Wednesday, October 17, 2012

On the Dark Slide

By Jeff Kallman

The question before the house: did St. Louis Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday land a dirty hit deliberately upon San Francisco Giants second baseman Marco Scutaro with that rolling slide over the pad in the top of the first, taking Scutaro out of completing a double play attempt Monday night, making a play that is otherwise as time-honored in baseball as the 12-to-six curve ball, the intentional walk, and the brushback pitch?

1) Nobody including Holliday himself disputes it was a slide that began rather late, as these things do. But there is less than a firm consensus as to whether Holliday, who does not carry a reputation for cheap or dirty play otherwise, launched himself with malice aforethought.

If you were to ask Giants left fielder Hunter Pence, which is what reporters did after the Giants finished their Game 2, 7-1 triumph, there was so such evident malice. "You don't want to see Scutaro or anyone get hurt on a baseball field," he is quoted as saying. "You understand in the circumstance that you're going to take someone out. You're going to go hard ... In my opinion, it pumped us up a little bit. But these kinds of things ... you know Holliday. I don't think he's trying to hurt someone. He's playing the game hard. These things happen."

2) Scutaro himself, who happens to be one of the feel-better stories in baseball this season, a non-waiver trade deadline pickup for the Giants, who stepped in with much-needed clubhouse leadership in the immediate wake of the Melky Cabrera suspension, is not exactly one of the game's softer players. Indeed, he was able to stay in the game long enough to deliver the critical blow, slapping a two-out, two-run single to left field, in the bottom of the fourth inning, on which — call it karma if you wish — Holliday himself facilitated a third run on the play when he misplayed the ball.

3) Holliday himself acknowledges he began his slide a little late. By any viewing of the play, his slide started when he was just about atop the base. But he was clearly bruised on the inside by the sight of Scutaro in pain. On several occasions he expressed remorse over the play, starting with his next time at bat. "Tell Marco," he told Giants catcher Buster Posey, "I should have started my slide a step earlier. I hope he's OK. Obviously I wasn't trying to hurt him."

A genuinely dirty player would not express remorse almost as fast as the actual play occurred. "Things happen fast," he said at one point, as an explanation and not as a dismissal, a point taken up by Scutaro's eventual replacement, Ryan Theriot, a backup infielder with plenty of second base experience, whom Giants manager Bruce Bochy sent in Scutaro's stead when Scutaro — thus far diagnosed with hip strain, pending release of his MRI results; he's said to have flown with the Giants to St. Louis — said he could no longer move properly.

"It's playoff baseball," Theriot told reporters. "Guys are going out giving 150 percent. Yeah, it does happen. I mean, I've been crushed numerous times."

4) You can take what you will from the comments of both managers after the game. Said Bochy: "I really think they got away with an illegal slide there. That rule was changed a while back. And he 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." Said Mike Matheny, the Cardinals' manager: "We teach our guys to go hard. Play the game clean, play it hard, not try and hurt anybody. And I hated to see that it ended up that way. That's not how we play the game. We do go hard, but within the rules."

5) Memory harks back to the 1973 National League Championship Series, Game 3, between the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Mets. In the top of the fifth, Hall of Famer Joe Morgan bounced to first base, where Mets first baseman John Milner threw on to second to start a double play. Pete Rose dropped into a slide as Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson caught the ball and threw back to first in his bid to double up Morgan, but Rose did precisely as he acknowledged he intended to do, blasting into Harrelson after Harrelson got the throw off.

Rose and the enraged Harrelson got into a fight at second base, emptying both benches and bullpens in a scene that turned ugly enough. When Rose took his position as the sides changed, enraged Met fans littered the field (you thought Atlanta Braves fans invented the protest a near fortnight ago?) and inspired Reds manager Sparky Anderson to pull his team back to the dugout. Mets manager Yogi Berra, pitcher Tom Seaver, and outfielder Willie Mays had to go out to the field to plea for peace. Leading 9-2 at the time, the Mets eventually won the game by that score, going forth to win the LCS.

6) Holliday did not appear to be trying anything other than taking Scutaro out of the double play while Scutaro still had the ball in his hands. Holliday's slide began as Scutaro turned to throw on to first base. He may have launched his slide late but he didn't try plowing Scutaro after he'd thrown on to first, the way Rose once upon a time plowed Harrelson well after the ball left Harrelson's throwing hand.

7) Much of the discussion in the wake of the play centers around payback, as in the Giants looking therefore. There will be some looking for, if not hoping for, the Giants going for a little payback when the series, now tied at a game each, resumes in St. Louis Wednesday. A brushback pitch or two, a harder slide than "necessary" here and there.

"If you've been watching Holliday play the outfield recently — he has poor hands and has more trouble tracking balls while on the run than any other major league outfielder — you understand he is a bull in a china shop when it comes to baseball aesthetics," writes Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci. "Holliday's explanation wasn't a cover story, and if you saw his pained look, you realized he understood with some regret all the trouble that his slide had caused. His admission that he wished he had slid earlier helped diffuse the situation.

"We'll see what happens," continues Verducci, customarily one of the most reasoning of baseball minds and observers. "Part of the macho code of the game is to 'protect your players,' so a retaliatory pitch at one of the St. Louis players is not out of the question. But let's be clear so we can move on: The slide was unacceptable, but Holliday took enough ownership of it and there was no indication he went in with malicious intent."

Said Rose to reporters after that 1973 LCS Game 3, "I'm no damn little girl out there. I'm supposed to give the fans their money's worth and try to bust up double plays — and shortstops." One strains arduously to believe fans who want to see heads-up, no-bull baseball (Whitey Herzog's phrase) are really trying to say they want to see heads off and body parts likewise redistributed. On slides that are, technically, takeout slides after the fact, which is precisely what Rose's slide was where Holliday's, for its error, wasn't.

8) You might care to note that the Giants and the Cardinals have been there before. In a July 1988 game, San Francisco first baseman Will Clark plowed and upended St. Louis shortstop (now third base coach) Jose Oquendo while trying likewise to break up a double play. That slide triggered a brawl not dissimilar to the 1973 Reds/Mets rumble, when it seemed as though the entire Cardinals infield wanted to pound Clark into hamburger.

"I slid a little bit before the bag," Clark, now a member of the Giants' front office, tells the San Jose Mercury-News. "We made contact over the bag. I was expecting Oquendo to jump across the bag and he did. And I got him. On this play (Holliday's), there was no attempt to slide into the bag. It was way past the bag ... It was clean because it was over the top of the bag. But it was also very, very late." The next Giant hitter, Mike Aldrete, ducked a brushback pitch. Clark himself ducked one later in that series.

9) Both sides might care to bear in mind that the Giants got their payback in the same game, and much to their benefit, when Holliday misplayed Scutaro's two-run single into that third run. You don't always have to take the matter into your own hands, particularly in light of Holliday making no attempt to shirk responsibility for the play.

"There's definitely baseball gods," Clark is quoted as saying. "There's a reason why he hits the (single) and Holliday boots the ball. Baseball gods shine."

Until and after the top of the first Monday night, and one notes the shame of the Holliday-Scutaro collision detracting from Giants pitcher Ryan Vogelsong's performance, this NLCS shines likewise. It would punish Holliday and the Cardinals, or acquit Scutaro and the Giants, not one degree, should the Giants decide those baseball gods, actual or reputed, simply did little enough that they require a helping hand or three in the innings to come.

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