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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

How will MLB’s new slide rule change the way baseball is played?

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

TAMPA, Fla. — Nearly 40 years later, Willie Randolph still describes the collision in vivid detail, like a survivor who crawled from a flaming car wreck. Eyes wide, the words spilling out fast. Almost as if the Royals’ Hal McRae is barreling down on him again, only now from the other end of this long hallway, just outside the Yankees’ clubhouse early Friday morning at Steinbrenner Field.

Randolph, maybe unknowingly as he speaks, has settled into a crouch. Feet shoulder-length apart, hands in front, as if he’s again waiting for that throw from Graig Nettles. Randolph turns his head slightly, peeking over his left shoulder.

“I could see McRae peripherally,” Randolph says, then exclaims, “Oh — ! He’s coming after me!”

That’s not fear in his voice, it’s excitement. The adrenaline rush of the moment, the Yankees up 2-1 in Game 2 of the 1977 ALCS, the Bronx crackling that October night.

When George Brett slaps that two-hopper to Nettles, Randolph already is going through the emergency checklist in his head: Be quick. And be gone.

McRae had other ideas. Randolph took the chest-high throw and stayed behind second base, where McRae presumably would stop. But instead of sliding, McRae went airborne and delivered the most vicious rolling block in baseball’s modern history.

Randolph’s legs disappeared beneath him, and he came close to somersaulting flat onto his back. When the dust cleared, the two bodies weren’t very far from the outfield grass.

“It didn’t hurt me because I got off the ground — that’s the key,” Randolph said. “I was mad because I got tangled up and the run scored. I threw the ball into the Royals’ dugout. I was so angry. That was ridiculous.”

The Randolph-McRae high-speed crash came to mind with Thursday’s announcement that Major League Baseball, in conjunction with the Players Association, had introduced new legislation, Rule 6.01 (j), to further protect fielders on double-play attempts.

McRae launching Randolph into orbit barely moved the needle back in ’77. Four decades later, it took Chase Utley snapping Ruben Tejada’s leg during last October’s NLDS, on a very similar play, to re-do a few pages in the rulebook.

After the Utley-Tejada drama, the language is what you might expect: the runner having to make contact with the ground before the base, the requirement of being able to reach the base — or attempting to — with the runner’s hand or foot. Two other wrinkles for the runner: He must try to stay on the base, rather than leaping past it, as McRae did to Randolph, and changing course to wipe out the fielder, as Utley did to Tejada, is a no-no.

The official designation of this new, approved baserunning behavior is called the “bona fide slide” in the rulebook. Even so, if a fielder is careless enough to remain on the base, or in the legal path of the runner, he’s still fair game. So this rule should not be confused with putting a bubble around second base on double plays. It’s merely the addition of tighter restrictions on the old interference rule, or better enforcing it, so we see less instances of players being carted off the field on national TV.

“Our goal in amending the slide rule was to enhance player safety, reduce incidents of injury and to do it in a way that respects and preserves the bona fide hustle plays that are integral to our game,” MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said. “I am optimistic that this new rule will accomplish those goals.”

There is one caveat here, however. Part of this amendment also includes the virtual abolishment of the “neighborhood play,” because under the Rule 6.01 (j), these incidents around second base now are eligible for instant replay, which was not the case last year. So in supposedly protecting fielders, this rule forces them to be closer than ever to the base, for a longer period of time, and therefore potentially more exposed to the line of fire. That explains why Mets manager Terry Collins believes this change could result in fielders “getting their clocks cleaned” as a result.

Collins’ concerns may be a bit premature. After Thursday’s announcement, the Yankees brought up the subject with their own infielders and stressed the importance of touching the bag under this increased scrutiny. It’s possible that middle infielders will need to re-focus on the fundamentals of turning a double play, and most of all, getting the heck out of the way, as Randolph’s generation was forced to do.

“We’ll see how it goes in the spring training games,” said the Yankees’ Starlin Castro, who switched to second base from shortstop midway through last season with the Cubs. “We’ll watch how other teams slide and adjust if we need to.”

From what Randolph has seen in recent years, some middle infielders have developed bad habits and become too lackadaisical around second base. As players’ salaries have increased and camaraderie has bloomed around the game, they don’t want to risk injury — to themselves or opponents — with the old-school slides that McRae and Utley employed. In turn, infielders have gotten used to spending too much time on top of the bag, feeling as if they can finish a double play with impunity.

“A lot of guys now, because they’re so comfortable with not being taken out, they don’t even really pivot,” Randolph said. “They just stand there, catch the ball and throw. It’s like playing catch because there’s a false sense of security now. That’s why you see guys get hurt, because they relax.

“I mean, c’mon, with Tejada, turn your back on that play? Really? When we played, we would never think about doing a pirouette and turn your back — that’s suicide. The feed [from second baseman Daniel Murphy] is what messed up the play. Tejada tried to make a play out of nothing, and when he turned his back, he was vulnerable.”

If Tejada hadn’t broken his leg on that play, or if he had popped up the way Randolph did after being de-cleated by McRae, there’s a good chance Rule 6.01 (j) never would have come into existence. While it’s true that the Pirates’ Jung Ho Kang, playing shortstop at the time, had his knee torn apart by the Cubs’ Chris Coghlan on a wicked takeout slide last September, there’s a sense that the rule change needed Tejada’s momentum as the tipping point: NLDS boiling over, fear of retaliation, national stage, MLB under fire.

But were the Kang and Tejada incidents avoidable? As long as baseball has been played, the sport has toed the line between competitiveness and overt aggression. To avoid the dangers of the game’s more physical aspects, players who can be targets, such as middle infielders, find techniques to be less so. That includes different pivots, making do with one out rather than a precarious two, and even dropping down and utilizing the low throw as a weapon, rifling it directly at the runner’s head — to make him hit the dirt long before he can do any damage to the fielder unleashing it.

“That’s your protection,” Randolph said. “Unless the guy doesn’t care for his face, he’ll get down, believe me. But they don’t do that anymore, because they’re friends, and they don’t want to hurt each other.”

Back in ’77, when playoff shares still were needed to put food on the table, it could be warfare on the basepaths. Randolph understood that, as did McRae. The payback was divvied out later, and not covered by the rulebook.

Randolph recalled how teammate Cliff Johnson, all 6-4 of him, approached McRae the next day behind the batting cage and basically growled, “You’re [messing] with my money now.”

Professional sports are governed by economics, nearly every decision balanced on the bottom line. That really hasn’t changed in 40 years. MLB has just become more and more sensitive to these concerns, but keeping its players intact isn’t as easy it sounds, especially around second base. Are more rules better? Or do the complications become more trouble than they’re worth?

“I get what they’re doing,” Randolph said. “But just don’t play too much with it, because after a while, people can get hurt thinking too much about it, too. If you’re not reacting, and thinking about what you have to do, you can get hurt that way.”

But let’s be honest. As long as that McRae slide remains part of history, repeated only on YouTube, the game should be a safer place.

Ruben’s Rule? Or the Chase Clause?

Five months after Chase Utley broke Ruben Tejada’s leg with a particularly vicious takeout slide on a double play attempt, Major League Baseball introduced Rule 6.01 (j) this week, an amendment to the existing Rule 6.01 on “Interference, Obstruction, and Catcher Collisions.”

The exact wording of Rule 6.01 (j) – titled “Sliding To Bases on Double Play Attempts” – is as follows:

If a runner does not engage in a bona fide slide, and initiates (or attempts to make) contact with the fielder for the purpose of breaking up a double play, he should be called for interference under this Rule 6.01. A “bona fide slide” for purposes of Rule 6.01 occurs when the runner:

(1) begins his slide (i.e., makes contact with the ground) before reaching the base;

(2) is able and attempts to reach the base with his hand or foot;

(3) is able and attempts to remain on the base (except home plate) after completion of the slide; and

(4) slides within reach of the base without changing his pathway for the purpose of initiating contact with a fielder.

** A runner who engages in a “bona fide slide” shall not be called for interference under this Rule 6.01, even in cases where the runner makes contact with the fielder as a consequence of a permissible slide. In addition, interference shall not be called where a runner’s contact with the fielder was caused by the fielder being positioned in (or moving into) the runner’s legal pathway to the base.

** Notwithstanding the above, a slide shall not be a “bona fide slide” if a runner engages in a “roll block,” or intentionally initiates (or attempts to initiate) contact with the fielder by elevating and kicking his leg above the fielder’s knee or throwing his arm or his upper body.

** If the umpire determines that the runner violated this Rule 6.01(j), the umpire shall declare both the runner and batter-runner out. Note, however, that if the runner has already been put out then the runner on whom the defense was attempting to make a play shall be declared out.

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