I don’t condone fighting. I’m not one to throw punches, and I don’t care for boxing or UFC. But I understand why Texas Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor was upset enough to punch Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista during Sunday’s game between the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers. I also find myself asking why Bautista opted for the hard (i.e. late/dirty) slide at second base (the one that provoked Odor), instead of reacting to the beanball from Rangers pitcher Matt Bush the old-fashioned way: by charging the mound? After all, the pitcher was the culprit.
What did Odor, the defenseless second baseman trying to turn two, do to deserve being the target of this aggressive act? That seemed rather passive aggressive of Bautista. Again, while I don’t condone fighting, it’s understandable that Odor tall exception to a slide that could have potentially injured him and disrupted his season.
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The fight aside, this incident involved a controversial yet long-accepted play that really has no place in baseball: the so-called hard slide. Though I don’t think it went far enough to address the problem, a rule change was made in the offseason to reign in this contact play in an attempt to reduce injuries sustained by targeted middle infielders. As the Bautista slide shows, it will take time to scrub this element from the fabric of baseball players’ souls, as they go through the reprogramming process.
Frankly, I was right there with Odor (except for the fact that Odor is guilty of some rather questionable slides himself). Every time I see someone slide into second base seeking an impact with the fielder, I want to start throwing punches. (And remember, I’m not one to throw a punch.) The slides that ended Jung-Ho Kang’s and Ruben Tejada’s seasons last year were just as infuriating and nonsensical as the Scott Cousins collision that ended Buster Posey‘s 2011 season at home plate. The second-base takeout slide is an inherently dangerous play, with middle infielders facing high risk of injury while base runners are at risk of very little. That’s messing with someone’s career. With someone’s livelihood.
Yes, the Bautista slide was an escalation of a feud between the Blue Jays and Rangers, starting with Bautista’s bat toss after slamming a crucial home run against Texas in last year’s American League Divisional Series. Odor, however, wasn’t guilty of anything, other than being a Texas Ranger. But the context doesn’t really matter. It was a dirty slide, a tactic that has been normalized through years of practice but is no less egregious than spearing in football or throwing elbows to the face in basketball.
Baseball is not a contact sport. So, why is it that in some instances it’s okay have contact plays—specifically, violent ones in which defenseless, mostly stationary defenders directing their attention elsewhere can be assaulted by opponents approaching with tremendous momentum?
These slides are somehow defended as good, hard baseball plays, with the caveat that Chase Utley’s slide that injured Tejada was a little over the top. What seems to be overlooked is that, if you’re not sliding to the bag, you’re really not making a baseball play.
The base runner’s job is to go from station to station (i.e. base to base), on the path to home plate. Any deviation from that route, with any ulterior motive beyond reaching that base or moving past that base to the next one, is a departure from the task at hand—and from the functionalities of baseball.
So, regardless of whether it’s part of the game’s unwritten rules—an accepted affectation assimilated over time, it’s not baseball. No matter how much baseball’s guardians want to defend it. Just because you’ve always done something a certain way doesn’t mean it’s right. The fact of the matter is that hard slides at second base and collisions at home plate are illogical inconsistencies relative to the spirit of baseball.
Now, let’s apply the protocol of second-base slides and home-plate collisions to elsewhere on the base paths. What if on a close play at first base, the base runner took out the first baseman in trying to prevent the catch? Why isn’t that okay? What about slides at third base? If base runners were as aggressive there as they are at second base, then Yasiel Puig would have a lot fewer outfield assists. But taking out the third baseman seems like a strange concept, doesn’t it?
So, why has it always been acceptable to slide hard into second base, in some cases with only a vague intention of reaching the bag, and why (until the Buster Posey incident of 2011) was it acceptable to annihilate a defenseless catcher at home plate?
Frankly, trying to break up a middle infielder’s attempt at turning two or bowling over a catcher at home plate are no more dignified than Alex Rodriguez’s past incidents of slapping the ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove or yelling to distract Toronto’s left side of the infield on a pop-up. And it’s no different than if a runner heading to second base tried to break up a double play by waving his arms above his head in an attempt to distract the middle infielder throwing to first. They are all departures from normal behavior on the field, intended to disrupt the fielder from performing his task.
But for some reason—a reason devoid of much introspection by baseball players—it’s okay to slide late, slide with your legs high, or to slide with the majority of one’s body out of the baseline in attempt to break up a double play. All in the name of playing hard-nosed ball—and seemingly with disregard for a fellow baseball player’s well being.
So, while I think Odor’s punch to Bautista’s jaw was a bit excessive, I understand.