No matter how you look at it, there is just something wrong with the concept of justice in Major League Baseball. And in the case of Utley vs. New York Mets, “justice” is more of a concept than anything tangible. Consider the mess that evolved at Citi Field last night, when there was not a simple matter of right and wrong. It was all mostly wrong.
Chase Utley committed the first and biggest wrong, of course, with his takedown of then-Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada that broke Tejada’s leg in the National League Division Series last October. He never has had to answer for that, which led to a creaky chain of wrongs.
Baseball was wrong in weakly rescinding the two-game suspension it had levied on the Dodgers second baseman last fall. The powers-that-be effectively said it was a dirty slide by coming up with a complex rule about what constitutes a clean slide. The only thing MLB did correctly was not pretend that it was all just a big coincidence that the rule happened to pop up in the wake of the Utley play.
There clearly was cause and effect. And any sane reading of the so-called Utley Rule would say that Utley’s slide would not have passed the new smell test. Nonetheless, Joe Torre’s office decided to give the offender a pass.
That left it up to one of the Mets pitchers to send some kind of message. Call it frontier justice if you’d like, but that is the way the game always has been played. Torre, baseball’s disciplinarian, knows this as well as anyone, given his longtime close friendship with, and admiration for, Bob Gibson, who served as judge and jury from the mound. His credo: You do something to one of my guys, you pay the price when you get in the batter’s box. Case closed.
Gibson would have been taking a lot of early showers, though, if Adam Hamari had been umpiring behind the plate in his day. Hamari, who has neither much experience nor distinction in the big leagues, took matters into his own hands when Noah Syndergaard fired a pitch behind Utley in the third inning last night. Without issuing a warning, he immediately threw Syndergaard out of the game.
“I’ve never been thrown out of a game in my life, so there was a whirl of emotions,” Syndergaard said. His manager was more demonstrative. Terry Collins rushed the field, argued vigorously and also was ejected.
A lifelong baseball guy, Collins said he never had witnessed a situation in which there was no warning, no hit batsman and yet an ejection. “He made an assumption, which certainly he is allowed to do,” Collins said of Hamari. “I disagreed with it.
“There was a time when you had a shot. Nothing happened. The ball went to the backstop. That was kind of my argument,” Collins said, adding that the major leagues had issued no preemptive caution before the season or the series.
That said, Syndergaard was wrong, too. For starters, the unwritten code says that you should settle scores at the first possible opportunity. Why wait until the second at-bat of the fifth meeting between the teams?
We get it, a pitch behind a batter is considered a rebuke in the book of baseball etiquette. But Mets fans still regret that Shawn Estes threw behind Roger Clemens rather than plunking him in 2002.
There is no telling what Collins said to Syndergaard in the mostly empty clubhouse after both were tossed, but it would have been good if the advice had been, “If you’re going to do something, get your money’s worth.”
Afterward, Syndergaard said what he had to say: “It was just one of those pitches that got away.” Had he admitted throwing at Utley, he almost surely would have been suspended. Honesty is the best policy only if you want to miss a turn and pay a fine.
What made the game totally excruciating for the Mets, their fans and the hard-nosed 1986 World Series championship team, honored earlier in the evening, was that Utley got the last word again. He continued his surprising career rejuvenation and Mets domination with a home run that broke a scoreless tie and later added a grand slam.
The bottom line was a 9-1 laugher for the Dodgers amid a funny kind of baseball justice: Utley breaks a guy’s leg with a slide that baseball ultimately finds illegal, but he never has to miss a minute. Syndergaard throws a pitch that hits only air and gets thrown out, possibly costing the Mets a win on an emotional night. There is more than a little something wrong with that picture.