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Revisiting the "neighborhood play" as a rule change reportedly nears implementation

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

According to a Buster Olney article published on last night, Major League Baseball and the players union reportedly "will get there" regarding a rule change on sliding into second base by the start of the 2016 season. This is not all that surprising considering the gruesome leg injuries suffered by middle infielders Jung-ho Kang and Ruben Tejada last season. Plus, as a blog about the St. Louis Cardinals, we must not forget about Matt Holliday's assault on the legs of Marco Scutaro in the 2012 National League Championship Series, either.

That being said, it is easy to distinguish the reactive, rather than proactive, thought process behind the proposed rule change. Generally speaking, being proactive in the decision-making process is preferred to being reactive, but considering the net result is increased player safety (in an era where there is intense scrutiny on player safety), I do not think Major League Baseball really cares about what makes up the thought process here, especially considering the "Buster Posey rule" largely resulted from a reactive process as well (hence, the unofficial name of the rule).

First, I must provide readers with a little bit of personal housekeeping. In no way do I consider myself a baseball traditionalist (or as some would say, purist). I am not a fan of the "Well, it has been this way for so long, why change it now?" reasoning, either. However, I am adamantly against unnecessary rule changes, especially those that result in even more judgment calls being added to the (already extremely difficult) job description of big league umpires. For perspective, here is the official rule book's current wording regarding breakup slides into a base:

"5.09 (a) (13) (Rule 6.05, 2014)

A batter is out when --

(m) A preceding runner shall, in the umpire's judgment, intentionally interfere with a field who is attempting to catch a thrown ball or to throw a ball in an attempt to complete any play:

Rule 5.09 (a) (13) 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.

In the span of three sentences, the word judgment  appears twice. When it comes to rules in sports, it is preferred to avoid those based on judgment, if at all possible, considering a league of 30 teams requires hundreds of umpires/officials, and each one being human, each umpire/official will have his or her own judgment. Heck, on a Monday, the exact same umpire may make one judgment on a play, and then again on a Friday, may make a very different judgment on an almost identical play. Yes, it is "part of the game" and the beauty of the "human element," but that doesn't mean officials should avoid making rules that require even more judgment.

Remember, the rule quoted above is the current one, too, before the proposed rule change has even taken effect. No matter how the rule change is worded, judgment will almost assuredly remain, and honestly, it will likely be added one or two more times as well. Sure, one of the stipulations could be that "the runner is not allowed to slide through the base whatsoever," but in a way, this defies physics (just ask Peter Bourjos), especially for speedy base runners barreling down on the base at 20+ MPH, and frankly, could lead to more knee injuries to base runners than we currently have with middle infielders.

Another stipulation could be that the base runner must be able to reach the base from where he is sliding (know that this is already in the rule book, but I'm sure they'll work tirelessly to make the wording even clearer). Will the umpire stop the game in order to ask the base runner in question to stretch his arms out and then use a tape measure to compare the runner's wingspan to his slide mark before making his decision on if the slide was legal? Understand that I purposely took this scenario to the extreme in order to bring up a point worth discussing.

Fortunately for player safety, there is an already present unwritten rule (even if umpires deny its existence) that aids in the safety of middle infielders, and it is known as the "neighborhood play." If you follow me on Twitter, you likely know that I have become a supporter of the "neighborhood play" over the years, largely because it addresses player safety without the need of adding to an already-complicated rule book.

Regarding the "neighborhood play," when the feed from the opposite middle infielder is timely and on target, what is the harm in allowing the fielder receiving the ball to clear his body from the oncoming base runner? Given what we have seen happen to important players over the years, is it really worth getting upset over the fact that the fielder's foot wasn't on the base as the ball met his glove if the move allows for him to avoid getting hurt? In this scenario just described (and I liken it to a first baseman pulling his foot on a perfect throw to avoid tangling legs with the batter-runner), we know the middle infielder would have been more than capable of keeping his foot on the bag if truly required to record the first out.

Now, as with just about anything in sports, there are grey areas associated with the "neighborhood play," and yes, this allows for dreaded judgment calls to reenter the discussion—the same judgment calls I pleaded to avoid earlier in this article. If the throw is slightly off target or appears that it will get to the receiver at the exact same time as the runner begins his slide into second base, does the "neighborhood play" still apply? Maybe or maybe not, but one thing I do know is that umpires (and players, for that matter) have much more experience discerning the "neighborhood play" than they will have with whatever the new sliding rule will be in 2016.

Bottom line, I understand the utmost importance of player safety, but I don't think rule changes are always necessarily the answer. I also know that executing a neighborhood play-type move isn't always an option for the middle infielder, as was the case for Tejada as he was forced to reach back for an off-target flip from Daniel Murphy, and that players will still get hurt. Would a rule change regarding slides lead to more consistency in player safety? Maybe so, but as Jacob Emert, a friend over at The Washington Post, so eloquently put it, "I could see a new rule making it worse (See: NFL catch)." Jacob makes a good comparison here as I feel we are on the verge of entering a territory where we will begin to ask, "what is a legal slide anymore?"


I have created a very simple poll question below to get a gauge on readers' thought process regarding a potential rule change. I asked virtually the same question last night on Twitter, and at present, it is basically a 50-50 split. After answering, please provide your full thoughts in the comments section.