TAMPA, Fla. -- Chase Utley didn't mean to change the culture of baseball, the history of baseball or the rules of baseball. All he thought he was doing was breaking up a double play in a must-win game last October, with that ferocious old-school mindset he'd always played with.
Instead, on the last Thursday in February, when baseball announced carefully worded changes to the rules governing slides into second, Utley became the poster boy for those changes, whether he meant to or not. But that's not important anymore.
It wasn't just that slide that made this happen. It wasn't just Ruben Tejada's broken leg that made this happen. There's a good chance these rules were going to change anyway. But baseball is now a different game than it was the night Utley slid into Tejada in the National League Division Series. And as hard as some players fought this change, this is now a better sport because of it.
And, most important, it's a safer sport.
"I think it's great for baseball," New York Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira told ESPN on Thursday, after he'd taken a look at the new rules. "I hated to see what happened in the playoffs last year. There's a difference between playing the game hard and playing the game dirty."
Teixeira made it clear he wasn't talking specifically about Utley, or specifically about that play. But what happened in Dodger Stadium that night was a play much like ones he'd seen before, that we'd all seen before. And it was time baseball did something about those plays.
"When a second baseman or shortstop are standing on the base, trying to get leverage for a throw, and you slide into them, that's playing the game hard," Teixeira said. "When you go way out of the baseline, roll him or jump into his knee, that's dirty baseball. And I don't think there's any reason for it."
That, in effect, is exactly what MLB and the players' union were thinking when they agreed to these changes. But if you think one news release will fix all of that instantly, well, guess again. But before we examine a couple of other ripple effects of the new rules, here's a quick rundown on what exactly has changed:
• A runner sliding into second has to make "a bona fide attempt" not just to slide into the base, but also to "remain on the base."
• Runners will not be allowed to change their "pathway to the base" in the middle of a slide to break up a double play.
• Baserunners can no longer use a "roll block" on an infielder to break up a double play. Essentially, that means they can't start their slide in midair and make contact with the infielder at or near the knee, with either a leg, arm or the body, before they've made contact with the ground.
• If a runner makes contact with the infielder illegally, both he and the batter would be called out.
• But if the runner makes contact with the infielder while attempting a "bona fide" slide, he would not be called for interference.
• Finally, because of these new safety measures, MLB and the union have agreed to allow umpires to more strictly enforce the "neighborhood play" and use replay to review that play for the first time.
But even after all of this was spelled out, the questions kept coming. So here come two of them that need to be figured out in the weeks ahead:
There goes the neighborhood
The change that seemed to cause the most confusion Thursday was the virtual elimination of the old-fashioned "neighborhood rule." We'll let Terry Collins, the always-fiery New York Mets manager, express that frustration in a moment. But first, let's explain the furor.
This change, in other words, will mean that infielders trying to turn a double play have to tag second base, even if a runner is bearing down on them. Before, if they just got close but needed to avoid the runner, umpires often gave them the out at second even though they hadn't technically touched the base with their foot.
Now here's how the manager of the Mets expressed his disagreement to the media Thursday, with his customary diplomatic way with words:
"We're making a slide rule that keeps you on the bag," Collins said. "You've got to be near the bag. And now we're making a decision on the neighborhood play that you've got to stay on the bag. You know what that's going to mean? Someone is going to get their clocks cleaned."
It's a reasonable concern. But if it helps him sleep, he should know that baseball and union officials thought long and hard about that concern.
According to one official familiar with the discussions, the decision to change the neighborhood play came after a video review of numerous plays in which infielders were injured on plays at second base. That study revealed that virtually every injury came as the result of a late slide, a "roll-block" type slide or a slide in which runners made little attempt to reach the bag.
But now, things will be different. All runners will be required to slide -- and make contact with the ground -- before they reach second base. And they need to "remain on the base" when they finish that slide. So officials concluded that eliminating the neighborhood play was not going to leave infielders as vulnerable as Collins seems to think.
There's every reason to think they will be right about that. But will they? Stay tuned.
The moment of indecision
Remember when MLB introduced the changes to the home-plate collision rule? Of course you do. Those changes have worked. They've made catchers safer. And the game has survived. But ...
For a long, long time after that rule was enacted, we saw way too many plays in which runners had no idea how to slide, catchers had no idea where to stand and umpires weren't even sure what to call. And that created some ugly, sometimes even embarrassing, moments.
Well, get ready for the second-base version of that act.
"This is going to be like the home-plate rule," Yankees third baseman Chase Headley said. "There's going to be some confusion at times. ... The spirit of this is right. But I'm sure there are going to be some rough moments.
"Any time there's a change to a rule, there always seems to be a period of indecision. What I'd like to do is take 50 slides of mine breaking up a double play to somebody and say, 'Which of mine was OK and which was not OK?' There are a couple of parts of it that I'll be interested to see how they're interpreted."
Well, baseball officials are getting ready to start rolling those videos. So hopefully, they can answer those questions. But in the meantime, we all know there are going to be nights where stuff happens at second base and no one will totally understand why calls were made. That won't be pretty. But it's just part of this.
"It's hard, man," Headley said. "Change is hard. ... We've been playing this game for a long time under a certain set of rules. And these changes just feel awkward. I kind of feel like I knew how to play the game. And now we have to change that. Again, everything that they're trying to do is a positive. I'm just anxious to see how it plays out and how things are interpreted."
But change isn't just hard. It's necessary. And Thursday was one more reminder of that.