Monday, May 9, 2016

Baseball Fans: Is the Utley Rule good for safety or bad for tradition?

Commissioner Rob Manfred has instituted a number of changes in his short time helming the MLB, most of which have been received favorably by the baseball community at large. But while expanded instant replay, pace of play enforcements and increased discussion of safety netting have been broadly successful, the MLB’s newest rule change has been subject to much more initial controversy.

In the final month of the 2015 season, players Chris Coghlan and Chase Utley caused severe injuries while sliding recklessly into second base in an effort to break up double plays. In a somewhat reactionary measure, the so-called “Utley Rule” was implemented effective Opening Day 2016. As with all laws and regulations, the rule is full of complicated verbiage, but the simplest explanation is that a slide into second base that goes past the bag or has malicious intent turns the situation into an instantaneous double play. For the full circumstances and wording of the Utley rule, check out Rule 6.01(j) here. Few have questioned the benevolent intent of the rule, but its perceived limitations on the instinctive flow of baseball have run rampant. In the season’s first week and a half, two close games were decided by the enforcement of the Utley Rule.

As a Northwestern student interested in the preservation of baseball tradition but also cognizant of modern safety hazards, I have found a few articles which capture the polarity of opinion about the Utley Rule across the baseball world. Bob Nightengale of the USA Today captures the intangible feeling baseball players and fans alike have felt about such a new rule having an already immediate impact on closely-contested games. Nightengale argues that the rule’s hurried implementation has created grey areas which must be addressed.

ESPN’s senior baseball writer Jayson Stark has a slightly more positive reaction to the rule. He commends the MLB for taking a stand on injurious on-field actions (similar to the home plate “Buster Posey” rule), but acknowledges the current shortcomings of the rule’s fine print. Rather than a complete overhaul of the rule, as some sportswriters have suggested, Stark calls for a hopeful middle ground to be established between longstanding baseball tradition and evolving needs for player safety.

I typically fall on the side of upholding baseball’s rich historical traditions, but I believe the Utley Rule represents the best interests of the game, namely keeping its players safe. I have read a variety of negative posts about the rule, and criticisms of its finer points certainly have merit. Here are three things to consider before you craft a well-formed opinion of the Utley Rule:
  • Learn the rule: A careful reading of Rule 6.01(j) shows that there is much less ambiguity than most media outlets have lead readers to believe. A thorough understanding of the Utley Rule is needed to craft a salient opinion. 
  • Understand safety concerns: Similar to the Buster Posey incident, severe injuries unprotected under MLB rules led to the inception of the Utley Rule. When thinking of injury problems in professional sports, the NFL instantly leaps to mind. But baseball has concerns of its own, and has taken sweeping steps to remedy them.
  • Pick a side: Is the Utley Rule affecting positive change for the MLB? Or is it stripping the competitive edge from the game of baseball? The ongoing debate over the efficacy of the rule is sure to aid in its ultimate betterment, so be sure to make your voice heard on the issue.

Ryan Milowicki is a senior at Northwestern University, studying Journalism (with a concentration in Medill’s Integrated Marketing Communications program) and Film Studies. He is also a Guest Services representative for the Cleveland Indians, and he hopes to soon work full-time in the baseball market. His current projects include marketing Northwestern’s Social Media Marketing MOOC on Coursera, and he can be reached on Twitter @RyanMilowicki.

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