RTFRB: The Obstruction Rule Should Not Have Ended Game 3

I am posting this even as I hope it will be of little interest after tonight’s Game 6 of the World Series, since I’m pulling for the Red Sox to win and make the unfortunate end of Game 3 just an oddity with no lasting effect on the outcome of the Series.

Still, I want to counter the prevailing idea that, while it was a shame to have such an important game decided in such an unusual and unsatisfying way, the decision of third base umpire Jim Joyce to call obstruction on Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks, and thus award the winning run to the Cardinals in the bottom of the ninth inning, was the correct call and really a clearcut enforcement of the rule on obstruction, which made no allowance for any consideration of the fielder’s intent.

The widespread feeling that something was nonetheless wrong about having the game end this way has led to talk that “Major League Baseball” might want to revisit the rule to make it more flexible, so, that in the future, the umpire would have more discretion in deciding whether true obstruction (with intent, as opposed to unavoidably) had taken place. Here’s a link about that. The writer of that article, Ken Rosenthal, argues against making such a change, for the simple fact that it will probably never come up again, and, moreover, that explicitly including “intent” in the rule would only make things worse. According to my argument below, a careful reading of the rule shows that likely (not provable) intent is already in the rule implicitly, so that what is needed is not a change to the rule but a more reasonable enforcement of it.

I did not know the rule on obstruction of a runner by a fielder by heart before this event. However, I was able to read it, as anyone else can, online. What I see in the rule is not at all a vindication of the umpire’s call.

The rule, without consideration of its accompanying Comment, might seem clearcut: “OBSTRUCTION is the act of a fielder who, while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner.”

But the Comment cites as an example the case where a fielder has dived for a ball and remained lying on the field in the path of the runner. There is room for reasoned judgment in making the call in such a case. Here’s what the Comment on the rule says about a case very similar to what happened (ground ball instead of thrown ball the only difference): “For example: an infielder dives at a ground ball and the ball passes him and he continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner, he very likely has obstructed the runner.”

I want to call attention to a couple of phrases in that sentence. First, it says “and he continues to lie on the ground.” I think the reasonable reading of this is that the fielder does not promptly get up off the ground, with the strong implication that he is deliberately staying on the ground to be in the runner’s way. This implication of intent is strengthened by the ending “he very likely has obstructed the runner.” Very likely! Now he clearly has obstructed the runner in the strictest sense of the word if he has impeded the progress of the runner, so the “very likely” can only point to the fielder’s likely intent. Intent cannot be proven, of course, so the obstruction rule can be invoked when it seems likely that deliberate obstruction was involved, or that what has happened is essentially indistinguishable from deliberate obstruction.

Now if the fielder is trying to get up, but is prevented from that by the runner being on top of him, how can the fielder be blamed for not getting up? How long must the fielder stay on the ground to say he “continues to lie on the ground”? It is clearly a judgment call about whether the fielder has probably impeded the runner on purpose, without, of course, requiring the umpire to be a mind reader. There is no automatic call based on the mere fact of contact with a runner having been made by a fielder lying on the ground.

The common sense call would have been that the impeding of the runner’s progress was inadvertent, since the play happened so fast with both players in the same small area from the start. Contact occurred almost immediately after the ball got past the fielder. It was not the case of a shortstop continuing to lie in the base path to slow down a runner rounding second after the ball had gotten through the infield.

A judgment call based on the probable intent of the fielder, which should have been made, would have left the runner free to advance at his own risk (to be tagged out at home in the case in question). Instead, what should have been an extra-inning World Series game with uncertain outcome became another game made memorable by Jim Joyce, who seems to have a knack for spoiling games of great interest with bad calls.

Of course, I don’t know any more than anyone else whether Middlebrooks was trying to impede Craig. I also don’t know if Craig’s decision to go over Middlebrooks instead of around him was based on the hope of getting an obstruction call. But based on the wording of the rule, including its significant appended Comment, the play should have been allowed to continue without umpire interference. It may be that umpires are taught to enforce the rule the way Joyce did, despite its wording. If so, that needs to be changed, but it doesn’t take a rule change for that to happen, for the rule is reasonable as it stands.

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