Most baseball fans (at least outside of St. Louis) knew something was wrong with the historic “obstruction” call that ended game 3 of this year’s world series by advancing the winning run to the plate, where the runner had otherwise been thrown out. Even the game announcers, committed to even-handedness, seemed shocked by the seemingly unprecedented ruling that ended the game on an umpire’s “gimmee.”
Ironically, the umpire who made the call, Jim Joyce (no relation to the Irish novelist), was, until this game, most famous for another botched call in an earlier series, calling a runner safe at first base when replays clearly showed he’d been beaten by the throw, ruining a pitcher’s “perfect game” in the process. In that case, he eventually admitted the error publicly, said he needed to “man up,” even co-writing book on the episode with the pitcher whose achievement in the record books he’d blown.
Even more ironically, some may feel, MLB (major league baseball) was already planning to introduce new replay & appeal procedures for next year’s season. More ironically still, perhaps, was that Joyce’s botched call at third followed an earlier series game in which an umpire at second had glaringly botched a call (calling the runner out though the second baseman hadn’t caught the toss), with that call “unanimously” over-turned after an all-umpire conference during which Joyce had reported being “100% certain” the call had been wrong.
As you’ll see, his “obstruction” call could be called equally wrong & also should have been over-turned–not just to avoid the grossly unfair outcome the ruling produced, the wrong way to end the hard-fought contest, but even following the technical letter of the rule. The seemingly obvious unfairness stemmed from the impression that there had been no intent to obstruct. When commentators reported (not entirely accurately, it seems to me on a close reading) that the current wording of the rule makes intent irrelevant, they (along with many others) seemed to conclude that it was the rule, not the ruling that was at fault. It was shortly announced that the LB rules committee would visit this rule before the next season.
Joyce himself seemed convinced he had ruled correctly, given the specific wording of the rule, in that the runner’s path had indeed been obstructed in the tangle the two players got into, however unintentionally for both, thus entitled to be advanced a base. On the basis of the following facts, however, the ruling was almost certainly incorrect–botched from a technical standpoint, as well as in its implication. And here’s why.
When the third baseman dove to his left for the bad throw from the catcher, he landed stretched out on the ground with his feet toward third & his head straight on towards short & second. He is in the base path between 2nd & 3rd, not between 3rd & home. If there’s an obstruction, the runner would be advanced to third, but he got there on his own, whether diving or sliding. Nor was there obstruction at that time since the 3rd baseman was in the act of trying to field the ball. (For the same reason, the baserunner who is just trying to reach 3rd can’t be called for interference, even though his contact may have impeded the 3rd baseman’s chance of reaching the errant throw.)
Had the runner, Craig, simply stood straight up & run from third to home along that base path, he would not have tripped. He tripped only because he went up from third in the previous base path’s direction, the second base side of the bag, where the 3rd baseman was still sprawled after lunging towards second or the throw. The path between third, which he had reached, and home was clear, relatively unobstructed.
There is a little ambiguity here, in whether or not Middlebrook’s feet extend a little on the home plate side of third, which ay partly explain his initial raising of the feet, as if to get them out of the way. The runner rose coming further towards second, however, and tripped not on the third basemen’s feet, but higher up on the body, well out of the homeward path. The fact that the runner, Craig, was already operating with a foot injury complicates the matter further.
The final call was made by the home plate umpire, who ruled the clearly tagged runner safe at the plate on the basis of Joyce’s “obstruction” call at third, not on the basis of the actual tag. In fact, that final call should have been held in abeyance while the obstruction call itself was questioned in an all-umpire conference with the level of critical attention the context deserved.
The irony is that they might still have gotten it wrong. Someone needed to point out that the relevant base path remained essentially unobstructed, while the “obstruction” remained only on the second base side of third, where the inadvertent tangle had taken place in the course of trying to field & reach third, neither a rule infraction. Then there were two possible outcomes that might be considered fair.
The first, following both the technical reading of the rule & its historical implications, is that no obstruction had taken [place, so the runner was out at the plate. The technical basis for this is supported by there having been a sufficiently unobstructed base path from third to home had the runner untangled & gone straight before proceeding. Historical implication, meanwhile, suggests that the rule, with its own commentary, does NOT make intent irrelevant, just insufficient in itself, part of the total picture. Simply because professional baseball no longer includes reference to a “flagrant” effort to impede (while not in possession of the ball or pursuit of it) doesn’t mean intent of the agent isn’t part of the understood equation even so.
Comments to the rule make clear that it should only rarely be called, and only where the extreme circumstances warrant–for example, in a run-down, where the player without the ball stands in the runner’s way of running back. Otherwise, since contact is not a pre-requisite, a third baseman’s bluff that he was about to field a throw to encourage a runner to stay on second might be considered obstruction, simply by “impeding” the runner’s progress on the path. Where a fielder & runner have gotten entangled while both were within the rules, as these did on the play from second to third, the rule can’t subsequently blame the fellow who ended up on the bottom for the clumsy choice of how & where the fellow on top gets up & tries to proceed without proper footing, arguably not yet even on the home plate base path. From there, he was out because he was out, not from obstruction so much as from his diminished speed, playing with a prior injury.
Given the proper authority, a fairer & more aesthetically pleasing alternative outcome might have been agreeable to all, including the fans, giving standing to both arguments–that there had & hadn’t been a technical obstruction. (No one claimed an intentional obstruction.) This would have called the tag at the plate moot, but not advanced the runner before the last base reached safely. It would have left Craig on third, yet given the Cardinals back his out. They’d have had a fair chance to bring him home, while the Red Sox would have had a fair chance to end the inning still tied.
The play, not the iffy, technically justified, technically questionable, judgment of umpires would have determined the outcome. It may be that the same level of chance exists where such judgment makes the difference as it does in the play itself, which is why baseball is sometimes called a “game of inches.” Less, if you consider the dynamics by which swung bat & pitched ball meet, where a fraction of an inch this way or that ultimately makes most of the difference.
Any given game will have a number of just-barely-made plays that singly &/or collectively determine the outcome, fair or foul, called strike or ball, in a gap or not, surprise hop & skip or leap & incredible snag–like Beltan’s rib-injuring gymnastic grab of what was otherwise another Ortiz homer. These last are the plays fans & players alike live for–not the chance element, but the heroic.
The umpires are there to facilitate the play, calling the close ones, according to the rules, otherwise not getting themselves in the way–as they did in this game by over-ruling the outcome on the field of play on the basis of a highly unusual (& technically highly questionable) interpretation of technicalities. The game deserves better.
It’s one thing to miss a half dozen balls & strikes from behind the plate, only to be expected given the number of pitches in a game & the artistry of deception with which these are delivered. You’d expect both catcher & umpire to get fooled once in awhile, as well as the batters, without malice or a better alternative. Replays will show that most of the questionable calls were actually in the marginal area where either might be justified, whether a seam caught a corner or not, or was or wasn’t between the knees & letters of a moving batter’s strike zone. It’s still better to consider each call as final, & close enough to qualify, than to waste energy over the hair’s breadth.
The same isn’t so for most other calls, however. These should always be “right.” Chance may be chance, and in that, fair for all. But there’s no legitimate reason or excuse for getting other calls wrong–out or safe, for example, where the brilliant rule itself gives “ties” to the runner. Given the ability of media to focus on the fact itself, to show it from multiple angles & in slow motion, there’s no excuse for not getting the rare close plays that are made clear on replay as right as possible. That puts the facts first, not the split-second impression of one individual, no matter how well trained.
Putting facts first is another way of keeping the play first, with the umpires facilitators, not independent determiners. The first step in this is to empower the umpires as a group, with a role for the managers within a process for appealing an initial call. Even the umpire making that call ought to have more attachment to the call being made or rendered right than to his own image for having been right or wrong in the split or initial moment.
Perhaps, for important games, a “superior” umpire with some deep expertise in the rule-book would be available for the final ruling, with consideration of replays, arguments, etc. As in the legal system at large, it’s naïve to think all umpires would have the same insight and higher judgment of the existing rules. At the major league level, all presumably know what the statutes & rules say, but not all should be expected to have the same informed level of interpretive judgment. Important games deserve someone with that level having the final responsibility, however, quite a different skill set than having a keen eye for the strike-zone & ear for ball-in-glove, runner’s foot hitting the bag.
II. Putting the Judges First
In organized baseball, the umpires are important, but, despite some popular rhetoric, not generally first. They are third, at best. The other two, in whatever order you choose, are the player-teams & the rule-making body that determines (& tweaks) the regulations under which all participants agree to operate. The umpires only carry out these rules, according to instructions, being hirelings of the rule-setting organization. The players are hirelings, too, subject to the set rules & subsequent rulings.
Things get considerably trickier in sports that require a more dominant & determinative role for evaluative judgment of elements, as in figure skating. Something is invariably lost in the aesthetic realm trying to conform more & more precisely to a pre-set configuration of evaluative conventions stipulated by the judges, aside from more flagrant examples of things like point-trading.
To my taste, something is lost in the aesthetics of basketball from the importance of referees in the highly variable calling of fouls & charges. There’s already plenty of chance in the bounce of the ball on the rim & backboard, enough to make the difference in many contests. It’s all the worse, however, when that same level of chance shows up in referee judgments with an equal or greater effect on outcomes. There may not be a better way, given the nature of the sport, but it takes away from the artistic pleasure we get from sports when too many big games are decided by calls that are questionable or worse.
At first glance, an interest in keeping the play as the primary determiner of outcomes, not the umpires, may seem in keeping with the judicial view that judges should apply the laws, not make them. Although in many cases this is necessarily the judge’s job, to apply the laws to the circumstances at hand, in other cases, the laws themselves require interpretation. You can’t apply what you don’t understand, and understanding, by its very nature, is subject to being held at various levels or depths.
In addition, the higher you go in the system, the more issues center on the rules themselves, not on the circumstances. The lower courts establish matters of fact, in other words, whereas the higher courts consider things like the constitutionality of the laws as applied. In this case, there is a flaw in the existing law or its current interpretation, that needs a higher judgment than that which umpires on the field could render on the spur of the moment. Not only should the rule be clarified, but the appeal process on the spot.
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