PITTSBURGH — From the moment Anthony Rizzo changed course on his way to home plate in the eighth inning Monday, any sports fan (or human being) could predict the likely postgame reaction.
The Cubs were going to say Rizzo’s takeout of Elias Díaz was fine. The Pirates were going to say it wasn’t.
Chalk one up for doing the reporting anyway, though, because while the Cubs were adamant that Rizzo made the proper ‘baseball play,’ there was some general confusion in the Pirates’ clubhouse about how they should react to it.
“I don’t really have a comment on it,” said Corey Dickerson, moments after the Pirates lost 7-0 to open their three-game series with Chicago. “It depends on if it goes by that old rule, the way you’re taught. Lot of older guys are taught to break up the double play, and the new rule is, protect the catcher at all costs.
“I just really don’t have much to comment on it. I’m not really good with the rule book anyway. My job is just to play. There’s a good mix of young and old guys so you’ll probably get a variety of answers there.”
Dickerson, 29, was correct in that guess. The so-called ‘Buster Posey Rule‘ concerning collisions at home plate was instituted in 2014, followed by the ‘Bona Fide Slide Rule‘ two years later, at least partially as a reaction to Chris Coghlan’s brutal takedown of Jung Ho Kang in September 2015.
Díaz, 27, made his Major League Baseball debut right at the end of 2015, but didn’t get significant playing time with the Pirates until last year, so he’s never caught in a big-league world where fielders didn’t have some protections from barreling baserunners.
Combine that experience with the Monday’s injury scare, and Díaz’ reaction to Rizzo’s slide was understandably negative.
“In my personal opinion, I don’t think it was a good slide,” Díaz told reporters via interpreter Mike González. “I understand that there’s old-school baseball, but we’re not in old-school baseball anymore. There’s new rules and things that we’ve submitted to, and even as catchers mentally prepared ourselves for. I don’t agree that that’s a legal slide.
“Everything I’m trained to do and that I practice to do, I feel like I implemented. I did everything that it took to get out of the way (and to) make a good, clean throw, but it didn’t go that way.”
In his next at-bat after the incident, Rizzo apologized to Díaz for the outcome of the play, but not necessarily the intent.
“He said, ‘Man, it was a tough play,'” Díaz related. “I waved him off and I said, ‘Man, let’s just play ball.’ ”
Clearly, though, Díaz didn’t go out for drinks with Rizzo afterward.
“When I saw the replay, I thought, ‘Man, this guy could’ve ended my career right here,'” Díaz said. “From what I’ve been trained and what I’ve been told, this was not a legal slide. I thought of all the terrible things that could’ve happened to my career after that.”
For his part, Rizzo said he felt his play was “100 percent” within the framework of the rulebook.
“You have to break up the double play,” he said. “We’re playing as hard as we can and they’re playing as hard as they can. … He didn’t really give me a choice there.”
Cubs manager Joe Maddon was more vociferous in his defense of the Rizzo slide, to the point that he nearly got thrown out for arguing with home plate umpire Bill Welke that the play shouldn’t have even been reviewed. The safe call at the plate was upheld after the umps consulted with the MLB office in New York, leading to Clint Hurdle’s ejection.
“My baseball sensibilities are absolutely impacted in that,” Maddon said, later commending Welke for his initial call. “That’s a perfect play by Rizzo. My concern is that they’re teaching fans the wrong things, also. The fans’ reaction to ‘Riz’ the next time he came up indicate they think he did something wrong, and that’s what’s so wrong about all that, where the player has not done anything wrong, but because of new rules, it makes him wear the black hat for a moment.
“That’s how you should teach your kids to slide home to break up a double play. The catcher’s got to clear the path. You have to teach proper technique. He’s got to get out farther. He’s got to keep his foot on the plate and clear, because that’s absolutely what could happen. I know because it happened to me, and the same thing happened, the ball went down the right-field corner.”
Maddon’s take on the play coincides with that of former MLB players Ron Darling and Eric Byrnes in the MLB Network clip I’ve linked below:
The concept in dispute here seems to be whether a force play at home plate should be treated the same way as a force play at any other base. While Rizzo could still easily touch home plate after sliding through Díaz, he also clearly makes it a point to hammer Díaz, who had given Rizzo enough of a ‘lane’ to get to home should the out have not been recorded.
In Hurdle’s mind, the spirit of the new rules was violated here, if not necessarily the letter of the law.
“At the end of the day, we’ve put a rule in at home plate to protect the catchers,” Hurdle said. “And based on the information I got today, and the video I’ve been able to watch a few different times, (it) seems like we’ve just put open season on the catchers on a force play in front of home plate. Our catcher, he makes the play just like he’s supposed to make it and he gets wiped out with a hard baseball slide. I mean there’s potential injury. I don’t see the rule fitting the means there.”
That about sums up how Steven Brault, 26, interpreted the collision.
“I just don’t like it,” Brault told me. “I’m not a fan of it. The main idea is that, you know, it’s a ‘playing hard’ kind of play, but it’s also a play that can injure somebody, and I don’t like that. It’s just one of those things that, as a team, we’re not going to like. It’s too bad stuff like that has to happen.
“I feel like I don’t understand the rule completely. To me, that feels like (Rizzo) should have definitely been out. Clearly angling towards Díaz. He was already out by, you know, a good amount. It just … doesn’t sit well.”
To that point, the Pirates conducted a team meeting after the game that lasted about 10 minutes. A source confirms that team president Frank Coonelly came down to the clubhouse after the game to go over the video with Hurdle after he was ejected, too. Needless to say, there’s been some discussion of the situation.
Note also that there was no retaliation against Rizzo when he came to bat in the ninth inning, outside of the loud jeers he heard from the Pirates fans still in attendance. David Freese could be seen arguing about something with third-base coach Joey Cora in the dugout after the final out, but neither man was available to interview Monday evening. Hurdle said the argument was something the Pirates would handle “in house,” but it doesn’t take a sleuth to deduce the dispute was over whether the Pirates should’ve ordered a plunking for Rizzo in the ninth.
Here’s where it gets more interesting. Sean Rodríguez, a man who’s not afraid of a little contact, said while he doesn’t necessarily consider the Rizzo slide dirty, it could still merit a pushback (or brushback) from the Pirates.
“That’s a play (in which) I’m probably doing the same thing, seeing if I can alter (Díaz’s) throw,” Rodríguez said. “Trying to get him to do exactly what he did, which is throw it (away) and two runs score due to that. If you can contribute to a team getting two more runs from a hard play, that’s awesome. But at the same time, do you appreciate it? No. Over the course of my career, I’ve definitely gotten retaliated (against) for doing a lot less.”
If that sounds like a conflict, it probably is. It also speaks to the tensions of modern sport. How far should a league go to protect its players without materially altering the way the games are played?
Or, to put it a different way, how important is the so-called ‘integrity of the game’ to maintain if it’s putting the athletes at risk in an unacceptable fashion? And are you unfairly legislating against a certain type of player who otherwise could’ve made a nice living on the edge in previous eras?
“I’m not sure what their goal is when they change the rules,” the 33-year-old Rodríguez continued. “They say they’re trying to protect the players and stuff like that, but at the same time you want to do what’s best for the game itself, the integrity of the game. I guess I came up in a different era, where that was a part of the game that was exciting. You saw guys going that much harder on every single play, not just plays that benefited themselves. Maybe that’s what the rules are saying now, basically ‘stay in your lane,’ almost.
“I don’t know. I guess that’s where scrappy players can make a name for themselves when they get to play outside those lanes a little bit more. You’re trying to protect guys, but don’t take too much of the integrity of the game. Just let us play. That’s what this game is. It’s baseball. It’s dirty. It’s gritty. It’s getting cut and going after things hard. That’s what (Rizzo) did. When you play hard, you’re going to be floating on that line of whether it’s dirty or not, and you accept that.”
Regardless of the big-picture questions, there are still two practical concerns regarding Monday’s developments for the Pirates themselves.
First, do the players understand the rules well enough to give themselves the best chance to win? I’m not sure that answer is yes. Seemingly, MLB’s ruling says that the Posey Rule doesn’t apply in the same way a force play at the plate as it does when a runner is chugging home trying to score on a hit or sacrifice fly.
“You can read the rule over and over again,” Rodríguez said. “It’s open to everyone’s interpretation. You veer, you don’t veer. You reach, you don’t reach. What kind of play does that count on, is it a force play? I thought it was the same thing as at second base, but I guess not.”
Secondly — but perhaps just as importantly — will there be any resentment building in the clubhouse over teammates not defending Díaz’ honor via a hit-by-pitch? Losers of eight of 10 heading into Tuesday’s game, the Pirates (28-25) could ill afford any distractions from the cause at this point.
Rodríguez said the matter was discussed after Monday’s game and “what needed to be said was said.” Stay tuned, I suppose.
“You bond together and move together and become that much stronger,” Rodríguez said, “or you let stuff like this separate you.”
UPDATE 5 p.m. Tuesday: Major League Baseball has informed the Pirates and Cubs that the Rizzo slide should have been deemed interference, with Rizzo called out on the play and no runners advancing from the time of Díaz’ throw.
Hurdle said he’s relieved just for the sake of the catchers in MLB, who are now aware that that type of play is against the current rules.
“I just wanted to figure out how I was so off, just in my evaluation of watching the video,” Hurdle told reporters before Tuesday’s game. “If I’m off, coach me up. Teach me.”
Hurdle seemed incredulous that the umpires on site and the MLB replay center determined that Rizzo didn’t change his path to the plate in order to interfere with Díaz’ throw.
“In this case you have a white (foul) line that separates it,” Hurdle said. “For 80 feet (Rizzo) is on one side of the line and for 10 feet he’s on the other side of it.”