Last night’s interference call on Jose Bautista in the Jays-Rays game presents us with an opportunity to talk about the difference between desires and reality. Between baseball how some of us think it should be and baseball for what it is. Let’s explore that a bit, shall we?
I was against MLB implementing new sliding rules for second base. There were already rules on the books about that. They gave the umpire judgment about when a baserunner went too far in interfering with the fielder and gave the umpire the choice to call a runner out if he crossed some line. That rule was ignored for a long time, unfortunately, and baseball, rather than reemphasize that old rule as it could’ve, decided that it didn’t want judgment here. It wanted a bright a line as it could get, complete with instant replay review which, by definition, means that the call is no longer a judgment call. What we got? A rule which doesn’t penalize conduct that is severe in some way. Rather, it’s a rule which penalizes attempts to “initiate contact with a fielder.”
The rule, of course, was intended to stop violent takeout slides. But whether something is a violent takeout slide is a judgment, and we can’t have that! No, when you add on the idea of “initiating contact with a fielder” and you purport to make that an objective thing, gray areas are out the window. Did Jose Bautista attempt to violently crash into Logan Forsythe in order to break his legs and leave his bones scattered on the infield? Of course not. Did Bautista initiate contact with Forsythe? Of course he did. The replay said so, judgment and an opinion about how brutal or non-brutal Bautista is being is beside the point and the runner is out.
It’s totally valid to say the rule is stupid. It’s totally valid to say that we want to be able to make judgment calls about what really is or is not a problem slide. That’s certainly my view. But Major League Baseball and the MLBPA decided that those determinations are irrelevant when they adopted the new rule. As such, arguing about how bad or how minor Bautista’s actions makes little sense. Appeals to the “wussification” of baseball and claims that Hal McCrae or Pete Rose would NEVER have stood for this kind of nonsense do nothing to advance your case. Baseball does not care. Baseball wants to make objective that which, in the past, was subjective. It’s doing so for a noble cause — protecting fielders — but that’s what it’s doing.
Back to Bautista-Forsythe. I said this morning that the grab of the leg was horses**t and it was. Indeed, I think even Pete Rose and Hal McCrae would think it bush league to try to grab a guy’s leg and that someone doing so would lead to purpose pitches and unwritten rules conversations. The call, however regrettable it was cosmically, was not horses**t under the rules.
At the same time, it came in the second application of the rules of the season on the season’s third day. I don’t think, therefore, it’s time to worry about the rule creating an existential crisis. If this happens every other game, well, yes, that will be bad. If it inspires infielders to flop like soccer players or act like Bill Laimbeer pretending to take a charge, whoa, that’s even worse. For now we can only hope that the umps and the replay officials focus on the runner and not the reaction of the fielder when making these calls. We should let this rule shake out a bit and see where it goes.
I don’t like baseball’s increasing efforts to remove judgment from the game. I think it’s a bad impulse that will lead to a lot of bad outcomes. This could be one of them. But let’s keep the distinction between what is the valid result of a misguided philosophy and what is actual injustice. The Bautista play is the former, not the latter. He, the Jays and everyone in baseball knew what was coming when their league and their union approved these new rules. They, and those who support their side in this, cannot act like this is some crazy, arbitrary and capricious outcome.