By Bill Campbell
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — There are new rules in baseball this year that threaten to take some of the excitement out of the game. The expanded replay rules allow a manager to exit the dugout and walk to the umpire and ask for a replay if a disputed call occurs. It’s all very civilized. Those old school, spit-trading tirades between irate managers and umps, which often led to the manager’s ejection, are being replaced by civility. It may be nicer but it’s not as much fun.
Last week, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona walked calmly out of his dugout and approached home plate ump, Mike Winters, to ask him to review a collision at the plate. Winters reviewed it and confirmed his own call. Nary a harsh word was spoken. The umpires have been instructed that, if a manager or player comes out disputing a call, they will no longer jump down his throat but, rather, to work through the play in question, make a decision and calm down the situation. Francona said after his exchange with Winters, “Everyone is learning” as these rules takes effect. Through last Wednesday, in a count by MLB and STATS, there had been 64 replays with 21 of them overturned – 19 of 8 on manager challenges, and two among 16 umpire-initiated reviews such as the one Francona requested. In 2013, there were 85 managerial and 82 player ejections. The new rules are meant to lower those numbers. But the art of the tirade was about more than just letting tempers get the better of the man: often they were about the manager backing up his player or protecting his team. We may have seen the last of them.
Milwaukee Brewers skipper, Fredi Gonzalez, was the first manager to challenge when first base umpire Greg Gibson ruled Ryan Braun safe at first in the sixth inning. After studying the replay, Gibson’s call was overturned and Gonzalez shrugged his shoulders with a slight smile, as if to say “I told you so” to Gibson. Detroit Tigers manager, Brad Ausmus, says that it’s a different approach now when he makes a challenge because arguments are going to be less common. “Normally the manager would go out there to scream and yell but it doesn’t make sense to [do that] if you have a challenge. In essence, I’m really just taking my time getting out there so we can get a determination from our video room as to whether we should use the challenge. It’s a little awkward because I really don’t have much to say.” The new rules require a big adjustment from the managers.
In April, 11 managers were ejected. With the new rules, a manager can still be ejected for complaining about balls and strikes. Pittsburgh Pirates manager, Clint Hurdle, figures that a few of his compadres may leave the ballpark with some pent-up frustration when they haven’t had a chance to tear into an umpire. He figures that some explosions may still happen, “if not at the game, when they get home.” Someone should warn the wives and kids.
Lloyd McClendon has spent eight seasons in the majors as a player, four as a manager and a dozen more as a coach, but most baseball fans remember him for one of the greatest manger meltdowns of all time. While steering the Pirates, McClendon vehemently disagreed with a call at first base during a tie game against the Milwaukee Brewers. When the umpire sent him to the showers, McClendon decided to take the base with him. The skipper pulled the bag out of the ground, put it under his arm and — still throwing curses in the direction of the first base ump — walked straight into the clubhouse with it. Now steering the Seattle Mariners’ ship, McClendon plans to stay calmer under the new rules. If he can avoid losing his temper and paying fines, he recently said with a smile, “We’ll go home with a lot more money in our pocket. It will save me a lot of money.” Former Mets and White Sox manager Jerry Manuel, when asked about the new regime, said that a manager’s eruption at an umpire often was meant to let his team know that he was behind them. “Bobby Cox was best at that,” said Manuel, “the best at protecting his players at all cost. [He meant for a tirade to say], ‘We are against that team and we are against these umpires.” Many a manager has kicked sand even tossed a cap in a fit of temper over a call. Now it looks like the day of the manager-umpire combat is winding to an end. I’m going to miss some of those scenes.
Blocking the Plate
The MLB also enacted a new rule, 7.13, which states, “A runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate).” A runner violating the rule shall be declared out, even if the fielder drops the ball. So rather than just ban home plate collisions like the one between Scott Cousins and Buster Posey that caused Posey to break a leg in 2011, they passed a rule that allows collisions if the catcher has the ball and is blocking the runner’s direct path to home plate, and if the catcher goes into the base path to field a throw to the plate. A runner who violates the rule will be declared out even if the catcher drops the ball. If a catcher blocks the plate without possession of the ball, the runner will be safe. However, a catcher may block the plate to field a throw if the umpire determines he could not have otherwise fielded it and thus contact with the runner could not have been avoided. I’m all for protecting the players’ safety but I’m going to miss those collisions. Aren’t you?
Chase Utley is Hot
Chase Utley started out hitting this season and he’s keeping it up. On Sunday, with the game tied 3-3 in the eighth inning, he sent a Mike Dunn pitch into the right center field seats for a lead that pitcher, Jonathan Papelbon, was able to hold on to for the 4-3 win over the Marlins. As the Phils swept Miami, manager Ryne Sandberg commented upon Utley saying, “He’s in a good zone now.” He sure is. In 46 plate appearances this season, Utley is hitting an incredible .500 with a 1.440 OPS. He has hit safely in all of the 10 games he’s played. He has a 15-game hitting streak stretching back to last season, the third longest streak of his career. He may be 35 years old but his knees appear to be stable and his arm is strong. “I feel fine. I feel like I normally do,” Utley said on Sunday. His normal is different.
The Phillies probably wouldn’t be .500 two weeks into the season without Utley. He got some help from Ryan Howard (1 for 4 with a solo home run) and Wil Nieves (3 for 4 with two RBIs) in Sunday’s win against the Marlins. The team was thinking positively after sweeping Miami and welcoming the sizzling Braves, who just swept the Nationals, to town on Monday for a four-game set. Unfortunately, they lost the first match-up, 9-6, but Utley doubled with one out in the sixth to stretch his streak to 11 games. It’s clear that the Phils will need more than just Utley’s firepower to win a game, let alone a series, with Atlanta.
Utley and his supporting cast have been one of the most patient crews in baseball thus far. They came into Sunday leading the NL in walks and drew six more to up their season total to 50. The Phils also sport a team on-base percentage of .354. Though still early, that is up from .306 in 2013 and .317 in 2012. Utley, never one to speak outlandishly, quietly acknowledged the progress while maintaining that it means little at the moment. “I still think there’s room for improvement,” Utley said. That is undeniable. But it’s easy to see right now that Chase Utley is still a very good and very valuable ballplayer.
In other Phillies news, the team has optioned right-handed reliever Justin De Fratus to the Triple-A Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs and recalled right-hander Luis Garcia. De Fratus had compiled a 7.20 ERA across five innings with the Phillies so far this season. He surrendered a game-tying two-run home run to Giancarlo Stanton in the seventh inning of Saturday’s extra inning win by the Phillies. Garcia has allowed no runs in 4 2/3 innings of work this season with the Iron Pigs. He compiled a 3.73 ERA across 31 1/3 innings with the Phillies in 2013. Last in the Phillies news line-up: Cole Hamels is scheduled to pitch today in Clearwater and to return to the team next week.
For the second time in three years, Bubba Watson collected a green jacket at the end of the Masters, played at Augusta National Golf Course. Watson fell two shots behind twenty-year-old Jordan Spieth on Sunday by the seventh hole but Bubba made up the deficit by the end of the front nine. He steadily closed the door on Spieth as the back nine unfolded, scoring 69 for the day. Watson walked away with $1.62 million for the four days he tore it up in Georgia. Then, the papers say, he took his family to the local Waffle House for some chow. An emotional Watson hugged his caddy, his wife and then his young son at the end of the day, bringing the crowd to its feet for a long time. A Masters without Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson in the hunt could have been a dull tournament. But Watson and Spieth, who is sure to win his own green jacket someday, held our attention till the last putt.
Flyers and Sixers
The Flyers will meet the New York Rangers tonight in the opening game of the first playoff round. After a hard-fought March and April, the Rangers (45-31-6) finished as the second seed in the Metropolitan Division. The Flyers (42-30-10) finished third. These two teams will meet for the eleventh time and the Flyers have won six of the ten series so far. The Broad Street Bullies made at least part of their tough reputation playing and beating up on the Rangers in the playoffs. Hockey fans in our town can’t wait for the face-off at 7:00 p.m. in Madison Square Garden.
The 76ers beat the Miami Heat last night, 100-87, to bring to an end a painful season that ended with a 19-63 record. It was better than their worst – 9-73. But not much better. The team made it clear that it would sacrifice wins this year to get the highest draft pick in the June NBA draft. They are guaranteed a top-five selection by finishing with the second-worst record in the NBA and they even have a 19% chance of getting the top draft pick. However, they allowed themselves to become a joke this year and, even if the strategy pays off, it’s been an eternity of a season for Brett Brown and his team as well as the fans. Philadelphia has a storied basketball history. The chapter written this year is one no one will want to open and re-read in the future. Let’s close the book on it.
We’ve got Flyers and Phillies to follow this weekend, folks. The Penn Relays open next week on April 24th. Enjoy it, friends, and Happy Easter to you all.