Should baseball prevent baserunners from sliding into infielders?

Note: When I read about the injury to New York Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada Sunday morning and watched the replay over and over, I immediately believed that baseball needed to make a change to the rule regarding collisions at second base. I have been surprised at how many players oppose such a change and want to keep this intentional bulldozing of infielders trying to turn double plays as part of the game. I wrote my latest newspaper column for The Post and Courier to explain my perspective.

Major League Baseball needs to adopt a rule – call it the Chase Utley rule or the Ruben Tejada rule – before the sport loses any more star Baseball slideplayers to season-ending injuries.

Chase Utley takes out Ruben Tejada

Controversy erupted Saturday night when Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley tried to break up a double play in the seventh inning of Game 2 of their National League Division Series against the New York Mets. Utley slid directly into Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada. Tejada rolled around on the ground before being carted off the field with his leg in an air cast. The collision fractured Tejada’s fibula, the bone on the outside of the ankle. He will miss the rest of the postseason.

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Umpires ruled that the slide did not constitute illegal interference. MLB’s chief baseball operator Joe Torre suspended Utley for two games. Utley insisted he was not trying to hurt Tejada and vowed to appeal the suspension. As of Tuesday morning, MLB has not ruled on the appeal.

Legal play? Or dirty play?

Fans and many baseball writers have been vocal in their criticism of Utley’s slide. Even many players disapproved. FOXSports writer CJ Nitkowski polled over 60 current and former players. 79% felt that the play was legal, although 71% believed the slide was dirty.

In his explanation of the suspension, Torre admitted that it can be very difficult for umpires to differentiate between a hard play at second base and an illegal slide.

I’ve watched replays of the event many times, and I can’t see it any other way than a slide that should be illegal, whether or not it’s fair now. To me, it looked more like a football tackle than a slide into second base. Utley started his slide late, as he got to second base and not before, and he slid directly at Tejada’s leg. He never even touched second base.

Serious injuries from collisions between baserunners and fielders

Tejada becomes the second shortstop on a playoff team to suffer a serious injury on a slide at second base within the last month. Chicago Cubs outfielder Chris Coghlan slid into Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Jung Ho Kang, causing a tibial plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear. Kang is expected to miss 6 to 8 months.

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When baserunners can intentionally collide with infielders in order to break up double plays, serious injuries can occur. If a shortstop’s foot is planted and the runner crashes into his leg at full speed, something is going to give. It might be a torn ACL, leading to surgery and 9 to 12 months of rehab. It can be a tibia fracture with a 4- to 6-month recovery. Or it could be an ankle fracture, resulting in a 6- to 8-week absence, like Tejada probably faces.

Time for a rule change

This would be a fairly easy rule to change. Require baserunners to slide directly into the base instead of allowing them to barrel into the fielders.

The Buster Posey rule at home plate

Baseball has been willing to change the rules to protect the health of its players. Two years ago, Major League Baseball cracked down on Baseball in mitt beside bathome plate collisions after San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey broke a bone in his lower leg and tore three ligaments in his ankle. Now catchers cannot block home plate, and runners can’t deviate from the base path and target the catchers.

MLB medical director Dr. Gary Green told me that the change, widely nicknamed the Buster Posey rule, has significantly decreased the incidence of concussions among catchers in the majors and minor leagues. “It hasn’t ruined the game,” Dr. Green insisted.

Public outcry could force MLB to change the rule after the World Series. I expect that common sense will prevail. With complex statistical analysis becoming the norm in baseball, I can’t imagine that general managers would continue to risk losing their star infielders for a year – or even six or eight weeks – just to get a single out.

Would it radically alter baseball?

This rule would not fundamentally change baseball, despite what purists may claim. Batters wearing helmets didn’t radically alter the sport. Barring home plate collisions hasn’t either.

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Many players oppose such a change, adopting the “that’s how we’ve always done it” stance. Just because sliding into the fielder has been legal for years doesn’t mean it should stay that way. After all, football players used to wear leather helmets. Hockey players didn’t wear helmets at all. Sports evolve, especially when they need to protect the athletes who play them.

Major League Baseball needs to adopt this rule before any more players wind up in the operating room.

Do you think Major League Baseball needs to change this rule, or is this a freak injury and part of the game? What can we do to better protect infielders in the sport? Share your thoughts below!

Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the October 13, 2015 issue of The Post and Courier.

References:

The Chase Utley Rule is inevitable, and not a moment too soon. By Bob Nightengale. USA Today. October 11, 2015.

Players sound off on Utley slide. By CJ Nitkowski.  FOXSports.com.

Enough is enough: The takeout slides must end. By Buster Olney. ESPN.com. October 11, 2015.

Chase Utley suspended 2 games for slide into Ruben Tejada, will appeal. By Mark Saxon. ESPN.com. October 11, 2015.

Chase Utley’s slide needs to signal change for baseball. By David Schoenfield. ESPN Sweet Spot. October 11, 2015.

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