I intentionally waited on this for a couple of days after the conclusion of Saturday evening’s World Series Game 3. I wanted to make sure that my knee-jerk reaction wasn’t just borne out of envy, bitterness, malice or …. I dunno: insert your favorite of the Deadly Sins here.
Nope… none of that applies.
The problem here is that Common Sense and the MLB Rule Book are not entirely compatible with one another.
Let us review, from the 2012 National League Wild Card game between St. Louis and Atlanta. The relevant section from the Official Major League Baseball Rule Book is reproduced here:
Rule 2.00 (Infield Fly) Comment: On the infield fly rule the umpire is to rule whether the ball could ordinarily have been handled by an infielder—not by some arbitrary limitation such as the grass, or the base lines. The umpire must rule also that a ball is an infield fly, even if handled by an outfielder, if, in the umpire’s judgment, the ball could have been as easily handled by an infielder. The infield fly is in no sense to be considered an appeal play. The umpire’s judgment must govern, and the decision should be made immediately.
- The rule was enacted for one reason only: to prevent infielders from ‘trapping’ runners on 1st base – or 1st and 2nd – into holding their position while the ball was allowed to fall to the ground: turning an easy single out into an easy double play… a rather ‘undeserved’ double play, as rule-makers determined.
- The conceptual premise of the rule requires a ball to fall to the ground in such a way that an infielder – or an outfielder stationed close enough to the infield – could trap a ball and then have the opportunity to start a typical double play within the confines of the infield.
- The conceptual premise of the rule additionally recognizes that a fielder is using deception in the play – intentionally dropping a ball in order to seize the opportunity for a cheap double play. Was that happening on that night in Atlanta a year ago? Hardly. It was a miscommunication between SS Pete Kozma and LF Matt Holliday. In other words, the rule provided St. Louis a remedy for their own fielding error – something that rules should never do.
Common Sense: how many third-to-second or second-to-first DPs have you seen initiated at a distance of 225 feet from home plate?
Fast forward to last Saturday night. Bottom of the 9th, 1 out. Infield is drawn in with runners on 2nd and 3rd. Grounder to second base. Dustin Pedroia must have gone thrown 5 different extreme emotions on that play as it continued. First he somehow snags the grounder, then pulls out his best Walt Weiss impression – easily nailing the incoming Yadier Molina at the plate.
If that had been the end of the play, then the Red Sox might have a 3-1 series lead this morning. But Jarrod Saltalamacchia got greedy. Wrecklessly greedy.
Salty decided to fire a ball to third base. For catchers, this is risky on an ordinary day. Will Middlebrooks was at least in the right position – at third base – which at least gave this play a shot. But the video shows pretty clearly that Jarrod had no play on Allen Craig — even had the throw been perfect. He was nonetheless careful in making sure of the out at home – but then threw the ball into left field.
That brings up the topic of what happened at third base as Craig tried to rise and get himself toward the plate. Injury and all, he managed to scramble to his feet faster than Middlebrooks could… only to stumble over Middlebrooks one step later.
Let me now quote the rule book again – ironically from the same Definitions section (2.00) that was cited above. Apparently the umpires have this memorized (and they should):
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.
Rule 2.00 (Obstruction) Comment: If a fielder is about to receive a thrown ball and if the ball is in flight directly toward and near enough to the fielder so he must occupy his position to receive the ball he may be considered “in the act of fielding a ball.” It is entirely up to the judgment of the umpire as to whether a fielder is in the act of fielding a ball. After a fielder has made an attempt to field a ball and missed, he can no longer be in the “act of fielding” the ball. 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.
Brilliant. In this case, the lack of Common Sense is institutionalized within the very rule itself.
The NFL had an interesting rule involving the completion of a pass. In that incarnation of the rule, a pass receiver did not become a ‘ball carrier’ until the football has been received, caught, and then the receiver has the opportunity to regain his feet (if airborne) and execute a ‘football move.’ Apparently, even this was too weak for them, as they continue to tweak that rule. But this still makes sense: a pass completion is a process, not necessarily an instantaneous event.
My point here is that baseball should look at the whole picture themselves as well: when Middlebrooks dove for the errant throw, he was executing a fielding play – one he was clearly (by Common Sense) still involved with. That ‘act’ should not have ended the instant the ball got past him as the rule book demands, because it was that very act of fielding that left him sprawled on the field. He didn’t take a pratfall due to a desire to lay down for a rest – it was because he was directly involved in the active play. It was because of that same act of fielding that Allen Craig slid into third base, and was thus in the position to trip over Middlebrooks.
Oddly enough, had Craig been a tick or two slower in getting to third base, he might not have slid and thus likely would not have tripped over Middlebrooks at all while rounding the bag.
Common Sense should suggest that it is reasonable to allow Middlebrooks to – at the very least – be excused from an obstruction ruling since he was doing his job at the time of the ‘obstruction.’
Yes, sometimes players get tangled up as part of going about their business. If this had been a NASCAR race, the ruling would have been “it’s just racing” – play on. If this had been a cornerback in the NFL getting foot-tangled with a wide receiver, it would have been ruled “unintentional contact.” But in baseball, it’s “obstruction” and the runner gets to advance.
We should be applauding the superior defensive plays made to save the game – well, not Salty’s, obviously – by Pedroia and LF Daniel Nava in throwing two runners out at home on the same play to save the game in the bottom of the ninth in the World Series… on the road, no less. That scoring would have gone 4-2-5-7-2. Awesome… assuming you believe that home plate umpire Dana DeMuth was going to rule Craig out at home on the play.
Instead, we’re quoting rule book definitions.
We will never know if an Infield Fly rule reversal would have led to a Braves victory in that game from 56 weeks ago (but who’s counting?). We will never know if a non-obstruction call from Jim Joyce would have led to a Boston victory on Saturday night. And we’ll never know because Common Sense isn’t in the rule book. We’ll never know because it is far easier to point to a page in a book and say “I ruled it that way because this rule says I can interpret what I saw in this manner” rather than explain that you made a mistake in a ruling or that Common Sense failed you as an umpire.
Then again, maybe the ghosts created by Don Denkinger during 1985’s World Series Game 6 have finally been exorcised by these two calls.
Let’s hope so. I’m getting a little tired of seeing important games decided by having somebody read definitions from the rule book to me.