a pretty sizable welt forming as the game wore on, and it was then that I first wondered how Klaphake was feeling.

Until that moment, the only thing I’d felt was pride. I was proud of committing what was, on its face, a pretty blatant act of violence.

After the game, while we were shaking hands, I apologized to Klaphake and made sure he was OK. He knew that I was just “playing the game the right way” and admitted that he had gotten it pretty bad.

The next day, we played Meire Grove again and he wasn’t in the lineup.

As season marched on, I mostly forgot about our collision. It got lost amid all the other myriad moments that make up a baseball season.

But I thought about it again last week, when the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Chase Utley “did his job” in Game Two of the National League Division Series, taking out Mets second baseman Ruben Tejada with a violent slide that not only was hugely “successful” — both Utley and the batter were called safe — but also fractured Tejada’s right fibula, ending the Panamian infielder’s season.

Untangling a high-speed collision

If you’ve turned on a television in the past week, you’ve likely seen the Utley-Tejada collision at least a dozen times. It’s inescapable.

It’s also an altogether more violent and vicious takeout slide than the kind I employed on Klaphake or a thousand baserunners employ all summer long across all levels of baseball.

Utley slid way too late, out of the reach of the base and with no clear intent to even bother touching the bag. (He never did, in fact, which makes the fact that he left the field of play and was still ruled safe especially frustrating.)

Just two weeks ago, I wrote about the litany of unwritten rules that govern baseball — no showboating, no bunting for a hit to break up a no-hitter, etc.

But unlike these nebulous axioms that seem to be wholly contextual and change with the vagaries of taste and playing style, the tricky part about the takeout slide is that it’s policed and enforced by rules that are literally unwritten.

Sure, there is a rule in Major League Baseball’s rule book that should make Utley’s vicious takedown illegal. That’d be Rule 6.05(m).

Rule 6.05(m) states that a runner shall be deemed out if, “in the umpire’s judgment, intentionally interfere(s) with a fielder who is attempting to catch a thrown ball or to throw a ball in an attempt to complete any play,” and, in an additional comment, the rule book specifically addresses a base runner in Utley’s situation: “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.”

Anyone who watched Utley’s slide could tell right away that it was “deliberate, unwarranted (and) unsportsmanlike,” and that he quite obviously didn’t care whether he touched the base, because he never bothered to.

Anyone who watches a decent amount of baseball also knows that these types of slides happen routinely and wantonly and are never severely penalized; Utley’s subsequent two-game suspension was literally the first time a base runner has incurred a penalty for a takeout slide.

Just last month, the Cubs’ Chris Coghlan brutally took out Pirates second baseman Jung Ho Kang, breaking Kang’s leg, tearing a knee ligament and ending a promising season during the Pirates’ playoff push.

There are countless examples of “deliberate, unwarranted and unsportsmanlike action” from just this season — many of them featuring Utley himself, as numerous baseball fans pointed out online with damning screenshots.

The most frustrating aspect of Utley’s slide is that it’s both illegal by the letter of the law and entirely acceptable by the way the rule is interpreted.

He very clearly broke the written rules while playing within the unwritten rules.

Is this exhausting yet? I find it so — particularly because the only real reason to willfully ignore an already written rule and instead apply an entirely unwritten one seems to be “tradition.”

Baseball and its traditions

Of all the major sports, baseball is the most beholden to tradition.

The modern game is seen as the continuation of a grand old tradition, passed down from generation to generation, with players learning from their crusty forebears the various ways one must “do his job” or play “hard-nosed baseball.”

But just because a tradition exists doesn’t mean it should — especially if it’s putting people’s lives and livelihoods at risk.

Baseball players didn’t used to wear batting helmets, and after Ray Chapman was killed by a pitch in 1920, it still took 33 years for the majors to adopt them. But they did adopt them, and the game didn’t suffer.

Coaches didn’t wear protective helmets in the coaching boxes until Mike Coolbaugh of the Double-A Tulsa Drillers was struck in the head and killed while coaching in the first-base coaching box. Coaches now wear protective headgear at all levels.

Catchers could be plowed, speared, tackled or generally assaulted until Scott Cousins took out Buster Posey in 2011, breaking Posey’s leg and tearing ligaments in his ankle. Major League Baseball changed its home-plate collision rules, and catchers are now safer than they’ve ever been.

It seems pretty simple to me: When traditions are dangerous and don’t contribute anything positive to a sport, they should be jettisoned.

Ruben Tejada had his season cut short by a silly act of violence.

But, let’s hope that Tejada’s injury and the furor surrounding it should, if nothing else, prove to be the last gasp of the unenforced rules governing the takeout slide.

And it should also serve as a reminder to all baseball players — myself included — that “doing a job” doesn’t have to involve dirty work.


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