Ed Skaneski was my first base coach and I thought he’d said “Go!” Later, he would explain that he had actually said “No!”. At any rate, I was picked off.I knew I was in trouble because the pitcher had thrown over to the first baseman and I was about two steps off the bag. When you are thirteen and in trouble, you run. When you are much older and in trouble, you can’t run so you figure out something else. This day I ran like hell for second base even though I knew that once I got back to our bench there would be hell to pay. Sure enough,the shortstop was waiting for me with the ball in his glove. I executed my slide, which was not the best part of my game by far. I went straight for the bag and he applied the tag. The ball popped out of his hands and I was safe! I was no Ty Cobb but I was safe. Later, on the bench, no one punched me or called me dirty names. In fact, some of them were laughing and I think the other coach, not Skaneski,cracked a smile. Best of all, our best player,Danny Spanish, smiled and said, “You steamrolled him.” Quite a reversal of fortune for me and the VFW P.O.N.Y. league team it was, although I knew that getting picked off was a little like wetting the bed and I had been lucky.
What’s that got to do with the Chase Utley rule? Well, a lot, actually.
We have become a nation of spectators rather than players for the most part and the results have not been good for those of us who are not in the television or video game businesses. One of the results is that casual sports “fans” exhibit less and less awareness of what physical and mental skills are needed in athletics and more and more fondness for gratuitous violence and displays of thuggery. That’s partly why basketball games have been reduced to frequent stop action whistles, technical fouls, and boring free throw contests featuring “smart” fouls, hard screens,and “enforcers” on every team. As Rodney Dangerfield complained, “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.” If you are sitting there passing gas in your easy chair and can’t appreciate grace, speed, and skill you will settle for a brawl.
When baseball players were making five or six grand a year, neither the owners nor any agents worried about protecting their “investments” very much, with the obvious exceptions being the ticket selling, drawing card stars who were paid a bit more. Now, when third string catchers can be millionaires, there is plenty of incentive to save a career rather than seek an easy replacement. Thus, MLB has been motivated to try to prevent serious injuries to the Buster Poseys out there risking life and limb from testosterone laden runners who have been coached all their playing careers to “take out” any player between themselves and the next base.
Should ballplayers curtsy and shake hands as they greet opposing players on the base paths or at home plate? No. A good, hard slide toward second base is to be expected and encouraged; there is danger enough in that for all concerned. It is right and good that the rules now state that crashing toward the infielder rather than the bag means that the runner will be called out. Infielders will require an adjustment period to break the habit of the “neighborhood” play where they tend to avoid actually stepping on the bag in order to avoid serious injury. The tedious calls for review will have to be endured by us all for a while. Runners need to avoid using catchers as a blocking sled at home plate and not try to emulate Pete Rose as he crippled Ray Fosse in an exhibition game. Catchers must not block the plate without the ball as a demonstration of respect for the game. In other words, play ball, not war. It’s a lot more fun that way.