Baseball Is Not a Contact Sport by Jeff Sullivan October 12, 2015 That’s it. That’s the whole thing. There are contact sports out there. A whole lot of contact sports. Baseball is not and never has been among them. Sometimes, players do come into contact with one another. Sometimes, they do so violently, and sometimes, when they do so violently, they’re even on opposing teams. It’s not that the players are forbidden to touch, and it’s not like there’s anything you can do to totally eliminate all collisions. But baseball, at its core, isn’t a contact sport. It’s a bat-and-ball sport, part catch and part golf. Baseball should be played in the spirit in which it was intended. You ever wonder why players don’t wear pads? I mean, catchers wear pads, almost from head to toe, but that’s because they’re getting shot at by a cannon 130 times a game. Batters wear helmets because sometimes the cannon has a calibration error or an attitude. Defenders wear gloves because sometimes the cannonballs come in hot. Defenders wear cups for basically the same reason. But there isn’t anything else. No other helmets, no other chest protectors, no other shin guards. It’s not because ballplayers are tough guys, impervious to pain. It’s because ballplayers aren’t supposed to run into one another, and when they do, it’s either a freak accident, or something that hasn’t yet been sufficiently codified. The Chase Utley play — or the Ruben Tejada play, depending — might not be a matter of rules. It might just be a matter of rule enforcement, although it’s probably at least as much rule ambiguity. By now we all know what the rules say. We also know that, according to baseball precedent, Utley didn’t do much of anything wrong. As nearly everyone has come out to say, Utley more or less did as he’d been instructed to do all his life. He’d been instructed to do that because baseball allowed those things to happen. In a playoff situation, things were only more intense, Utley under only more pressure to break up any potential play. Utley probably went further than most other players would’ve, but we’re talking percentages. Utley isn’t the real villain. Utley’s the latest symptom. In a way — in a big-picture way — baseball should emerge better for this. Not that the Utley play was necessary, but baseball is in the process of changing, and the process has been accelerated. Obviously, only weeks ago, there was the Chris Coghlan incident. Earlier last week, there was nearly a Didi Gregorius / Jose Altuve incident. Now we have this incident, and people are talking about this incident instead of talking about, say, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. They’re talking about this incident instead of the rest of the playoffs. This has long been a weird sort of loophole, an only occasionally conspicuous exception, but the ultra-aggressive takeout slide hasn’t fit with the rest of baseball, and once they moved to protect catchers, infielders were going to be next. Infielders will be next. They’re about to try something in the Arizona Fall League. It’s going to go well, after a brief adjustment period, like all changes for the better. It doesn’t matter if former players don’t like it. People always prefer the circumstances they themselves experienced, and former players don’t have to worry about any consequences these days. They’re not the ones in danger of getting blown up. The further back you go for opinions, the more progress you effectively undo. It doesn’t matter if certain current players don’t like it. It matters more than former players, of course, but people are always resistant to change, even good change, and there’s always a reluctance to have to try to learn something new. As an argument, “that’s how it’s always been” is a bad one. It’s powerful, but it stands in the way of improvement. It doesn’t matter if there are fans who don’t like it. There are fans who didn’t like the moves to better protect catchers. There are fans who loved those collisions. But no one is a baseball fan because of the moments of contact, and the people who like those moments the most aren’t primarily baseball fans, because baseball doesn’t deliver those moments as often as other sports, and those fans will gravitate to those. You don’t have to worry about the opinion of a football fan who watches baseball when there’s nothing else on. What matters is that players get hurt, and while you can’t make rules to eliminate all injuries, you can certainly work to eliminate injuries caused by other players when they deliberately behave in certain ways. It doesn’t really make sense that baseball, as a sport, would leave the door open to vicious takeout slides at second base. It doesn’t go with everything else, especially now that we’ve mostly gotten rid of collisions at home, and the reality is that baseball has enough of an injury problem already. Every year, we lose some of the most talented pitchers in the world, simply because they tried to pitch. That problem isn’t going away in the foreseeable future, and it’s bad for the sport, especially if injury frequencies are increasing. Players should be protected as best they can. Baseball should keep safe as many as it can. It already knows it’s going to lose a few. It should try to keep that number as low as possible. Torn ligaments are going to happen. Godawful comebackers to the mound are going to happen. Fingers will break during lousy bunt attempts; hamates will break for apparently no reason at all. Baseball can be a destructive game, and there’s always going to be pain and consequence, but there are unavoidable injuries and there are avoidable injuries. There’s an argument for why baseball would be worse if pitchers weren’t allowed to throw 95 miles per hour anymore. There’s no argument for why baseball would be worse if baserunners were no longer allowed to try to mess up double plays when they’ve already been called out. It might disappoint the bloodthirsty among us, but baseball isn’t selective for many of that kind of fan. When this play goes away, everyone will get used to it. Nothing meaningful will be lost, and something will be gained — days not lost to the disabled list. Every so often, there’ll still be a collision at second, kind of just by accident, but we can accept the accidents. We’ll get used to the elimination of the takeout slide. We got used to the elimination of the home-plate collision. Hell, we got used to the 15-team leagues and to inter-league play. We come back because the essence of baseball doesn’t change. The vicious takeout slide isn’t part of the essence of baseball. The players will adapt and be fine with it. They’ll find new ways to be aggressive within the rules — they will always always always test the limits of the rules — but if the rules are written and enforced well enough, that’s okay. If something still seems wrong, it can be tweaked again. The game is always growing. Former players will say the game is getting softer. That’s fine. Older generations think every younger generation is soft. There’ll be fewer future ex-players with surgical scars, or walking with limps. The goal isn’t primarily to maximize player health, but to find the optimal balance of health and quality of gameplay. The game keeps getting closer. We’re in a period of transition. The game is already changing, and right now people are most furious because they can’t believe the change isn’t yet complete. But it’s happening, and relative to the speed with which other things have happened in baseball before, it’s happening fast. C.J. Nitkowski asked a bunch of players about the Utley incident, and a few of them responded that Tejada should’ve known that it was Utley coming his way. So, he should’ve known to get out of the way as quickly as possible. Before long, the runner won’t matter. Not to the extent it does today. Infielders won’t have to consider that the guy on first base is particularly likely to try to take out their legs. Not that injury is ever the intent; it’s just that injuries happen more often when a guy runs into another guy on purpose, when he’s already out. The only argument in favor of the takeout slide is that baseball has an established history of allowing the takeout slide. That much is true, but given that baseball isn’t and never has been a real contact sport, it’s a little odd that we got here in the first place. But it can be fixed. And it will be fixed. And baseball will still be baseball, and baseball will still be every bit as terrific. Probably, actually, a little bit more.