The big Chase Utley mess has brought baseball to a better place

Chase Utley is back and suspension-free, but the aftershocks from his playoff slide still linger.

Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Dodgers infielder Chase Utley had just finished meeting with reporters Monday, talking about baseball’s decision to rescind his two-game suspension.

In a private moment, he acknowledged that he wished he had never slid the way he had in last year’s National League Division Series, wished that all of it had never happened.

"It’s something I will always live with. I felt terrible about it at the time. I still feel badly about it," Utley said, referring to the slide that broke the leg of Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada.

"Knowing what I know now — knowing that he wasn’t going to be able to get off the ground, knowing that he was going to spin, knowing that ultimately his leg was going to take the brunt of it — I definitely would have done it differently."

Utley, though, should not be the only one with regrets.

This take-out slide during last year’s NLDS broke the leg of the Mets’ Ruben Tejada.

His controversial slide helped baseball get to a better place, thanks to the recent introduction of a new rule designed to help prevent injuries at second base such as the one suffered by Tejada. But chief baseball officer Joe Torre, by rescinding Utley’s suspension without even a hearing, effectively confirmed that the league overreacted.

Torre’s actions, like Utley’s, are difficult to condemn; both Tejada’s injury and Utley’s suspension resulted from circumstances more complex than they appeared. Nuance, though, is a difficult sell these days, whether in sports or in politics. Emotional venting is replacing normal discourse — and in the middle of a tense postseason, baseball felt compelled to act without precedent and take an incorrect stand.

No one will feel sorry for Utley, no one will call him a victim — that distinction belongs to Tejada, who thankfully is back on the field for the Mets this spring. But Utley, in the end, suffered collateral damage. He never should have been suspended. He never violated the rules. There was no clear rule to violate.

The uproar was such that Utley’s agent, Joel Wolfe, told the Los Angeles Times on Sunday that his client was "demonized." Utley, old-school and tight-lipped by nature, is the last player who would ask for sympathy. He knows that some fans would have reacted negatively, regardless of whether he was suspended. But baseball’s ruling might have swayed casual fans, and Utley acknowledges that his overall reputation took a hit.

"I believe that people look at me differently now that this has happened," he said.

Knowing what I know now — knowing that he wasn’t going to be able to get off the ground, knowing that he was going to spin, knowing that ultimately his leg was going to take the brunt of it — I definitely would have done it differently.

Chase Utley

Torre agrees. And it pains him.

"The one thing I’ve always stressed is the fact he plays hard," Torre said in a phone interview on Monday. "Over the years, there has always been that player — Pete Rose, for example. He didn’t do anything wrong in the All-Star Game when he got (Ray) Fosse (at home plate). It was well within the rules.

"(Utley) has a reputation. His reputation is that he plays hard. But he’s been a great player. There is no getting away from it. I hate to have him harassed to the point of (people) forgetting what kind of player he is. He didn’t look to hurt anybody.

"There are some people, I guess, who think he did. But I know when you’re playing this game, you go out there and play as hard as you can. At the time you go into second base, you’re thinking about breaking up a double play. You’re not thinking about breaking up the guy. Your mentality is that you’re a competitor."

Why, then, was Utley suspended?

Ruben Tejada, after the slide.

The Dodgers were prepared to send Torre video of 75 comparable slides that resulted in no discipline, according to major-league sources.

"Probably the thing that contributed to the fact we suspended him was the fact that Tejada came up with a broken leg," Torre said. "I had a conversation with (Utley) at the time, right after it happened, when I told him I was going to discipline him.

"He said something about, ‘If he didn’t break his leg, would we still be thinking that?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not sure’ — at the time, I didn’t tell him what the discipline was — ‘but I know we’d have a conversation.’ I just felt there’s aggressive and there’s overly aggressive. And I’m just trying to keep guys on the field.

"He feels that he didn’t do anything wrong or illegal. Obviously, I saw it a different way. I thought it was overly aggressive."

Until Torre examined the issue further.

There’s nothing we can do. We rescinded the suspension. We can’t make it not have happened. It is what it is. Hopefully this new rule will keep guys healthy.

Joe Torre

"Looking at the rule, there are other players who slid as aggressively as he did, and didn’t get suspended," Torre said. "Along those lines, did he do anything that violated a rule? No. I think our rules were written where it really wasn’t definitive, black or white, on what you were allowed to do and weren’t allowed to do."

The new rule, 6.01(i), is more definitive. A runner must attempt a "bona fide" slide into second on double-play attempts. That means, among other things, that the runner must make contact with the ground before reaching the base, attempt to reach it with his hand or foot and avoid changing his pathway to initiate contact with the fielder.

Utley went in high and late on Tejada; his slide undoubtedly would have been in violation of the new rule. He is grateful to Torre for acknowledging that he did not break the old one, but knows this is not over. The Dodgers host the Mets for the first time on May 9 and visit New York for the first time on May 27.

A Mets pitcher could go after Utley. Mets fans surely will unleash their fury.

"I imagine they’ll be loud like they were in the playoffs," Utley said. "I understand. My slide resulted in hurting their shortstop. I had no intention of doing that, but at the end of the day that is what the focus is going to be on."

Added Torre: "Are the Mets fans going to say, ‘It’s over with,’ and not boo him? I can’t guarantee that. It is what it is. But I certainly don’t want the fact that he was involved in this and showing how tough a player he is … that he should be painted with a brush that is a negative."

Torre said that he understood Utley’s frustration over the damage to his reputation, damage created in part by his suspension.

"I do," Torre said. "In our days, right now, you look at the front pages of the newspapers, everything is so much more dramatic. If you look at the big picture, it shouldn’t be that way. But where we are, between social media and everything else, we magnify everything that happens.

"Trust me, I gave it a lot of thought, even though we had to do it in pretty quick order because of the playoff format. It was something I wasn’t happy about doing, but I felt I needed to at the time. Looking back, you look at the big picture, he didn’t break a rule, which to me is significant.

"There’s nothing we can do. We rescinded the suspension. We can’t make it not have happened. It is what it is. Hopefully this new rule will keep guys healthy."

Let that be the legacy of Utley’s slide. The rest is a bit of a mess.

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