Appealing Chase Utley’s Suspension

As most baseball fans are by now aware, Chase Utley was suspended for two games on Sunday evening by Major League Baseball. The suspension relates to Utley’s controversial takeout slide of Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada in Game 2 of the National League Division Series on Saturday night.

Utley’s agent, Joel Wolfe, quickly announced that Utley would be appealing the suspension, as is his right under MLB’s collective bargaining agreement:

“A two-game suspension for a legal baseball play is outrageous and completely unacceptable. Chase did what all players are taught to do in this situation – break up the double play. We routinely see plays at second base similar to this one that have not resulted in suspensions.

Chase feels terrible about Ruben Tejada’s injury and everyone who knows him knows that he would never intentionally hurt anybody. We will be appealing this suspension immediately.”

By appealing the suspension, Utley has temporarily delayed the imposition of his punishment, meaning that he remains eligible to play for the Dodgers until MLB holds a hearing on the matter and issues a final decision. However, with Utley conveniently already in New York City (the designated site of most appeals of this nature), MLB is reportedly planning hear Utley’s appeal today so that the matter can be resolved ahead of tonight’s Game 3 at Citi Field. Whether the appeal will actually go forward today or not, however, remains uncertain, as the Major League Baseball Players Association is reportedly pressing for more time to prepare Utley’s defense.

Given the unprecedented nature of Utley’s suspension, a number of commentators have already predicted that the punishment will either be reduced or entirely overturned. And while such an outcome is certainly possible, and perhaps even likely, it is not entirely inconceivable that the league will uphold Utley’s suspension.

To begin, MLB suspended Utley for a violation of Rule 5.09(a)(13), a provision stating that a runner can be declared out whenever: “in the umpire’s judgment, [he] intentionally interfere[s] with a fielder who is attempting to catch a thrown ball or to throw a ball in an attempt to complete any play.”

Even though Utley was actually declared safe at the time – since Tejada never touched second base on the play – the fact that the umpire on the field (or in the replay booth) did not determine that Utley had violated the rule does not necessarily mean that the league’s suspension will be overturned. Indeed, while any decision on the field (or via replay) must be made relatively quickly, MLB has the luxury of conducting a more thorough review of the incident before deciding whether to impose punishment.

Instead, Utley’s stronger defense will be to argue that MLB has failed to punish players for similar conduct in the past. Under Article XII (A) of the CBA, any disciplinary action that the league takes against a player must based on “just cause.” Not only does this standard require that the punishment fit the crime, but also that the disciplinary action be consistent with prior penalties doled out by the league for similar conduct.

Utley can thus argue that the fact that MLB has traditionally elected not to punish players for takeout slides of this nature means that the league cannot punish him in this case. Along these lines, Utley (or his representatives from the MLBPA) will likely point to prior cases in which players were not punished for similar actions, perhaps relying on some of the same incidents that Matt Snyder has compiled over at CBSSports.com.

On the other hand, MLB will likely contend that Utley’s slide was a more egregious violation of the rule than were any of the prior cases, therefore justifying a harsher punishment.

Utley’s appeal will be governed by Article XI (C) of the CBA. Under this provision, any suspensions for on-field conduct can be appealed to either MLB’s commissioner or executive vice president, who will then hear the evidence and issue a decision. In this case, Utley’s appeal will reportedly be heard by John McHale Jr., MLB’s Executive Vice President of Administration.

Notably, under Article XI (C), whatever decision McHale reaches in this case will be considered final, with no right of appeal to a neutral arbitrator. This means that even if Utley or the MLBPA feels that the outcome of the appeal was unfair or improper, they would appear to have no immediate right to appeal that decision to a neutral arbitrator.

So even though Utley would seem to have a strong argument that his punishment was too harsh in light of past precedent, there is no guarantee that his suspension will be reversed or overturned. Instead, it’s possible that MLB – through McHale – could unilaterally decide to discard the prior precedent in this case and uphold Utley’s suspension.

If MLB were to uphold Utley’s suspension, it is not immediately clear what the MLBPA’s next step would be. As noted above, the CBA specifies that the decision issued by the league in an appeal of a suspension for on-field conduct is final, meaning that the union would not have an automatic right to appeal the decision to a neutral arbitrator. As a result, even if the MLBPA disagrees with the resolution of Utley’s appeal, the union may just decide to let the matter lie.

Alternatively, if the MLBPA were to decide to challenge the outcome of the appeal, then it could potentially try to file a grievance against MLB, contending that the league’s resolution of Utley’s appeal violated the CBA. Along these lines, the union could argue that the unprecedented nature of the suspension violated the “just cause” requirement in Article XII (A), and therefore that the decision in the appeal should be vacated.

While such a step would not enable Utley to play in the NLDS, if successful it would potentially prevent MLB from relying on the Utley case as a precedent in future cases. As a result, MLB would have to go back to the bargaining table with the union in order to impose more severe penalties in future cases of this sort.

Theoretically, it is also possible that the MLBPA could follow the recent example of Tom Brady and the National Football League Players Association by challenging the outcome of the appeal in a court of law. As most readers are undoubtedly well aware, last month a federal court threw out the four-game suspension that the NFL had imposed on Brady for his alleged involvement in the so-called “Deflategate” scandal, on the grounds that the league had improperly suspended Brady under the league’s CBA.

That having been said, such a course of action is probably unlikely here. In the Deflategate case, the judge primarily overturned the suspension because the CBA did not clearly allow the league to suspend players for the type of conduct that Brady had been accused of engaging in. In Utley’s case, the league’s authority to punish players in these cases is arguably much more clearly defined.

All in all, then, while Utley’s suspension may very well be reduced or overturned, it is also entirely possible that MLB will instead choose to use this case to set a new precedent in hopes of deterring players from engaging in similar conduct in the future. If so, and if the appeal does move forward today, then the Dodgers will be forced to play the next two games of the NLDS without Utley.





Nathaniel Grow is an Associate Professor of Business Law and Ethics and the Yormark Family Director of the Sports Industry Workshop at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. He is the author of Baseball on Trial: The Origin of Baseball's Antitrust Exemption, as well as a number of sports-related law review articles. You can follow him on Twitter @NathanielGrow. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not express the views or opinions of Indiana University.

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free-range turducken
6 years ago

My bet is they reach a compromise where Utley is suspended for the next 2 games but with pay, in the interest of his personal safety.

Randy
6 years ago

Yep. I have a feeling that the old battery throwing Shea fans might make an appearance to greet Mr. Utley, if he plays. And I’d be rooting for a direct hit between the eyes…

Joe
6 years ago
Reply to  Randy

Uhhhh… wasn’t it Mr. Utley’s proud Phillies fans that made battery-tossing famous?

Randy
6 years ago
Reply to  Joe

Oh, I’m sure Phillies fans have thrown them too, but this is what I was talking about (from an article about the 1999 playoffs): This led to incidents of items such as full cups of beverages, and even batteries being thrown at Braves players, namely Rocker, when visiting the Mets.

Candlestick Fan
6 years ago
Reply to  Joe

no, it was me….I’m the original “Battery Chucker”

Robert
6 years ago
Reply to  Randy

Umps forced to declare unsafe playing conditions. Game forfeited. Dodgers up 2-1.

Nik
6 years ago
Reply to  Randy

If that happens, the Mets will forfeit the game.

Randy
6 years ago
Reply to  Nik

Oh, I don’t *really* hope they throw batteries (or anything else). It was anger-fueled hyperbole on my part.

Ron
6 years ago

With Pay? Players don’t get salary for the postseason. They get postseason shares for pay. It doesn’t matter if he plays or doesn’t he gets paid based on how far the Dodgers get and what percentage a share the Dodgers team votes for him.

I think based on this play he might get a full share even though he wasn’t with the team the whole year.