NEW YORK (Reuters) - The 2015 Major League Baseball postseason is young but already there is good reason to believe it will leave a significant legacy.
It might well be remembered as the coming out party of the young, slugging Chicago Cubs, and the New York Mets with their array of precocious power pitchers.
But an even surer bet is that the punishing, late slide by the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Chase Utley that ended New York Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada’s postseason in Game Two of the Division Series with a broken right leg will lead to MLB legislation.
Baseball may be regarded as a non-contact game, but that is not the case around second base where baserunners are expected to break up potential double plays by disrupting an infielder trying to tag the base and throw to first for a pair of outs.
In the general sporting climate committed to protecting “defenseless” players from damaging hits, most notably in the high-collision National Football League, it is time for baseball to more clearly establish what is and is not a proper slide.
Collision plays at home plate have already been addressed, spurred by a gruesome injury to Buster Posey in 2011, the season after the San Francisco Giants catcher won National League Rookie of the Year honors.
Posey, who helped the Giants claim the 2010 World Series, fractured his leg and needed surgery after the Marlins’ Scott Cousins crashed into him at full speed and ended the catcher’s season in May.
“What I take away from it is, it eliminates the malicious collision, which is a good thing,” Posey told the San Francisco Chronicle about new rules introduced in 2014.
Joe Torre, MLB’s chief baseball officer, announced a two-game suspension for Utley, who was declared safe on the field as Tejada lay in pain on the diamond, which now awaits an appeal.
Torre said dealing with collisions in the infield were under consideration.
“Determining where to draw the line between an illegal slide and a legitimate hard play is an extremely difficult call for our umpires,” Torre said.
“We have been in discussions with the Players Association throughout the year regarding potential rule changes to better protect middle infielders, and we intend to continue those discussions this offseason.”
The issue is definitely coming to a head.
Last month, Pirates shortstop Kang Jung-ho was injured in a collision at second with the Cubs’ Chris Coghlan, who stuck out his leg to impede him while trying to break up a double play.
Kang had surgery to repair a fracture near the knee.
“I got a bunch of death threats from Korean people everywhere,” Coghlan recently told USA Today. “It’s just tough to deal with. People just don’t understand.”
Utley, a 12-year veteran and six-time All-Star while with the Philadelphia Phillies now reduced to a part-time role with the Dodgers, has always been fierce competitor and as a second baseman himself knows both sides of the issue.
In a critical seventh-inning play that helped turn a 2-1 deficit into a 5-2 Dodgers’ lead, Utley started his slide late and came in high at the legs of Tejada, whose back was turned as he received an off-line toss from second baseman Daniel Murphy.
Utley crashed into Tejada late and high into his legs causing a somersault and the crushing injury.
Baseball has never been a genteel game, its early heroes like Ty Cobb renowned for aggressive play, the image of Cobb sliding with sharpened spikes high into third base a classic photo from the day.
Other All-Stars over the years also personified the hard-nosed approach including Jackie Robinson, Hal McRae and Pete Rose, who got into a scuffle with Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson during the 1973 NL Championship Series after an attempt to break up a double play.
Rose was subsequently pelted by New York fans with debris from beer cans to batteries, and had a whiskey bottle thrown at him in left field before Reds manager Sparky Anderson temporarily pulled his team off the field for their safety.
“It’s the kind of deal where if you’re Utley’s teammates, you give him a high-five,” Rose told Newsday about the aggressive play. “And if you’re the Mets, you’re mad and you can’t wait to get even with him somehow.”
Rose, an analyst for Fox Sports’ pregame show, cautioned against changing things too much.
“We can’t pitch inside; now we won’t be able to break up double plays?” he said. “What’s baseball coming to?”
Editing by Frank Pingue