David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
On the eve of what could have been World War III in NLDS Game 3 at Citi Field, Joe Torre attempted to play peacemaker Sunday night by announcing a two-game suspension for Chase Utley, punishment for the crippling takeout slide that fractured Ruben Tejada's right fibula.
Even with Utley expected to appeal the ruling, which came down less than 24 hours after Tejada was carted off the Dodger Stadium infield, the Mets should take advantage of MLB's intervention and avoid issuing their own brand of frontier justice when Matt Harvey takes the mound Monday night.
The Mets got the verdict they wanted, if later than ideal. Utley's slide was ruled illegal, as they asserted after Saturday night's 5-2 loss to the Dodgers, and there's no longer a moral imperative for them to avenge Tejada's playoff-ending injury.StoryUtley suspended two games after 'illegal' slideStoryMets agree with decision to suspend UtleyStoryReaction to Utley's slide: There's a gray area
Torre's decision on paper, which called Utley's actions "illegal" and should have resulted in an inning-ending double play, can't award the Mets the 2-0 NLDS lead they probably deserve. But it's enough to save them from themselves if Harvey had designs on drilling a Dodger in retribution.
In a statement, the Mets said they "support" the discipline meted out by Torre and "feel this was the appropriate course of action." Also, it continued, "with this decision behind us, the team and our fans can now focus on playing winning baseball."
That last part is the kicker, suggesting the Mets weren't ready to move on from seeing their starting shortstop gruesomely erased from October.
As for the fans, we don't expect their mood to be all that different Monday night at Citi Field from how they felt while watching Tejada sprawled in the dirt, his face contorted in pain. If Utley's suspension is upheld before Game 3, the fans at Citi Field -- craving their pound of flesh -- probably will be disappointed.
As for Torre, the spearhead of MLB's disciplinary arm, this had to be done, and done quickly. Torre hinted this could be coming late Saturday night when he harped on the "lateness" of Utley's slide, but he also had said he would need to further scrutinize the play before coming to any conclusion. Once that was finished, Torre arrived at the decision.
"After thoroughly reviewing the play from all conceivable angles, I have concluded that Mr. Utley's action warrants discipline," Torre said in the statement. "While I sincerely believe that Mr. Utley had no intention of injuring Ruben Tejada, and was attempting to help his club in a critical situation, I believe his slide was in violation of Rule 5.09 (a)(13), which is designed to protect fielders from precisely this type of rolling block that occurs away from the base."
Torre went on to explain that it was difficult for the umpires to make that call in real time. But in essence, he also was saying they blew it.
The Mets can't get all wrapped up in that part of it now, however. In a short series, there's no looking backward, and they've already expended too much effort and emotion on the developing revenge subplot to this NLDS.
MLB is trying to expedite the appeals process and hoping to get the hearing finished Monday before Game 3, but if that doesn't happen, Utley still could be in the Dodgers' lineup, based on his experience against Harvey. Should that happen, the Mets are going to have to resist the temptation to take their shot.
MLB could try to head that off by issuing a warning to both dugouts before the game -- a radical measure for the playoffs -- and this Utley suspension probably was designed, in part, to avoid that.
But the feelings can't be as easily contained. The Mets are ticked off, their fans are enraged, and Monday night's atmosphere will be unlike anything we've seen since John Rocker last set foot in Shea Stadium.
This has been the perfect storm, with former Phillies nemesis Utley upgrading his villain status to a level few opposing players have ever achieved.
Beating the Mets between the lines is one thing, as Chipper Jones and Jimmy Rollins repeatedly have done in soul-crushing fashion. But physical harm is a different category entirely, and breaking Tejada's leg -- regardless of what Utley says the intention was -- flicked a switch inside the Mets' clubhouse Saturday night that won't be turned off easily.
Torre's ruling, however, gives them a chance to power down that fury and forgo any costly emotional retaliation. It's one the Mets should take.