I often find myself in the position of defending baseball as a sport. I get criticized for being a fan of such a boring sport and I find myself having to defend its virtue. During one of these sessions, I was explaining to the conversation partner that baseball is such a fantastic sport because of the dynamics of offense versus defense. In how many other sports do you have nine members of the opposing team playing defense against (at most) four players of their opposing team? More often than not, nine players provide the defensive strategy against just one of the opposing players. I still hold that offense in baseball is one of the hardest things to accomplish in sports.
Because of that, the nature of the game, baseball’s official rules provide adequate protection for the members of the offense. On a force out, a tie between the ball’s arrival in the defenseman’s glove and the runner landing on the base will usually be awarded to the runner. Fielders cannot obstruct a runner’s path to advance to the next base, etc.
We found this all incredibly relevant last night at the end of World Series 2013 Game 3. After a bad throw from the Red Sox catcher, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the Sox third baseman found himself lying on the ground in the way of the baserunner, called for obstruction of the baserunner awarding the baserunner home plate therefore losing the game for the Red Sox. It was highly unfortunate, especially for Red Sox Nation.
Many articles and opinions have been written since last night, many of which were written by authors far more qualified to comment than I (me?). But whether it is appropriate or accurate or not, this is my perspective.
We’ve seen time and time again players running from first to second on a ground ball to the infield do all they can to obstruct the fielder from making the best double play he can. Baserunners are taught to play mind games with the fielders, slide in hard, throw their hands up, and all kinds of crazy things that can prevent the defenseman making a double play attempt from doing so successfully. You can see the results of this on almost any double play. Typically the shortstop or second baseman making the play fall down over the baserunner, even though the force out has already been made. As I see it, the baserunner has always had plenty of leeway in making obstruction part of the game. It is true that baserunners can be called for getting on the way, but more times than not it is simply seen as justpart of the game.
Take for instance last night’s play. By most angles I saw it, Salty at home threw to Middlebrooks at third and did so a little wide. Moving six inches to a foot would have solved this problem for Middlebrooks; he might have made the catch and saved the run. But he stayed on the bag and staying on the bag, and consequently NOT interfering with the baserunner reaching third, caused the ball to hit the baserunner, bounce off behind the bag and caused Middlebrooks to make a last minute jab at catching the ball. As a result, Middlebrooks falls on the ground and the baserunner gets up from the slide and trips over Middlebrooks.
Technically, by MLB’s rules, obstruction isn’t something an offenseman can be guilty of. Obstruction is a different call than interference. But even with interference, if the offenseman whether intentionally or not interferes with the ball or the play, the ball is often called dead, bases are typically not awarded or taken away. But this umpire last night, Jim Joyce, doesn’t (rightly) call interference; he lets play continue.
When Craig, the baserunner, gets up from the slide, he has an option to run to home if he thinks he can make it safely. He does. But instead of getting up off the ground and running on the baseline chalk, he gets up and tries to go over Will Middlebrooks who is, remember, still on the ground. Under a replay you can see that Middlebrooks makes the attempt to get up and is pushed back down by the runner. Like normal in baseball, the runner has a right to do that. But think about the runner’s choices here…
The runner could get up and run in a straight line on the baseline chalk, and wouldn’t had to have stepped over Middlebrooks at all. He had a choice and chose to step over Middlebrooks. As he does this, he pushes Middlebrooks down, “obstructing” Middlebrooks’s ability to 1) get out of the baserunner’s way and 2) field the ball (assuming outfield backup is unavailable).
So Middlebrooks, who does not obstruct Craig, the runner, from reaching third falls over on a bad throw and is unable to move to avoid an obstruction call because the runner choose to step over him rather than running on the baseline and pushes him down in order to get over him, resulting in the runner’s tripping.
Jim Joyce is one of the best umpires in the business and I gained incredible respect for him when he apologized publicly for ruining Galarraga’s perfect game with a blown call at first base. I don’t doubt that Joyce knows the rulebook through and through and called the play according to the rulebook.
My argument is, and has been for a long time, that baserunners are on the borderline of having too much leeway because of the nature of the game. The runners can make decisions that get an obstruction call on the defense, even if the defenseman doesn’t intend any such action (because intent isn’t factored into the call). We love a game that literally has everyone against you while you try to attack on offense. As a means of making it easier for you, baseball rules that you’re given the tie and the right of way. You get to make the decision you want to make, to a certain degree, even if that decision means that the defenseman is guilty of something he tried to avoid.
Last night ends differently if Salty holds the ball. Last night ends differently if Middlebrooks comes off the base. Last night ends differently if the runner runs in the basepath and avoids Middlebrooks’s useless body on the ground.