Baseball fans, rejoice! The greatest rivalry in sports has emerged from the dank, desolate cellar it has been in for years and has shaken off the cob webs. The Red Sox / Yankees rivalry finally has some weight to it after a long break in which it seemed more likely that you would catch a player from either squad laughing about a recent round of golf together than you would see them engaging in a round of fisticuffs. In fact, it had been 14 years since Jason Varitek infamously burnished his glove into A-Rod’s squawking pie-hole. As great as the Red Sox / Yankees rivalry is, this latest fight between Joe Kelly and Tyler Austin highlights what Major League Baseball has been missing recently: gritty, hard-nosed play.
MLB hurt itself when it instituted the “slide rule” of 2016. This rule was simply a quick-draw, shoot from the hip reaction to Ruben Tejada getting injured when Chase Utley took him out on a double play attempt at second base during the 2015 NLDS. With the entire world focused on safety and the quick to please attitude of society these days, MLB made a ruling that (in short) the baserunner could no longer change paths or slide “late” to interfere with the fielder making a play. This new ruling instantly threw out one of the more exciting plays in baseball; a second baseman or short stop acrobatically turning and shuffling to complete a double play with a baserunner barreling down the path right in front of them. It took the edginess out of the play and it left a rather mundane scenario in which the runner really has no incentive to run hard towards second. I’m not saying runners should intentionally be targeting fielder’s knees or spiking them in the calf, but hardnosed and disciplined base running is a skill, and one that can create tense moments between players due to the physical nature of it. Gone are the days of gritty base play and the one on one rivalry’s developing between a fielder and a baserunner.
Tame base running inherently changes the dynamic of pitching, although the intensity of pitching has been on the decline for some time. By saying intensity, I am not referring to velocity, pitch type, or pitch count for that matter; I am referring to how batters are pitched. In the not too distant past, pitchers would back hitters of the plate with some high cheese tucked inside and then follow it up with a backdoor breaking ball to make the hitter look similar to how I looked while swinging a bat in 6th grade: foolish. I remember Pedro regularly doing this to hitters and I’m sure back in the days of Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver it was a common occurrence. We still see it some with high velocity relief pitchers, but really the fear they impart is just due to velocity. You seldom see a pitcher back a player off the plate to gain an advantage. With no contact plays on the infield anymore, we don’t see “warning” pitches thrown at batters telling them to back off of the shortstop next time.
The Kelly vs. Austin fight was the result of a rare occasion in baseball these days. Shortstop Brock Holt of the Red Sox got clipped with Austin’s spikes while attempting to turn a double play (Austin’s slide itself was not dirty or illegal, but he did leave his spike up, thus asking for trouble).This got the two players into a chirping match at second base. Joe Kelly later came in for relief and threw a beamer inside, sending Austin backing his hips off the plate. Kelly reiterated by dicing Austin square in the elbow and the rest is history. Joe Kelly, in case you didn’t know from the standing ovation you got at the Bruins playoff game, Boston loves you. The Sox / Yankees rivalry needed a spark and you provided it in wake of protecting your infielders. Baseballs fans now anticipate the next meeting between the two clubs. Maybe, just maybe this spark can ignite MLB and the gritty hardnosed play of yore. So, as a BoSox fan, thank you Joe. However, baseball fans everywhere should be thanking you too.