MLB Broke Its Own Neighborhood Play Rule
The new MLB precedent is much more dangerous than just one more dirty Chase Utley play.
While Chase Utley’s last second pseudo-slide/tackle that fractured Ruben Tejada’s leg was obviously extremely dangerous, it’s also what we’ve seen for years and come to expect from him; you can take the dirty player out of Philadelphia, but you can never take the Philadelphia out of the dirty player.
The play of course was clearly interference under the rulebook, which would have justified calling a double play.
Unfortunately, that call almost never gets made; it’s in the rulebook but it’s not in the unwritten rules, if the bag is anywhere within reach. It was disappointing but not surprising that interference was not called.
On the other hand, it was wildly out of the ordinary, reckless, and baffling what happened next: the Dodgers were allowed to challenge the play at second base, and replay officials overruled the out call to put Utley safely at second base on that play.
That was baffling because there is a play firmly in the unwritten rules that players rely on routinely for safety: the neighborhood play, in which a middle infielder attempting a double-play pivots behind the bag without actually touching it to get out of the way of a charging runner and avoid a collision.
A New York Times article last year headlined “Safety Sometimes Prevails over Accuracy in Calling the First Out of a Double Play” explained why the play exists and why the replay rules specifically prohibit reviewing it:
Runner on first, one out. Ground ball to the second baseman. He flips the ball to the shortstop, who seamlessly catches it, leaps above the sliding runner and fires to first base for a double play.
There is just one catch: The shortstop never touches second base, pivoting several inches behind the bag. The umpire, although right on top of the play, rules the runner out…
It is the so-called neighborhood play, an unwritten rule going back decades that allows middle infielders to protect themselves by getting out of the way of hard-charging runners. In the process, they fail to complete the most basic task: touching the base while holding the ball…
“This is for safety,” said Tony La Russa, a Hall of Fame manager who was a key member of the replay committee, when asked why the neighborhood play remained protected. “Nobody wants these guys getting clobbered.”
And this is what the official replay rule says on the matter:
The Tejada play was classic neighborhood. It was what that NYT article described. Tejada received the toss, took a step right behind the bag, and pivoted away to try to avoid the runner.
The official explanation from MLB and its embarrassing spokesman Joe Torre was that Daniel Murphy made a bad throw that pulled Tejada off the bag. That’s absurd. No error was called on the play because Murphy made a perfectly standard toss; Tejada was not on the bag to receive the throw and “pulled off,” but rather stepping right behind the bag and pivoting. If that’s not a neighborhood play then one doesn’t exist.
And that’s the problem.
What MLB has done is extremely dangerous.
There is simply no way they would have called that play reviewable if Tejada had completed the relay throw to first base.
So, in effect, they are saying that the neighborhood play loses its protection from replay review if the runner successfully clobbers the fielder — the exact opposite result of why the neighborhood play exists, which is for the safety of the infielder.
Put simply, an infielder can no longer protect himself by using the neighborhood play, because he may get destroyed anyway by a runner who will then be rewarded with a safe call at second base. It’s the worst of all possible worlds, and it is what MLB endorsed in Los Angeles last night.
The solution is simple: no more allowing violations of the interference rule. Catchers are armored up with all kinds of gear and yet they are protected from collisions. It’s time to call it by the book at second base and protect middle infielders — especially because the traditional, unwritten protection of the neighborhood play has now been effectively gutted.