Friday, October 16, 2015

The Chase Utley Slide: The Matter with Professional Sports

I know that I won't make a lot of friends among New York Mets' fans, especially now that the Mets will advance to the National League Championship Series without their shortstop, but the Chase Utley slide into second base, a play in which Ruben Tejada's leg was unfortunately broken, was not a dirty play. It was something called, and get this, baseball.

There was a time, not too long ago, when professional sports leagues operated with unwritten rules within the context of those that were codified. Here are a few:

  1. If your pitcher hits one of my players, then my pitcher will hit one of your players. (Baseball)
  2. If your wide receiver thinks he can run a post pattern on my defense, then my defensive back will hit him high while he's turned back for the ball. (Football)
  3. Forwards establish dominance in the paint by rebounding with elbows out; if an opposing player doesn't want a black eye, he'd better stay clear. (Basketball)
  4. If your middle infielder doesn't clear the base on a double play turn, then my runner will take him out. (Baseball)
  5. Need a change in game tempo or did one of your best skaters get cheap-shot checked? Goon, go start a fight. (Hockey)

After 11 years in the NFL, Barry Sanders retired at 31.
It was also an unwritten rule that professional athletes would give a few years to as many as a couple of decades of high salary and the best table at a restaurant for a little bit of glory and a lifetime of knee problems and other physical ailments. There are a few notable exceptions, however, including Oklahoma State University Heisman Trophy winner and Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders, who retired from the National Football League (NFL) at the height of his career, healthy. Smart guy.

Anyway, that's all changed, I think, for two reasons. First, the lawyers got involved. The first notable example of the lawyerization of sports was the class action suit, for which San Diego Chargers' linebacker was the "poster child," filed on behalf of former NFL players who sustained concussions during their playing career. Referring to the previous paragraph, an NFL player who expects to avoid a concussion during his career is like a swimmer who doesn't expect to get wet. Players have always known that they'd get their "bell rung," and it was a trade-off that any reasonable person would have expected.

The lawsuit has resulted in many changes the NFL, like moving up the kick-off to reduce the number of returns, outlawing clean hits to the upper part of a ball carrier's body, and the hitting a defenseless player, like the wide receiver running a post pattern. For me and many others, it's made the actual game almost unwatchable, not because there isn't violence in the game, but because an important dimension of the game strategy and gamesmanship is gone. That in turn, has resulted in the advent of quasi-gambling fantasy football like Fan Duel and Draft Kings. Having money on players and on games is the only way to make the NFL watchable.

Seriously, the gals who are Cubs fans are the cutest
in all of baseball.
Other major sports, like baseball, hockey, and basketball have realized that the largest, and perhaps, only market growth that remains for the Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Hockey League (NHL), and the National Basketball Association (NBA) are women. Don't get me wrong, there aren't many things more sexy than a woman who is passionate about sports, but I think the major sports' market research has determined that their growth market may not fully appreciate the gamesmanship involved in a hockey fight, an elbows-out rebound, or a hard slide into second base.

All of this brings me back to Chase Utley.

Chase Utley is an crusty, old-school baseball player. From what I've seen, considering some of the silver-spoon crop of baseball players, whose names I won't mention here, who get themselves into a snit every time a pitcher tries to establish the inside corner, Utley is a dying breed.

Baseball player, Chase Utley.
Look, I don't want anyone to get hurt. I didn't revel in Joe Theisman's broken leg or Junior Seau's concussions. Neither did anyone else, I'm sure, but there is risk in everything but, particularly, professional sports. We watch because the athletes who play do things we can't and take risks we won't, like standing 60' 6" away from a man throwing a small sphere 95 MPH very close to where another man is standing.

Did Chase Utley intend to slide hard into Ruben Tejada? Yes. Did Utley intend to hurt Tejada? Absolutely not. Utley's a baseball player and, I'm pretty sure, he respects the game and other players. What did Utley do wrong? Nothing. He was playing baseball.

So, Mets fans, stop whining. Enjoy real baseball while it lasts.

At the same time, Utley knows damned well that the next time the Mets face him, regardless on which team's roster he's playing, at some point a Mets' pitcher will throw at him. Utley knows it. When the pitcher hits him, I'll wager that Utley'll clench his jaw, shake it off, and run down to first.