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MLB must balance safety with competitiveness in new slide rule

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Time to address the slide rule...again? (1:53)

ESPN's Buster Olney breaks down baseball's new slide rule. (1:53)

The face of the "Chase Utley Rule" is, well, Chase Utley. But the voice of the Chase Utley Rule? That would be a guy who hasn't played an inning this year, but who already feels the cloud of baseball's new sliding rule hanging over his team's season.

"I get asked about it every day," said A.J. Hinch, frustrated manager of the Houston Astros. "My players joke with me that I'm the spokesman for the rule now. And you know what? I'm fine with that."

It's been six days since the call that still makes no sense to Hinch and the Astros. The call that caused his team to lose a game in which "we only got 26 outs," the manager said. The call that caused Major League Baseball to start "burning up the phone lines," in the words of one executive, trying to work out with both umpires and players how this rule should be fairly applied.

Not to mention the call that inspired this tweet from the incumbent AL Cy Young winner, Dallas Keuchel:

The call was a game-ending "slide-off," in the ninth inning of a two-run game between the Astros and Milwaukee Brewers last Friday. It was a head-scratching ruling, from second-base ump Dan Bellino, that turned a routine forceout at second into a very strange double play, and left the Astros asking two exceptionally logical questions:

  • How could the guy who slid into second, Colby Rasmus, have been called for interference when he never made contact with anybody on the other team?

  • How could this have been ruled a double play -- let alone a game-ending double play -- when the Brewers (and, specifically, shortstop Jonathan Villar) weren't even attempting to complete a double play?

Excellent questions, wouldn't you say?

Well, nearly a week later, Hinch is still asking them -- and waiting for someone in baseball to deliver an answer.

"Every time I talk about this," he said, "I encourage everybody to write that the spirit of the rule is spot-on ... because I think what they're doing is right. I just think they went too far."

What he sees, what so many of his fellow managers and their coaching staffs see, is a well-intentioned rule that was meant to protect middle infielders from what Hinch calls "the catastrophic, violent play." And there's no doubt it is going to succeed in doing that, in exactly the same way that the "Buster Posey Rule" has been keeping catchers out of the emergency room.

But was the Utley Rule also intended to decide games based on what Hinch describes as "these small, fine-print details" that define what now constitutes a legal slide, regardless of any other circumstances involved in the play? Um, not necessarily.

So it's time, Hinch said, to address the strict interpretation of that fine print, the way baseball has in recent years with the home-plate collision rule and the transfer rule.

"Everybody wants to get it right," Hinch said. "We just need to figure out how to do it as quickly as possible. And I hope they're working on it."

He'll be delighted to know then that multiple sources report that the powers that be are, in fact, talking about this rule. Like pretty much every day. But are they getting ready to change it, rewrite it or redefine it in any massive way? Doubtful.

So what are they discussing? Where is this leading? And how is this rule changing baseball? We'd be happy to answer those questions.

WHAT'S ALL THE DISCUSSION ABOUT?

Let's start with this reality: Change is hard. And this rule represents a dramatic change, not just in how runners slide into second base and how umpires call those plays, but in mindset.

"I think that what's happening right now is that players have been wired to attack at second base for the last 200 years," said San Diego Padres manager Andy Green. "And now they're fighting that instinct as they go into the bag."

So as baseball considers the furor over the Rasmus call and several others, it's factoring in that basic truth: Change is hard. And all sides acknowledged that it would be impossible to know exactly how everyone would adapt to this change until the games started.

Because this is such a sensitive area, no one at Major League Baseball would agree to comment. However, they did issue this statement to ESPN: "With any new rule, we actively monitor how it is called in the beginning of the season, and we will continue to work with players, umpires and coaching staffs to make sure it's applied appropriately."

On the other side, the head of the players' union, Tony Clark, was similarly cautious, only saying that "any changes to the rules oftentimes present challenges that you don't anticipate." There was always an understanding, Clark said, that MLB and the union would have ongoing dialogue about those challenges after the season began, "and that is happening here as we speak."

There is a third party involved, however. And that is the umpires who have to digest these new rules and make calls they've never made before, in real time, with games on the line. Not surprisingly then, it's actually the umpires who have been receiving almost nonstop input from the commissioner's office about how some of these plays have been called.

Without mentioning the umpires directly, Clark said that baseball may need to "tweak and clarify" certain aspects of the rule. Other executives in the game are downplaying the odds of that happening any time soon.

But whether or not any formal tweak, clarification or rewording is coming, umpires have been deluged with daily feedback on how they've interpreted this rule in the first week and a half of the season. And suffice it to say, not all of it has been supportive.

SO WHAT COULD CHANGE?

Not surprisingly, the Rasmus play has been a huge topic in these discussions. So if there is one area where everything is most likely to change, it was a central element in that play.

Does it really make any sense to award a team a double play when it wasn't even attempting to turn a double play? We had a tough time finding anyone in baseball who thinks so. We might have a tough time finding anyone on earth who thinks so.

"If it's not even an attempt to make a double play, why is it an automatic double play?" asked Philadelphia Phillies coach Larry Bowa, his voice throbbing with incredulity. "I don't understand that. If you're the umpire, you know who's running. You know how that guy took the throw. You know how hard the ball was hit. You're an umpire. You've watched many games. You know what's a double-play ball and what's not a double-play ball."

Well, guess what? He isn't the only one who sees it that way. Indications are that umpires have had that message delivered emphatically since that call rocked the sport. And it appears likely that the next time a play like this comes along, it will result in a very different ruling.

So whaddaya know. Common sense might actually triumph after all -- on that front. But not on every front. Not to the satisfaction of the Astros, anyway. And by that we mean ...

CAN THERE BE INTERFERENCE WITHOUT CONTACT?

Ask the manager of the Astros how he'd rework the Utley Rule in eight easy words, and Hinch has the answer: "There should be no violation with no contact."

Of course, that isn't how it worked for his team. In that play in Milwaukee, his player slid past the bag, in violation of the letter of the rule. There is no disagreement about that. But Rasmus never did slide into the shortstop. Not behind the bag. Not in front of the bag. Not on the bag. He never had a chance to. The shortstop had already taken the throw and moved away.

"So whether the guy is making a play or not, if there's no contact, I don't see how there could be any possible violation," Hinch said.

That feels like as simple a way to lay out the principal involved here to everyone -- players and umpires alike -- as you'll ever find. But Hinch won't be happy to learn that, after nearly a week of debating that principal, it appears that the folks in charge aren't sure they agree.

Suppose, for instance, the shortstop would have been hit by a slide like that if he hadn't sensed that hit coming and jumped over the runner? There was no contact. But if there had been no need for that shortstop to jump, he could have turned a double play. How should a play like that be called in a world with an Utley Rule in it? Good question.

For a century, that was known as "baseball." But in the year 2016, league officials and umpires are still debating whether that now deserves to be known as "interference." So what happens the next time there's a play that fits that description? Not clear yet.

But if it turns out that it's still going to be considered interference, is that what players really were endorsing when they voted to approve this rule? It's hard to believe the union thinks so.

"I think what happens sometimes in competition is that athleticism, and the speed of the game, overtakes any sort of intellectual application of the rule," Hinch said. "I mean, in Colby's case, he knows what he did. But when you've got all that action happening at the same time, and he's thinking, 'I'm going to go first to third,' and now, 'I'm trying to get in the way of the ball being hit behind me,' and then, 'If the throw comes toward me, I want it to hit me because I'm the tying run,' to, 'Now I've got to slide, and I just slid, and I slid past the base.' That's a lot to ask of an athlete going in at full speed -- when no harm was done.

"But if you just tell the athlete, 'All right, we're avoiding contact, we're not going to blow up the shortstop and we're not going to blow up the second baseman' ... that's very easy for players to understand."

If baseball could just find a way to keep it that simple, you could argue that everyone would be better off. But that's the problem with trying to turn simple concepts -- like protecting the Ruben Tejadas of the planet -- into rules. As soon as it comes time to put those concepts into words, the complications start coming. And they never seem to stop. Which can't help but lead to this ...

HOW ARE TEAMS ADAPTING?

Ask managers everywhere if they think it's even possible to break up a double play anymore, in a post-Utley Rule universe, and they shake their heads.

"I've told my guys, 'Don't try to take the guy out at second base. Just slide straight into the base,'" Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said. "It's too iffy to take chances. I don't want to lose games. And games have been lost because of that."

Padres manager Andy Green agreed: "For us right now, until we get that old instinct broken, it's just, go straight into the bag, because the risk/reward isn't enough when you go after the guy."

That risk/reward used to be the essence of baseball. But all it took was a few calls in the first week of the season to drive home a powerful message: It isn't only a rule that has changed. The game has changed. The world has changed.

So if managers can't be certain how a once-common slide into second will be called, the only safe response is to call a meeting and order the troops to slide directly into the bag. Period.

"I think it's a culture change," Bowa said. "And it has a lot to do with [the owners] upstairs. They don't want their people getting hurt. They're paying them a lot of money. They don't want them on the 60-day disabled list."

He's absolutely correct, obviously. The game is better if the stars are on the field. And writing those million-dollar checks is easier to justify if the stars are on the field. But one ripple effect, if this rule is going to be enforced this strictly, is that the sport risks losing part of its competitive edge -- and even some of its artistry.

"There's a rewiring on the defensive side, too," said Green, who started out as a second baseman and eventually played all over the infield in his 10 professional seasons. "When I was learning how to turn double plays, I was learning how to cheat off the bag, how to get away from the bag and not hold the bag. Now we're mandating that guys go over the base. So it's a complete different way of turning double plays."

The Ozzie Smiths and Robbie Alomars of yesteryear once needed to call on all their acrobatic creativity to turn a double play. If they played in this age, with nothing to fear, would they still have to use all their creative gifts? And if they don't, is the game better or worse for it?

The game needs to evolve, of course. And there's nothing more important than the safety of the people who play it. But now the Utley Rule has presented a test that baseball has to pass. It has to find that sweet spot between the mandate of safety and the essence of competition. And everyone has a stake in making sure that happens.