David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Little did anyone realize, back in October, that Chase Utley’s leg-breaking takeout slide of Ruben Tejada would have such an immediate — and occasionally infuriating — impact this early on the 2016 season.
Two weeks in, Major League Baseball’s new rule, tagged 6.01 (j), already has abruptly ended a pair of games, mid-rally, for the teams trailing at the time. The rule is designed to prevent runners from dangerously interfering with a potential double-play turn, as well as insure that the fielder touches second base, essentially doing away with the “neighborhood play.”
In both cases, the situation is subject to video review, a new wrinkle, which already has been used four times in these specific instances. On April 5, the Blue Jays watched their ninth-inning rally disintegrate at Tropicana Field when Jose Bautista was called for interfering with the Rays’ Logan Forsythe. The automatic double play wiped out Toronto’s go-ahead runs.
Three days later, with the Astros threatening in the ninth against the Brewers, Colby Rasmus triggered the same call when he slid into second base on a double-play attempt, but made no effort to reach for the base. Rasmus didn’t come close to making contact with the shortstop — his back was to the bag as he slid past — and that actually made it easier for the umpiring crew to adhere to the letter of the law when the call was confirmed by review. If not the spirit.
To some, that type of literal interpretation is the problem.
“What happened in Milwaukee, we can’t have that,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “Why doesn’t common sense come into play?”
Eventually, maybe MLB will make slight modifications — or issue clarifications, as the Commissioner’s Office did two years ago with Rule 7.13, which was installed to prevent home-plate collisions. Initially, there was some confusion about where catchers could set up while awaiting a throw, in order to create a lane for the runner.
Before long, the uproar passed, and MLB believes the same thing will happen with Rule 6.01 (j). These April issues are part of the process, the ultimate goal being a safer game. Commissioner Rob Manfred, who was at Yankee Stadium for Jackie Robinson Day, remains cautiously optimistic after what he’s witnessed so far.
“Well, it’s way better than the implementation of the catcher’s interference rule, I guess is what I’d say,” Manfred said Friday. “It’s hard when you change a rule. But I think that the most important thing is that we are seeing people alter their behavior in the way that we hoped they would in order to promote player safety.
“It’s the same thing we said about the catcher rule. It wasn’t perfect in implementation. It took us time to get to a stable and good understanding of the rule. But the most important thing to keep in mind is it took a very dangerous play out of the game.”
The outrage over Rule 7.13 was a prevalent theme of the 2014 season, but it’s barely talked about two years later. And in that silence, MLB has accomplished what it set out to do, emphasizing that no players have suffered a concussion or another type of serious injury as a result of a play at the plate since Rule 7.13 was added.
Obviously, in recent years, concussions have become the scourge of the sports world, particularly in the NFL. But MLB’s push to add these new rules goes well beyond that in trying to safeguard its most valuable commodity — the athletes themselves. As MLB officials point out, the rules do not prohibit contact. Their purpose is to better control it.
Utley’s slide was a polarizing event during last year’s Division Series between the Mets and Dodgers. The old-schoolers deemed it a clean, hard play that has been part of baseball since the sport’s creation. Others felt it was too reckless, too violent for the modern game.
The latter view prevailed. And now we’re dealing with the early fallout. Not only for the interference, but the illegality of the neighborhood play. Starlin Castro was victimized by a video reversal during the Tigers’ series last weekend — along with being dinged up in the process by the sliding Andrew Romine. The play from last week that really concerned Joe Girardi, however, was the Rasmus’ slide that killed the Astros’ comeback. That prompted the Yankees’ manager to call Joe Torre, MLB’s chief baseball officer, for further clarification of the rule.
“I’d be surprised if every team’s not involved with one, in some way or another,” Girardi said Friday. “I think there will be some tweaking to it as we go through it. Exactly what, I can’t tell you. But I think the idea is to protect players. I thought it was confusing at home plate at the time, but it’s worked. So hopefully this works as well.”
One thing MLB did with Rule 7.13 was to send out a September email stating how it should not necessarily be enforced in a literal sense. That if a runner is going to be out by 20 feet, there’s no sense in calling him safe on a “technicality,” such as where the catcher is positioned. Perhaps that will happen with 6.01 (j) as well going forward, because in the most controversial examples, there seemed to be some flexibility.
In Bautista’s case, his left hand did appear to grab Forsythe’s foot as the shortstop delivered the relay throw, which skipped past the first baseman, Steve Pearce. Bautista also slid past the bag, another violation, although he didn’t collide or roll-block Forsythe. But Rays manager Kevin Cash challenged the no-call on the field, and upon review, it was determined Bautista did not execute a “bona fide slide” as the Rule 6.01 (j) mandates.
The Blue Jays were stunned by the ruling, with manager John Gibbons telling reporters it was an “embarrassment.” Gibbons also said, “Are we trying to turn the game into a joke?” With what was at stake, Bautista did show restraint in avoiding Forsythe, and is it correct to presume the double play in that instance?
The same question could be asked of the Astros-Brewers scenario. Rasmus never really came close to interfering with shortstop Jonathan Villar. But he did have a late slide, and couldn’t reach the base, because Rasmus’ slide took him away from Villar, who never even threw to first to try and get the speedy Jose Altuve. Again, the call was correct according to the rule’s language — it was confirmed by replay. Under the circumstances, however, it felt wrong. And that’s what MLB, through the umpiring crews, must get better at in the weeks and months ahead.
“I hate to see plays like that, at the end of the game, where it’s very difficult to argue whether it decided the game or not,” Manfred said. “It’s impossible to tell. But we knew there was going to be a period of adjustment with the respect to the rule. And on balance, we decided the safety use was worth taking the risk on the adjustments.”
Manfred appears to be getting his wish as there already is evidence the players are learning on the fly. This past week, Bautista was involved in another double-play situation, this time against the Red Sox, and he was able to break it up — but still had the presence of mind to reach back to grab the base, stopping himself from plowing past it.
That’s progress. And if Rule 6.01 (j) turns out to be successful in preventing another Tejada-type injury, the players will soon realize they’re better safe than sorry.