It is one of the busiest, noisiest, most dangerous places on a baseball field. On the double play, second base becomes an intersection where big, strong, fast men slide as hard, high and late as they can, with arms, legs and cleats flying. Middle infielders, some of them blind to their pursuer, must make a skillful ball transfer from glove to hand to first base while trying to avoid, yet bracing for, contact. It is "commotion (that isn't as violent) but must be similar to what goes on at the line of scrimmage at an NFL game," says Oakland A's outfielder Sam Fuld. And when the play is over, we are, at times, left to ask: Was the slide clean or dirty?
Nothing starts a baseball fight faster than what is perceived to be a dirty slide. And that's what happened April 17-19 in Kansas City when the A's Brett Lawrie -- a bulldozer, a linebacker who plays third base -- took out Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar with a hard slide that, naturally, the A's thought was clean and the Royals thought was dirty. There is a lot of gray area on this subject, and specifically on that slide, but what happened next was clear: The Royals retaliated; they hit Lawrie with a pitch, and then they threw behind him.
This weekend in Oakland, the teams will meet for the first time since that contentious series. We hope the fighting is over, but often in baseball, with the vengeful nature and long memories of the players, certain transgressions aren't easily forgotten, and anger tends to linger.
"For me, it's over," said Escobar. "Let's play baseball. Let's play it hard. Let's play it smart."
And yet in today's game, hard and smart aren't always connected. Today's players are bigger, faster and stronger than ever, yet most everyone in the game would agree that they don't understand how to play the game as well as they did, say, 30 years ago. And even though the area around second base was the site of significantly more hard and malicious slides 30 years ago, at least the infielders knew that contact was coming and were prepared to get the hell out of the way. And those doing the sliding knew how to slide.
That is not the case today. That, as well as recent rule changes, instant replay and the headfirst slide, have changed the way double plays are broken up and led to confusion among the runners, the infielders and even the umpires. Ask two dozen players, managers and coaches, as we did, to describe a dirty slide, and many answers were as different as the next.
"A dirty slide is when you are trying to injure a middle infielder," said Baltimore Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy. "It's an important part of the game. I believe you have to break up a double play, but the breaking up of a double play shouldn't end a middle infielder's season or career."
"It's a dirty play when you try to hurt someone," said Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, who teammates and opponents say always slides hard and clean. "There's a fine line when you're trying to extend an inning. You have to go in there and try to disrupt a play, but there's a right way and a wrong way to do it. We're all competitors here. Some guys play with a different passion than others. Some won't take you out, others will. It's an aggressive play, but the idea is to do it aggressively, not maliciously. You want to disrupt the play; you don't want to disrupt a career. We are humans first, players second. We have families. But it's like telling a tiger, 'Here's the blood, but don't eat it.' You can't do that."
So what exactly can you do? What exactly is a dirty slide? Here are four examples.
1. Taking out an infielder who has no chance to make a double play, especially if he's stretched out to get a force at a base
"The Brett Lawrie slide," said Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon. "You have to have court awareness. Escobar had no chance to make the double play on that play. Lawrie had no court awareness. When you are just trying to get a force out, you are in a vulnerable position. I don't blame the Royals [for being angry]."
On April 17, Lawrie was on first base with none out in the top of the seventh inning and Josh Reddick at the plate. The A's and Royals were tied 4-4. The Royals had shifted on Reddick, so Escobar was playing behind the bag and responsible for covering second on a ball to back to the pitcher or to the third baseman. Reddick's ground ball ricocheted off pitcher Kelvin Herrera to third baseman Mike Moustakas, who threw to Escobar covering second base. Escobar was stretched out to catch the ball and seemingly had no chance or interest in making the turn and throwing to first. While Escobar was stretched out, Lawrie slid hard into him. Escobar got the force, but on the slide he injured his left knee. He left the game and didn't play the next two games, which were the first two games he had missed since the 2013 season.
"I believe in sliding hard, but in that situation, after the ball hit the pitcher and went to the third baseman, there was no chance of a double play. I was stretched out like a first baseman on that play," Escobar said two months later. "You can't slide that way on that play."
Lawrie declined to be interviewed for this story, but he said at the time that he "had zero intention of wanting to hurt him." Lawrie's manager, Bob Melvin, defended Lawrie again two months after the slide. "There was no intent, no malicious intent on the play," Melvin said. "It was a confusing play. At the end, he slid late into second due to that confusion."
Lawrie took another at-bat in that game, and the first at-bat the next day, without being hit by a pitch. But in his second at-bat on April 18, after Reddick had just hit a three-run home run, Lawrie was hit by Royals starter Yordano Ventura. Ventura, who has a tendency to get emotional on the mound, was ejected by plate umpire Jim Joyce. After the game, some of the A's took issue with Lawrie being hit and hinted at some payback.
The next day, the Royals' Lorenzo Cain, with the bases empty and two outs in the first inning, was hit by a pitch on the foot, which started the bad blood boiling again. Both teams were issued a warning by plate umpire Greg Gibson, and Royals manager Ned Yost and pitching coach Dave Eiland were ejected. Then, in the eighth inning, with two outs and no one on, Herrera, who throws 100 mph, threw behind Lawrie and near his head. The benches emptied again and a brawl erupted. Then the Royals scored three runs in the eighth and went on to win 4-2.
Now the two teams play again. More than two months later, there still is a debate about the slide.
To some, Lawrie was in the wrong.
"When you see the middle infielder stretched out like a first baseman, there is no reason to take him out," said Philadelphia Phillies bench coach Larry Bowa, who played in the major leagues from 1970 to 1985, when hard slides were common and necessary. "You can't hit him when he's not making a double play."
Said Hardy: "That's a dirty slide, unless the runner is so unaware that there's not going to be a double play. But the Escobar play was a slow-developing play. The ball ricocheted to the third baseman. There was no chance of a double play. He was trying to injure Escobar."
"Is it legal? 'Yes,'" said Mariners infielder Willie Bloomquist. "But it is borderline dirty. Your back is to the play. You become a first baseman on that play. I can see both sides on that one."
Said Orioles infielder Ryan Flaherty: "Yes, that's dirty, but, as a runner, you can't always tell where everyone is on the play. Who knows, maybe the runner fell down running to first."
To others, what Lawrie did was acceptable.
"I had no problem with what Lawrie did. I don't mind it at all," said Phillies outfielder Jeff Francoeur. "Who knows if they're going to turn it [the double play] on that play? Lawrie plays hard. It's the infielder's job to get out of the way. Chase [Utley, the Phillies' second baseman] just assumes he's going to get crushed every play and works backward from there."
Added Jones: "Lawrie plays with as much fire as anyone I've ever seen, but he was not deliberately trying to hurt anyone."
Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons managed Lawrie in Toronto. "No one plays the game harder than Brett Lawrie; he is all-out all the time. But he's not the type to hurt people," Gibbons said. "It never crossed my mind that he would do something dirty. Sometimes a runner just gets caught in between on a play. It looks like a malicious slide, but it really isn't."
2. The high slide
What is a high slide? Is it at the knee? It is above the knee?
"Back in my day," Bowa said, "it was at the waist. In my day, they came in standing up."
Added Bloomquist: "If he's going to slide with his foot up to my waist, he had better be prepared to wear one in the chin."
Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond agreed, saying, "It's dirty if he comes in high and late, puts his hands on me, that's dirty. If you do something dirty, you're going to get payback. When you come after me, I'm ready for it. But if you come after me, I'm coming after you. If you come get me, there will be consequences, for sure."
"Above the knee is not good. Showing your cleats is not good," said McClendon.
Added Mariners first base coach Andy Van Slyke: "You can't go above the knee. That's dirty."
"These guys today have no idea how to slide. It's unreal to me. [Back when I played] we'd wear pads, we'd do hook slides, we'd practice how to get to the infielder if he was on the inside of the bag or if he stepped back to throw. There are so many intricacies of the game that good players today don't know. How can guys be so athletic today and not know how to slide?"Larry Bowa, Phillies bench coach
"The only dirty slide for me is the cleats in the air," said Flaherty. "But cleats high happens sometimes; it comes down to intent. Are you trying to hurt me, or are you trying to break up a double play? There are malicious slides that aren't intended to be. Intent is a gray line."
Mariners first baseman Logan Morrison, who has a reputation for hard, clean slides, said, "It depends on the height of the player you are taking out. You don't want your cleats up, but you don't want to catch a cleat on the bag. You have to get your foot up, your cleats down."
Added Francoeur: "If your legs go up in the air, then your feet have to stay on the ground. When you get more than 12 inches up on the leg, that is a high slide, that is bulls---, that is cheap."
"When you come in spikes high at the knees and ankles, there's no need for that," Desmond said.
Nationals infielder Danny Espinosa said, "It's dirty when it's late and high. With your cleats up, you can't jump in the air at a middle infielder's legs. That's how you pin an ankle or push back a knee. No. 1 rule for an infielder [turning a double play]: Never have a stiff front leg. Never have your left leg straight. It has to be bent or you are in big trouble."
There is an art to avoid getting hit, especially by a middle infielder. The ones these days, on the whole, aren't nearly as good as the ones of 30 years ago, when hard slides were far more prevalent. But in today's game, no one is better than Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano.
"I can't get Cano, and I've tried," Jones said. "He's so strong. He hangs in there. He is so good at coming across the bag. And his arm is so strong; he can throw from all the angles."
McClendon agreed. "Cano's footwork and court awareness is second to none," he said. "[Red Sox second baseman Dustin] Pedroia is good, too. No one gets him."
"[Braves shortstop Andrelton] Simmons is hard to get because he gets rid of the ball so quickly," said Francoeur.
Added Jones: "[Derek] Jeter was hard to get, because he was so tall. Height helps. He is so long, he could stretch out and get away from the bag before he threw. He'd get out of the way."
Bloomquist, a veteran middle infielder, says around the bag, it's a matter of survival. "Rule No. 1 of a middle infielder is to protect your legs," he said. "It's my career or yours."
3. The late slide
What exactly is a late slide?
"There has to be some friction with the ground," Rosales said. "Some of you has to hit the dirt first."
"You can't just jump at the guy feet-first," said Francoeur. "There's a way to take a guy out. That's not the right way."
Said Espinosa: "Late and low, I'm OK. Late and high is dirty."
"The later the better, as late as you can," said Van Slyke.
Added Bloomquist: "I love a hard slide. I love that style of play. LoMo [Morrison] will come get you. He got me once in Arizona. He slid through the bag. When I was on the ground, he said, 'Are you OK?' I said, 'Yes, you don't have to worry about me.' That's how you play the game."
Said Morrison: "There's no such thing as a late slide, in my opinion. You are trying to stop them from turning two. That's your job. If you slide past the bag, you slide past the bag."
Lou Brock stole 938 bases during his 19-year career, second most to Rickey Henderson. Many people agree that Brock was the master of the late, feet-first slide -- a clean but very powerful maneuver. With Brock sliding hard and late, it became more difficult for infielders to tag him. Very few players today slide that way. Many go headfirst. But there are some who are still very proficient at sliding hard and late and clean, and not coincidentally, most are veteran players, including Torii Hunter, Justin Upton, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Heyward and Jones.
"Adam Jones is the best," Hardy said. "His spikes are never up, but he puts the guy on his back, he keeps his knees bent, he gets under the guy and knocks him off his feet. It's not easy to do that. Adam and Michael Cuddyer know how to get on top of you. I can't do that. I don't know why. I don't know if I don't get a good jump, but I can't get on top of a guy and impact him making a throw. I really try, but there are certain guys that are a lot better at it."
Said Jones: "You're trying to take their feet out. You want to make them jump. A late slide hurts -- slamming into the base, it hurts the runner -- but you have to break up a double play."
4. Sliding out of the base path to clip an infielder
It is illegal for a runner to go after a fielder if the runner slides to a spot where he has no chance of touching the bag with a foot or hand. If he does, on a potential double-play ball, the umpire can rule the runners out at both second and at first for a double play.
"That's not a dirty slide; that's a stupid slide," Van Slyke said, "That's going to be a double play."
Added McClendon: "You have to break up the double play, but you have to slide within the bag."
Said Bloomquist: "If he slides and rolls, that's dirty. If he slides and can't touch the bag, that's dirty."
"If you roll block today, you'll get suspended," said Van Slyke. "On a roll block, you are not trying to get to the bag, you are trying to hurt someone. You lead with your shoulder and hip, and hit him in the hip. It's like a safety in football lowering his shoulder, not using his arms."
Said McClendon: "I haven't seen a roll block since the early 1990s."
"It used to happen all the time," said Bowa.
Back then, it was different.
"Rule No. 1 of a middle infielder is to protect your legs. It's my career or yours."Willie Bloomquist, Mariners infielder
"It is nothing like it was 25 years ago," said Van Slyke.
"When I played," Bowa said, "they would try to knock you into the stands."
"The rules have changed; the game is different," Jones said. "Ty Cobb would run right through you. He would kick you, and it was perfectly fine back then."
In the 1970s and 1980s, Tommie Agee, Don Baylor, Lonnie Smith, Bo Jackson, Bill Madlock, Kirk Gibson, Hal McRae and dozens of other players came into second base at full speed, and without remorse, to break up a double play. "I used to take as much pride breaking up a double play as I did throwing out at runner at the plate," Van Slyke said. "In both cases, I saved our team a run."
"Back then, they were not going to let a middle infielder throw the ball to first base, especially when there were runners at first and third, because a run might score," Bowa said. "The umpires used to give the middle infielders a break on the neighborhood play back then because they knew how much contact there was around the bag, and they knew the middle infielders had to get out of there. But with instant replay today [even though the neighborhood play is not reviewable], you have to stay on that bag longer."
Back then, players were taught how to slide and how to break up a double play.
"Guys don't know how to slide today," Van Slyke said. "So many of the finer points of the game have been lost because we don't teach them on the minor league level. When I came up with the Cardinals, [legendary instructor] George Kissel used to take us in the outfield grass -- so we wouldn't tear up our legs -- throw a base down, we'd put on sliding pants, and we'd practice sliding into a base. We practice sliding today, but it's in spring training, it's indoors and it's on mats. That's not sliding. And we're not teaching how to break up a double play."
Buck Martinez, who caught in the major leagues for 17 years, said, "We would wear two pairs of pants to protect our legs, slide on the outfield grass, no spikes. We did it all the time."
"With the Twins," said Nationals bullpen coach coach Matt LeCroy, "we would practice sliding in our old pants, I used [coach] Tony Oliva's pants while he took throws at second. We would take him out."
Said Bowa: "These guys today have no idea how to slide. It's unreal to me. We'd wear pads; we'd do hook slides; we'd practice how to get to the infielder if he was on the inside of the bag or if he stepped back to throw. There are so many intricacies of the game that good players today don't know. How can guys be so athletic today and not know how to slide?"
Desmond, who is 29, agreed with Bowa. "No one practices sliding anymore," he said. "It's a lost art. The guys back in the day knew how to slide. The guys today don't know how to slide. They're coming in like bats out of hell. It's not a fundamental that people pay attention to. Players want to break up a double play, but they don't know what they're doing."
Espinosa, 28, also agreed. "This era of baseball doesn't know the game," he said. "Back in the day, guys were taught more about the game. When you don't know how to slide, people get hurt."
And middle infielders don't know how to avoid getting hit, unlike guys who played during Bowa's era.
"No one ever got Ozzie Smith," Van Slyke said. "He was so quick. He would do a back flip before games. You weren't getting him."
And you weren't getting to the Cubs' Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg, either.
"Back then, their footwork around the bag was so good. Sandberg was phenomenal," McClendon said. "And they stayed in there. I got hit by a pitch once against the Cubs, and I was pissed. I was going to put Sandberg into left field if I had a chance after getting to first. But when I got to second, I went after him and got nothing but air. He was gone. And he knew I was coming."
Sandberg practiced the art of avoiding baserunners sliding into second.
"I watch guys take ground balls, and for three days in a row, they don't even work on making the double play [under fire]. We did that every day!" Bowa said. "Look, when Lou Brock came into the bag that hard, you had to learn to get the ball and get out of the way. You have to practice that. You had better have some diversity on your turns, or the runner will be right on you."
The shifting in baseball hasn't helped infielders around second base on the double play. On the Lawrie-Escobar play, Escobar was stationed behind second, not his regular positioning at shortstop. So when he was responsible for covering the bag on a ground ball to the third baseman, he was coming at the bag from a different angle than he would have been from shortstop.
"It's extremely difficult to get to the bag from that angle," Escobar said.
"But that's why you have to practice that over and over again," said Bowa. "You will never be able to turn the double play from that angle. You leave yourself wide open, and that's how you get hurt."
Ultimately, the Lawrie-Escobar play was the perfect storm of an overzealous baserunner who didn't have a complete understanding of the situation, or the art of sliding, combined with a shift that left the shortstop covering the bag at a difficult angle. The result was controversy, ejections, a fight and a whole lot of anger. Let's hope it's over. Let's hope there is no retaliation this weekend in Oakland. And let's hope that something was learned from it.