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The Politics of Baserunning

— March 1, 2016

Although Major League Baseball’s all-time hit king Pete Rose’s lifetime ban from the sport due to gambling is nearly as legendary as his play, he is also widely regarded as the game’s greatest competitor. One of Rose’s most famous moments involved his performance at the 1970 All-Star game in which his violent home plate collision fractured and separated the shoulder of Ray Fosse, drastically limiting the future career of the two-time all-star catcher.

Photo courtesy of New York Daily News/UPI
Photo courtesy of New York Daily News/UPI

Even now, the collision in a meaningless exhibition game is cited by many to be the ultimate example that legitimized Rose’s “Charlie Hustle” moniker, although others have viewed it through the lens of questionable sportsmanship. The condemnation by many in the sports world for the most part however, was due to its time and place, as no baseball purist would be caught dead 45 years ago arguing that home plate collisions should be banned. Since the 1970s, Rose’s on-field effort and adherence to fundamentals have been among the greatest teaching tools for little league coaches worldwide.

But times change, and thus, so do rules in nearly all sports. Quarterbacks in football are protected by the NFL in ways that must make Mean Joe Greene cry himself to sleep. Rules in basketball have de-emphasized the importance of the gargantuan 7-footer (unless he can nail 3’s), and fighting has been banned in professional hockey. Okay just kidding- it hasn’t gotten quite that bad. Still, in 2011 when Florida Marlin Scott Cousins broke the leg of 2010 Rookie of the Year and future MVP San Francisco Giant catcher Buster Posey in a violent collision, Major League Baseball surprised many by adopting a rule effectively banning home plate confrontations. Despite making some old-schoolers wince, the rule has generally been viewed favorably, as it both punishes runners who target catchers, as well as catchers who intentionally block the plate. One major factor leading to MLB owners’ endorsement of the rule of course is the fact that baseball contracts are guaranteed. For example, Posey signed a nine-year, $167 million contract in 2013. A secondary and more baseball-friendly argument can be traced to the emergence of statistically-based sabermetric analysis as the dominant tool for general managers. Such analysis shows that such collisions are just not worth it in the big picture.

Many including myself have scoffed at the growing ridiculousness of phantom double play base tags since at least the early 1990s.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images
Patrick Smith/Getty Images


Known as a “neighborhood play,” the unwritten rule persists that for safety purposes the second baseman/shortstop does not need to actually put his foot on the bag on a force out. Prior to this season, however, the runner’s hedge on such a concession was the disruptive slide, which in theory can break up the fielder’s attempt to throw the ball to first, and perhaps knocking him down in the process. That was until another former Philadelphia Philly old-school hustler and current Los Angeles Dodger Chase Utley broke New York Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada’s leg on a double play ball in game two of the National League Division Series last October. Although it may have been bound to happen regardless; last fall’s violent collision probably accelerated MLB’s February 25th decision to redefine the proper rules for sliding into second base.

In carefully crafted language, Rule 6.01(j) dramatically transforms the protocol of proper baserunning. Among the changes, “a runner sliding into second must make ‘a bona fide attempt’ not just to slide into the base, but also to ‘remain on the base.’” Additional changes to the rule prohibit “roll blocks,” meaning that a player cannot make contact with the fielder before making contact with the ground in an attempt to break up the double play. MLB further defines a bona fide attempt as:
– Begins his slide (makes contact with the ground) before reaching the base.
– Is able and tries to reach the base with his hand or foot.
– Slides within reach of the base without changing his pathway for the purpose of initiating contact with a fielder.

If a runner fails to adhere to the new guidelines, he will be charged with interference and both the runner and the batter will be ruled out.

While the rule changes are certainly geared towards protecting the safety of middle infielders, they will likely make life much more difficult for them as well. As ESPN’s Jayson Stark puts it, “there goes the neighborhood.” As a consequence of the change, questionable plays will now be susceptible to video review, including neighborhood plays. Utley, himself a second baseman, is probably not very happy about becoming the poster boy for the new language. Tejada’s manager Terry Collins has been one of the most vocal opponents of the changes, saying “We’re making a slide rule that keeps you on the bag.” Collins added. “You’ve got to be near the bag. And now we’re making a decision on the neighborhood play that you’ve got to stay on the bag. You know what that’s going to mean? Someone is going to get their clocks cleaned.” Still, Yankees third baseman Mark Teixeira believes that the change is “great for baseball;” and former Red Sox rival and Met Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez emphatically repudiated the Rose/Utley style of baserunning in the immediate aftermath of the Tejada injury. Martinez tweeted after the game, “If you tell Utley to teach kids to slide on second base? Would he teach them the way he slided (sic) tonight?

The proof of the change being successful will be determined by the amount of injuries sustained during double play chances over the next few years. At first, many questioned whether or not the NFL’s 2013 initiation of its “concussion protocol” would be successful at identifying and preventing players from returning to the field with a severe head injury. Given the alarming evidence of CTE trauma in retired football players, the impetus to monitor head injuries has increased over time, but the protocol’s actual success is largely subject to interpretation. In baseball, the consequences of injury are usually less severe, although the dollars at stake are somewhat higher. Fosse serves as an example, however, that baseball players can also be permanently affected by on-field injuries. Fosse, whose shoulder never fully healed, had his potential Hall of Fame career severely truncated as a result of the 1970 collision. Additionally, it has caused him severe pain, saying in 2013 that it was “like a knife sticking me in the shoulder.” Fosse added, “Because it’s bone on bone. And arthritis, and age, and the whole thing.” Still, being the prototypical old-schooler, Fosse said that he did not believe home plate collisions should be banned, when asked about the Posey injury.

Regardless, the changes mean that players will have to adjust. Yankees third baseman Chase Headley illustrates the point, saying “It’s always interpretation of how things will be called. I’d like to send them 50 slides of mine and let them tell me which ones are legal and which ones aren’t. I’m not sure you’re going to be able to tell what’s okay just by reading the rule.” Headley compared this year’s changes to the plate-blocking rule in 2013, saying that the initial period is going to be “awkward,” but adding that “the most important thing is taking an unnecessary injury out of the game.” If Collins is proven correct however, and more injuries occur due to the elimination of the neighborhood play, baseball officials may find themselves in an impossible position. Reverting the rules back to the previous standard would open themselves up to enormous liability and criticism for not taking safety seriously; yet writing the neighborhood play into the official rules create even more vagaries and subject the play to even more human interpretation. Not to mention, it would exceed the boundaries of common sense. Essentially, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred better hope that injuries to middle infielders do not increase over the next few years, or else he may be staring wide-eyed into Pandora’s Box.

Additional Reading: – Jayson Stark
KQED – Alex Helmick
New York Times – Benjamin Hoffman – Associated Press

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