Chase Utley Slides into the MLB Rule Book

On October 23, 2015, in Baseball, MLB, SELS Blog, by Matthew Weiss

By Alex Ott*

It was the fibula crack heard ‘round the world.

When Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Chase Utley violently collided with Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada on a takeout slide during Game 2 of the National League Division Series, the sports atmosphere nearly spontaneously combusted.  Opinions on the play’s legality and interpretations of MLB rules flooded Twitter feeds and dominated newspaper columns, leading to an unprecedented move by the league to suspend Utley for two games.[1]

This swift serving of justice would have kept Utley out of Games 3 and 4, and provided retribution for a New York Mets ball club suddenly without their starting shortstop. But just like a losing party at the trial court level, Utley, backed by the Major League Baseball Players Association, had a right under the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) to appeal the league’s decision.

While the Players Association undoubtedly had a vested interest in protecting Utley’s postseason eligibility, Joe Torre, MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer, showed just how double-edged the sword could be for the Players Association in his original statement suspending Utley. According to Torre, “[MLB has] been in discussions with the Players Association throughout the year regarding potential rule changes to better protect middle infielders, and we intend to continue those discussions this offseason.”[2]

Utley’s infamous slide came less than a month after the Pittsburgh Pirates lost their star shortstop, Jung Ho Kang, on a similar play at second.[3] With two of the league’s ten postseason teams losing their shortstops in the most important stretch of the season, the art of the takeout slide has been called into question as both the Commissioner’s Office and the Players Association have recognized the importance of protecting their players.

Still, as Utley’s agent Joel Wolfe noted in announcing that he and Utley would appeal immediately: “[a] two-game suspension for a legal baseball play is outrageous and completely unacceptable. Chase did what all players are taught to do in this situation – break up the double play. We routinely see plays at second base similar to this one that have not resulted in suspensions.”[4]

Major League Baseball, in essence, was not only willing to set a new precedent for suspensions on takeout slides, but also sought to expedite the appeals process so a verdict could be delivered less than 24 hours later.[5] While the logic of wanting a resolution before Utley could have a greater impact on the series was reasonable, Utley and his agent turned to the language of the CBA to postpone his hearing.

Article XI(C)(1)(b) states that “a hearing shall be commenced within 14 days from the date of the receipt of the appeal.”[6] Article XII(D) expands on the conventions of the appeals process by allowing a player “the right to discover, in timely fashion, all documents and evidence adduced during any investigation of the charges involved.”[7] Just as discovery works in the United States justice system, Utley and his agent are entitled to review the evidence against them, sift through thousands of video clips of similar slides looking for precedent, and ultimately build their case. With 30 teams each playing 162 games per year, the sheer magnitude of clips they can compare to their play made it wholly unreasonable that 24 hours would be sufficient to prepare for their hearing. Instead, common sense won out and the appeal was postponed, with penalties held in abeyance until a verdict is reached.

But with the Dodgers eliminated from the postseason and an appeal still waiting to be heard, MLB is faced with an unfamiliar dilemma. Utley, whose contract expires at the end of this season, will be a free agent with a slim chance of returning to the Dodgers. As a result, if the suspension is upheld, the league could be penalizing a team that had nothing to do with the incident while the Dodgers, the club that reaped the benefits of the play in question, could escape without any blood on their hands. 298 pages of collective bargaining later, MLB still does not have a solution to this problem.

Is it too late to add ‘precedent’ to the back of Chase Utley’s baseball card?


 

*Staff Writer, Villanova University Sports and Entertainment Law Society Blog; J.D. Candidate, May 2018, Villanova University School of Law.

[1] See Ken Gurnick, Utley to Appeal 2-Game Suspension for Slide, MLB.com (Oct. 12, 2015), http://m.mlb.com/news/article/154097810/dodgers-chase-utley-suspended-for-slide.

[2] Id.

[3] See Adam Berry, Kang Undergoes Surgery, Ending His Season, MLB.com (Sep. 17, 2015), http://m.mlb.com/news/article/150117808/pirates-jung-ho-kang-suffers-knee-injury.

[4] Gurnick, supra note 1.

[5] See id.

[6] 2012-2016 Basic Agreement, Art. XI § C(1)(b) (available at http://mlb.mlb.com/pa/pdf/cba_english.pdf).

[7] Id. at Art. XII § D.

 

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