Judging the Royals

To one old-school ballplayer, this was a great play. But today’s rules say no

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras caught the ball and blocked the plate as the Dodgers’ Charlie Culberson tried to score in the seventh inning of Saturday’s game. Culberson was called out, but replay showed Contreras illegally blocked the plate and the call was overturned.
Cubs catcher Willson Contreras caught the ball and blocked the plate as the Dodgers’ Charlie Culberson tried to score in the seventh inning of Saturday’s game. Culberson was called out, but replay showed Contreras illegally blocked the plate and the call was overturned. LA Times/Tribune News Service

In the seventh inning of Saturday night’s Cubs-Dodgers NLCS Game 1, LA’s Justin Turner singled to left field. The Dodgers had a runner on second base, Charlie Culberson, and he tried to score.

Kyle Schwarber, the Cubs left fielder, made a one-hop throw to the plate.

The Cubs catcher, Willson Contreras, was set up in front of the plate in fair territory. As the ball arrived, Contreras caught the ball with his left foot in foul territory, blocking Culberson’s path to the plate.

Meanwhile, Culberson, also in foul territory, slid feet first and used his left hand to attempt a tag of home plate. Contreras’ left foot blocked Culberson’s left hand and the Dodgers shortstop slid past the plate without ever touching it. After a moment’s hesitation, Contreras went over and tagged Culberson and the home-plate umpire called Culberson out.

After that, baseball’s bureaucracy got involved.

The Dodgers challenged the play, the field umpires consulted the replay booth and the call on the field was overturned. Culberson was ruled safe.

It might have been a brilliant play by Schwarber and Contreras, but a brilliant play baseball no longer allows.

After watching the play, I called former major-league catcher Jason Kendall. He’s currently a “special assignment coach” for the Royals, but before that had a 15-year career, caught over 2,000 games and if you look up “old-school” don’t be surprised if you see Kendall’s picture next to the definition.

I wanted to know what he thought of the play and Jason summed it up in one line: “Baseball has turned into figure skating.”

How that happened

In 2011 Florida Marlins outfielder Scott Cousins collided with San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey and Posey wound up with a broken leg. Go back and watch the play and you’ll see the throw to Posey was off to his right and Posey wound up on his knees in a vulnerable position out in front of the plate, which was wide open.

Cousins, intent on scoring the go-ahead run, went in standing and targeted Posey instead of the plate.

Like a lot of sports, baseball wants to protect its star players and keep them on the field because star players put butts in the seats. So they came up with a rule regarding plays at the plate.

Take out the legalese and Rule 7.13 says runners cannot deviate from their direct pathway to the plate to initiate a collision with a catcher, and runners should slide into the plate; runners should make contact with the ground before they make contact with the catcher.

And the catcher cannot block the plate without the ball in his possession unless the throw is off-line and the catcher is pulled in front of the plate in order to field the ball.

Now skip ahead to the 2015 National League Division Series.

New York Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada was trying to turn an inning-ending double play and got a bad flip from his second baseman. The off-line flip made Tejada reach back to his left for the ball and he tried to turn a 360 in order to make a throw to first base and complete the double play.

Chase Utley was on top of him already and Utley wanted to break up the double play so a run could score. Utley slid late and into Tejada’s legs, flipped him and both players wound up a few feet past second base. Utley never attempted to touch second base and his takeout slide fractured Tejada’s leg.

Once again MLB jumped into action and updated its rules on takeout slides.

Rule 6.01 (j) says runners need to make a real attempt to reach and remain on the base and are prohibited from changing their pathway to the base to initiate contact with the fielder. It says runners can still initiate contact with a permissible slide, but should make contact with the ground before reaching the base and need to slide close enough to the base to reach out and touch it.

The runner cannot use a “roll block” or intentionally initiate or attempt to initiate contact with a fielder by kicking his leg above the fielder’s knee or throwing arm or upper body. If the umpire thinks the runner violated rule 6.01 (j) both the batter and runner should be declared out.

How those rules changed baseball

Basically, baseball wanted runners to quit targeting fielders and ignoring the bases or home plate while doing so.

Fair enough.

But get a committee involved and you end up with sub-clauses, addendums and appendixes and then the whole mess was dropped into the laps of the on-field umpires.

Not knowing how each individual umpire was going to interpret the rules or wanting to consult a lawyer before attempting a slide, baseball teams started telling their runners to peel off early, get out of the base line and forget about breaking up double plays. Catchers started setting up well out in front of the plate, receiving the ball and then turning back to home plate and attempting a long tag.

Two of the most exciting plays in baseball were taken out of the game because two players got hurt when their teammates made bad throws and put them in vulnerable positions.

To some old-school players, nobody wants anybody to get hurt today; everybody’s making too much money. Before we got off the phone, Kendall said: “The game is so soft right now.”

Jason then added he was going to quit watching the Cubs-Dodgers game and start watching something he found more exciting. He had recorded “The Voice.”

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