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The Cutoff Man: It’s not called softball

September 27, 2010

Published in The Tartan, 9/27/2010: https://thetartan.org/2010/9/27/sports/job

In early April, Texas catcher Taylor Teagarden and Cleveland truck Travis “Pronk” Hafner collided at home plate in a beautiful explosion of old-school baseball. In the bottom of the sixth inning with the score tied 2-2, Matt LaPorta singled up the middle with Hafner on second. Julio Borbon, the Rangers’ relatively rookie centerfielder, came up throwing with a terrific strike to the plate as Pronk lumbered towards home. Teagarden had the ball firmly in his glove a good second before the Indians’ self-appointed hulk got there, and doing exactly what he should have done, Hafner smashed into Teagarden with a blow that only Mo Vaughn could withstand.

Teagarden held onto the ball, Hafner was out, and it was glorious.

That’s not something you tend to see anymore. Nowadays, the collision at home plate is not done nearly as much as it should be. More often than not, a guy will try some ridiculous hook slide to try to avoid the tag, or just straight up give in and slide right into the catcher’s shin guard. If a guy does collide with a catcher and knock him flat, it starts a bench-clearing incident and sometimes ends in retaliation. And yeah, sure, the Cubs’ Michael Barrett didn’t have the ball when A.J. Pierzynski famously bulldozed him, but it’s still better to be safe and look like a jerk, than sorry and look like a fool.

In recent years, there has been an unnecessary amount of preaching from players, coaches, reporters, or other such folks with access to the Internet about baseball’s “unwritten rules.” These rules, though, seem different from how I learned them back when I watched 90s baseball and videos of years past. Back then, it seemed like the unwritten rules of baseball were as follows:

  1. Do what you have to do. Nice guys finish last.
  2. Win games any way you can. Refer to rule number one.
  3. Do the honorable thing; don’t try to stretch a double to a triple when you’re up 10 runs.
  4. Retaliate for a teammate however you must. Refer to rule number one.

Umpires nowadays have seemingly been issuing warnings and ejections with every close pitch. Umpires have far shorter leashes when the question of intent comes into play, so even if a slow curveball slips away from a pitcher and ends up hitting the batter or barely missing him, there’s a chance for a warning to be issued. One especially pathetic instance of an umpire jumping the gun occurred on July 26, 2007, when Washington then-rookie pitcher John Lannan was making his Major League debut against Philadelphia. Lannan’s first four innings went without incident before he accidentally hit Chase Utley with a pitch. Lannan then hit the next batter, Ryan Howard, and though both hits were clearly accidental, home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstadt decided to eject both Lannan and Nationals manager Manny Acta, without issuing a warning, because he decided that Lannan had thrown at the batters intentionally.

“His explanation was that Howard hit a home run in his previous at-bat and then he got hit in his next at-bat,” Acta said in an article on ESPN.com. “I was very surprised. I don’t think the kid is going to come up here and start throwing at people.”

Among others bewildered by the cowardly call was opposing manager Charlie Manuel.

The umpires aren’t the only ones who have gone unnecessarily soft. On Friday, the Phillies’ Utley was briefly chastised for sliding hard into second base to try to break up a double play against the Mets. Mets players complained that Utley’s hard slide had been after the second baseman had already thrown the ball, and hence was unnecessary.

“There’s a thin line between going out there and playing the game hard and going out there and trying to get somebody hurt,” Mets third baseman David Wright commented in an article on mets.com. However, what Utley was doing was playing baseball like it should be played. Players are supposed to try to break up double plays — see unwritten rules number one and two. Utley had the intent of breaking up the double play from the get-go, and it is really hard for a player to change momentum when he is running at full speed if he realizes only a split second beforehand that he doesn’t have to go in hard.

Even Wright’s own manager, Jerry Manuel, was okay with the slide. “There is nothing wrong with a good, hard slide to break up a double play,” Manuel said on mets.com. “We preach that.”

Baseball needs to get back to how it used to be. “Make sure no one gets hurt” was never an unwritten rule in any competitive sport. Neither is “no fighting allowed.” Just ask Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own — there’s no crying in baseball.

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