Base coaches who thought the enforcement of a helmet rule would be their biggest impediment this season are quickly finding out otherwise.
Major league baseball this season has tightened the parameters regarding where coaches can roam in an attempt to keep them safe. And the inconvenience already is rippling through the game.
Not only did Dodgers third-base coach Larry Bowa receive a three-game suspension Wednesday after his volcanic eruption a night earlier but, a couple of hours south, the San Diego Padres say the enforcement of the little-known rule potentially cost them a run in Tuesday's 2-1 win over Houston.
The issue for both Bowa and Padres third-base coach Glenn Hoffman on Tuesday was this: With a runner on second base, third-base coaches normally shade down the third-base line toward home plate, so that when the runner on second rounds third, he can easily pick up the coach.
But baseball sent a memo to clubs and umpires this spring notifying them that coaches are expected to remain in the box. It's tied to the helmet rule, which the game's general managers and rules committee installed after Scott Coolbaugh, then coaching first base, was killed by a line drive in a minor-league game last summer.
In the Padres' game, Hoffman, carefully remaining in the box to comply with the rules, attempted to stop Hairston at third on Paul McAnulty's ground ball to shortstop. But when Hairston rounded third, he was already past Hoffman and didn't see the stop sign. Houston shortstop Miguel Tejada alertly threw behind the runner to third, and Hairston was tagged out.
Now, here's where the coaching-box rule became even more chaotic in San Diego: Turns out, in an attempt to preserve the grass, Padres groundskeepers periodically move the third-base box slightly up and down the line. Its positioning Tuesday was too far toward left-field -- the home-plate side of the third-base box was even with the third-base bag, and it extended toward left field. Which is why Hairston never saw Hoffman.
So 30 minutes before Wednesday's Padres-Astros game, Petco Park groundskeepers were redrawing the lines and extending the third-base box several feet to the home-plate side of third base -- where it's supposed to be.
"The idea is that the coaches are not supposed to be any closer to home plate than the near side of the box as a player bats," said Padres president Sandy Alderson, a member of baseball's rules committee. "But the rules don't require that he stay in the box."
According to the rules -- rules that obviously will be enforced this year -- a coach can move out of the box and go up or down the line once the ball is put in play and the ball moves past the coach.
"The whole idea is safety," Alderson said.
That's what got Bowa into a pickle Tuesday evening. Third-base ump Ed Montague told Bowa he was straying too far from the box, Bowa ignored him, and finally, with a Dodger on second and Bowa just about halfway between third and home, Montague warned him one final time.
It's been a tough year already for Bowa, who bitterly complained about the helmet rule this spring.
"The helmets are ridiculous," Alderson said. "They don't provide protection. If they were provided with the same helmets batters and baserunners have worn for the past 20 years, it would be one thing. If they're going to wear helmets, they should wear the helmets with the ear flaps."
Alderson said he did not see replays of the Bowa explosion, and he did have a question.
"Did he throw his helmet?" Alderson quipped.