Bautista’s slide, outside of any other factors, was late and aggressive, and (maybe most importantly) expected, after he seethed from being hit by the pitch. His slide was directly over the base, a choice he claimed to have consciously made to send a message, as opposed to hurting Odor (and I agree that he could have really hurt him if he wanted to do so). It’s important to keep in mind that on a normal baseball day without such bitter history, the slide would have raised eyebrows, but not sparked a furious reaction. Since Bautista barely clipped Odor, it probably would have been overlooked altogether. But with a new rule mandating that a runner must get down early on his slide while avoiding all targeted contact, defenders now expect to avoid contact altogether. The two rules changes make players see any contact whatsoever as a threat.
There’s a thin line between creating more safety in the game and forcing unreasonable expectations of contact-free play. This uncertainty, combined with an existing history of citable offenses, meant that contact led to retaliation—swift, and in this case, physical.
In time, maybe the rules changes will follow the trajectory of the instant replay. The replay system has led to players virtually ignoring umpires when it comes to questionable calls in the field. Instead, they point to the dugout, asking the replay team to see if the call was right. The players let the rules play out, often without argument.
The effort to continue moving forward in regards to safety is positive, even if the struggle to impose peace among hyper-competitive athletes is perhaps quixotic. But if MLB wants a true culture shift, someone has to brave the book of unwritten rules, not just write new ones for public consumption that are ultimately superseded by a code. Otherwise, players will simply revert to their comfortable biases and habits of reading between the lines.
Complicating matters are the many factors in play. Baseball has uniforms and fans, home teams, deeply rooted loyalties, committed historians, and Twitter accounts. We can’t expect the Blue Jays or the Rangers to be objective when it comes to evaluating the big picture here, at least in the short-term. The players are too invested in their teams, and in having the back of their teammates, to see things the same way. In baseball, you support your teammate, regardless of how poor their choices might be. If Odor were a Blue Jay and Bautista a Ranger, it’s easy to imagine that their team’s opinions would be completely flipped with regards to how the unwritten rules should be applied to the situation.
The league can live with the invisible ink in the rulebook as along as retaliation isn’t violent. Punching a fellow ballplayer for fairness turns gifted athletes into unskilled boxers. You can chalk it up to self-defense or simple fire, but you also have to remember that baseball fights have historically been a chest-beating tango. No one wants to jeopardize their livelihood by breaking their hands on someone else’s skull. No one wants to risk the tool of their trade—their body—to enforce a rule that no one else can read, and therefore judge.