Matt Holliday is a truck. He’s an 18-wheeler. If Marco Scutaro didn’t hear Holliday coming, he surely felt the rumble. Impending collision is an occupational hazard in a second baseman’s life. Since time began, in every double-play situation, on a ball hit slowly to the left side, every second basemen from Fred "Dandelion" Pfeffer to Marco Scutaro knows damn well what’s going to happen. He’s about to become roadkill.
You remember ol’ Dandelion. Handlebar mustache. Good little player, 5-10, 184. Hit 25 home runs for the 1884 Cubs, more than four of the other seven teams. (Lake Front Park was only 180 to left, 196 to right.) You may also remember Pfeffer as the National League’s best-fielding second baseman. He was in on 85 double plays. That’s why he gets a call here today. As a man in the middle of all those twin-killings, there’s no doubt the Dandelion was trampled by the Matt Hollidays of 1884.
For the 128 years since, second basemen have been in harm’s way.
And that’s a good thing.
What Holliday did to Scutaro is the way the game should be played -- at the very edge of the rules, borderline legal/illegal, hard but within the unwritten code of play that every major leaguer understands. We can argue. We can say it’s OK to slide hard, but it’s not OK to slide past the base to reach the fielder. But we’ve all seen base runners slide past a base and be tagged out. So when is a slide past a base a base-running mistake and when is it a runner’s intent? There is the test of what’s legal and what’s not. Every catcher poses the same test when he sets up to take a throw, all armored-up, and doesn’t allow the runner even a glimpse of home plate. Is that legal? Illegal?
San Francisco’s manager, Bruce Bochy, once a catcher who dared runners to find a way home, didn’t like Holliday’s slide. It came with one out and Cardinals on first and second in the first inning. "I really think they got away with an illegal slide there," he said after the Giants’ victory in Game 2 evened the series at one apiece. Bochy said Holliday “really didn't hit dirt until he was past the bag. Marco was behind the bag and got smoked. It's a shame somebody got hurt because of this ...”
Scutaro is 5-10, 185. Holiday is 6-4, 235. The little Giant wasn’t hurt so badly that he left the game immediately. As proof of karma to those who believe fate extracts payment from sinners, Scutaro lined a fourth-inning, bases-loaded single to left that Holliday then bumbled so badly that all three Giants scored, effectively creating a 7-1 victory.
Not much later, and against his wishes, Scutaro was replaced at second base by Ryan Theriot. Afterward, with Scutaro undergoing an MRI that showed no lasting damage, Theriot took a grown-up's view of the incident: “It’s playoff baseball. Guys are going out giving 150 percent. Yeah, it does happen. I mean, I’ve been crushed numerous times.”
The Cardinals’ second baseman, Daniel Descalso, agreed: “There’s some guys in this league that take pride in breaking up double plays. Matt Holliday is one of them. Especially with [runners on] first and second and one out, if you can break up a double play and get the guy to throw it away, that’s a run for us. And in a postseason game that can make a difference between a win and a loss. ... On slow-hit balls, guys like myself that hang in there, we’re going to get hit, but that’s part of the game. It just comes with the territory. You don’t like getting hit. But on that kind of play, sometimes you’re going to get whacked. It’s a hard-nosed baseball play.”
Holliday said, “It’s part of the deal. You’re trying to keep us out of the double play. Every run in the postseason is huge. The only regret I have is I should have started my slide a step earlier, so I wouldn’t have ended up on top of him. But I try to take the second baseman out on double plays during the season, and obviously there’s no ill intent.”
He’s disingenuous about starting his slide late. A professional base runner knows where he is. Holliday knew where Scutaro was. He knew that to reach Scutaro he had to take an extra step. As in July when he went far out of the baseline to his right to upend Cubs’ shortstop Starlin Castro, Holliday knew where he was going and how he’d get there. It’s his job, as he said, to break up any double play.
Holliday’s announcement of intent -- an intent taught in every dugout in America -- is an example of baseball’s written rules colliding with baseball’s unwritten rules. Rule 6.05 declares: “A batter is out when -- ” and going to subsection (m): “A preceding runner shall, in the umpires’ judgment, intentionally interfere with a fielder who is attempting to catch a thrown ball or to throw a ball in an attempt to complete any play.” The rule comes with a comment: “The objective of this rule is to penalize the offensive team for deliberate, unwarranted, unsportsmanlike action by the runner in leaving the baseline for the obvious purpose of crashing the pivot man on a double play, rather than trying to reach the base. Obviously, this is an umpire’s judgment play.”
Again we find ourselves at the intersection of legal and illegal. Holliday admitted that he was bent on “crashing the pivot man.” But was that action unsportsmanlike? No. Unsportsmanlike would have been going into second based standing up, knocking Scutaro down, and grinding him into the dirt.
Here, in fact, we may see the art of an umpire’s work. Did Holliday’s slide -- a “rolling-thunder takedown” to quote St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz -- make it impossible for Scutaro to complete the double play? No. Scutaro made the throw to first, only too late because the ball had come to him too late. Holliday had gained nothing by the slide, the Giants had lost nothing -- no call was the right call.
The game proceeded without further incident. But of one thing, we may be sure. In Dandelion Pfeffer’s day, karma was invoked less often than the unwritten rule that a miscreant can soon expect a fastball under the chin whiskers. Baseball hasn’t changed much in 128 years. From now on, with a bat in hand, Matt Holliday should hang loose.