The “obstruction” call and legal reasoning

As everyone in the world knows (or should know because baseball is a sacrament), the St. Louis Cardinals won a World Series game on Saturday night because the Boston third baseman “obstructed” the runner and consequently the runner was awarded home plate and the winning run even though the runner was tagged out at the plate.

During the play in question, Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia threw wildly to third base in an attempt to catch baserunner Allen Craig after a play at the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning. Craig, who had slid into third, got up and headed toward home, but tripped over the upwardly extended legs of Middlebrooks, who was face down on the third-base line after a futile attempt to catch Saltalamacchia’s throw. You can view the play here. (Give it a second to load and struggle through the short ad.)

I have reprinted the relevant rules below. Please read them.

The umpire who made the call said that the fielder’s intent to obstruct or not obstruct the runner did not matter under the rules. For a bit of fun, using the comment section, make your best argument that the umpire was wrong regarding intent, and, even if he wasn’t wrong on that issue, make your best argument that he blew the “obstruction” call anyway. Explain your reasoning. You may rely upon the rules cited below as authority but you may not cite any other rule. The facts are stated above, and you may rely only upon those as well. Don’t regurgitate “talking head” talk, please.

The best argument may garner a prize. Or not.

I have a another reason for pursuing this baseball question beyond my love of the game. I am entirely serious when I say that this real life event could profitably be used to quiz prospective federal judicial nominees on how they reason when it comes to applying text to fact.

Rule 2.00.

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.

———

Rule 7.06.

When obstruction occurs, the umpire shall call or signal “Obstruction.”

(a) If a play is being made on the obstructed runner, or if the batter-runner is obstructed before he touches first base, the ball is dead and all runners shall advance, without liability to be put out, to the bases they would have reached, in the umpire’s judgment, if there had been no obstruction. The obstructed runner shall be awarded at least one base beyond the base he had last legally touched before the obstruction. Any preceding runners, forced to advance by the award of bases as the penalty for obstruction, shall advance without liability to be put out.

Rule 7.06(a) Comment: When a play is being made on an obstructed runner, the umpire shall signal obstruction in the same manner that he calls “Time,” with both hands overhead. The ball is immediately dead when this signal is given; however, should a thrown ball be in flight before the obstruction is called by the umpire, the runners are to be awarded such bases on wild throws as they would have been awarded had not obstruction occurred. On a play where a runner was trapped between second and third and obstructed by the third baseman going into third base while the throw is in flight from the shortstop, if such throw goes into the dugout the obstructed runner is to be awarded home base. Any other runners on base in this situation would also be awarded two bases from the base they last legally touched before obstruction was called.

RGK

20 responses

  1. Aside from the third base umpire missing the formal signal for obstruction and going right to the signal for awarding the next base, the umpiring crew made the right call.

    The third baseman was prostrate, face down on the infield after having missed the throw (a play he really should have made–absent obstruction, I’d score it his error if the runner scored). Had the runner got to his feet promptly and tripped over the third baseman, there should have been, properly, a no-call because the third baseman would have had no chance to get out of the way–this is a stretch on 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, but the realities of physics play here, also.

    However, neither any simultaneity nor that bang-bang sequence obtain. As we review the multiple replays, we see the runner get up, attempt to step over the still prostrate third baseman, and the latter raise his legs (for the second time) into the path of the runner, tripping him.

    Missing the obstruction signal and immediately signaling the award of the next base is an immaterial violation of the rule: the third base umpire’s intent with his signal was immediately clear to the home plate umpire; the proximate reason for the award is easily explained to all in the post play…conference.

    On the matter of intent, there’s the text of the rule: 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.

    There’s nothing there about deliberateness of the act; the existence of the act is the violation. The Comment on the Rule, which baseball places on the same level vis-a-vis baseball’s rules that the commentary by the Marasha has with the Talmud, also is carefully silent on the question of intent–if the fielder impedes, obstruction likely occurred (that physics thing, again, as my insertion for the lack of certainty).

    Indeed (pleading Kobayashi Maru for this deviation from the OP rules), intent–mind reading–is an invention of soccer. In all American sports, the existence of the act is the foul; intent is never a player.

    The runner is safe at the plate by award, and the throw home by the left fielder never officially occurred.

    As an aside, I’ve seen this sort of thing attempted deliberately, with middling results. The catcher, after a play at the plate, but with no hope of getting the runner advancing to third, will throw past the third baseman directly to the left fielder, who’s slipped into a suitable position to take the throw. The left fielder then throws out the runner, who’s mistakenly thinking he had a wild throw on which to advance.

    As a further aside, last night’s game was decided in another unusual manner: the final out, with the tying run at the plate in the person of a heavy hitter, was obtained by picking off the runner on first–a pinch runner sent in with the express purpose of stretching the bases.

    I like that pitcher, even though the wrong team won: he used my favorite tactic as a college relief pitcher. Don’t face a batter who has allies on base–pick off one or more of his allies. An out is an out. Although, as a reliever, I usually went after a trailing runner, as one more likely to be less alert than the lead runneer, and I often did this after sticking what I used for a fastball up under the hitter’s chin in order to remind him of whose batter’s box he was taking up space in.

    Eric Hines

  2. Fine textualist I am….

    On the matter of obstruction, as the close-in replay seems to show, the runner was already stumbling as he got up and attempted his first step; later in the sequence of replays, it seems that the runner was stumbling over the third baseman’s thigh and shin before the latter had time to get out of the way.

    As to intent, the rule is silent on the matter. However, common sense must obtain, and this hinges on two questions: were the legs upraised deliberately, or was that just part of the ongoing flopping from the fall and the struggle to regain balance and get back up?

    Second, with a game of this importance hinging on what must have been apparent to the third baseman, that there would be a play at the plate for the third out and escape from the inning, what could his motive be to cheat–to obstruct deliberately–with the umpire closely watching him and that obstruction obviating the third out and granting the winning run?

    No intent, therefore no obstruction (and so the misapplication of the obstruction rule becomes irrelevant); the runner is out at the plate.

    Eric Hines

  3. The simple argument that Umpire Joyce made the wrong call would rely on the meaning of “in the act of fielding the ball” (in Rule 2.00). Clearly the act of fielding the ball includes the fielder’s movements toward the ball before it reaches him; similarly, the act of fielding should include the fielder’s uncontrollable momentum after he catches or misses it. In the present case, one could argue, Middlebrooks did not “continue to lie on the ground” as in the Rule 2.00 example; rather, he was still in the uncontrollable act of falling, his legs flailing, his body bouncing. The rulebook and the umpires are correct about intent — it does not and should not matter — but they must include, by judgment, the fielder’s involuntary momentum as part of “the act of fielding.” While rational, this theory is refuted by years of contrary precedent and by the (apparently) plain language of the example.

    Fortunately, there is an even better argument that Umpire Joyce made the wrong call — or could reasonably have made a different call. This argument also does not rely on intent; again, the runner is and should be entitled to an unobstructed path. Rather, it relies on the meaning of “impedes the progress” in Rule 2.00, with reference to the definition of the baseline in Rule 7.08(a)(1) and to the Umpire’s discretion granted by Rule 9.01 (c).

    The theory in this case is simple: The runner is entitled to a clear, unobstructed path to the next base, but he is not entitled to select any path he chooses, and especially not a crooked path that facilitates an obstruction call. (Rule 7.08(a)(1): … A runner’s base path is established when the tag attempt occurs and is a straight line from the runner to the base he is attempting to reach safely.) Therefore, despite the example given in Rule 2.00, which presumes a runner on a natural base path, the umpire may discount Rule 2.00 and its example and apply discretion as to whether the runner, having already reached third base safely, was entitled to a base path other than that contemplated by 7.08. (Rule 9.01(c): Each umpire has authority to rule on any point not specifically covered in these rules.)

    In the present case, Craig had already been awarded 3rd base. Middlebrooks’ dive left him on the ground between 2nd and 3rd. The base path from 3rd to home was clear and unobstructed. But when Craig stood up, he stumbled several feet back toward 2nd, and only then broke toward home, colliding with the face-down Middlebrooks. Craig was entitled to a clear base path, and he had one. But, intentionally or not, the path he took was three or four feet *back* toward 2nd and *back* toward a fielder he had already passed, then a nearly 90-degree turn straight toward home plate.

    Of course the umpire has discretion here, but that discretion should consider which player’s actions were more natural or common: Middlebrooks’, whose dive was the sort that happens in every game, or Craig’s, whose unusual stumbling retreat and sharply angled path from 3rd to home was essentially unprecedented. Certainly the fielder can not be punished for the runner acting in such a bizarre fashion, whether intended or not. (The intent of the runner is no more important than the intent of the fielder.)

    Indeed, Umpire Joyce indicated in his post-game comments (again without intent!) that this theory is valid. He said the obstruction was clear to him in part *because* it happened right “on the chalk,” meaning right on the straight baseline from 3rd to home. But his recollection was flawed, as the replay shows. The collision happened several feet away from the chalk, on the 2nd base side of 3rd. Had his recollection been correct, and had he recognized that Middlebrooks was in no way blocking the straight route from 3rd to home, might he have made a different call?

    Consider a final example to make the case: Suppose Middlebrooks had dived not toward 2nd but toward the outfield along the left field line and was lying in the outfield behind third base. And suppose that when Craig stood up, already safe at third, he stumbled backward into left field, then got tangled with the fielder, and then started toward home. How could the fielder then be blamed for impeding his “progress”? Once the runner has a clear base path along which to make “progress,” it is wrong to reward him with an obstruction advantage if he chooses, or stumbles along, a different, less natural, or more circuitous path.

    David Bonowitz
    Structural Engineer
    San Francisco

  4. I am simply unable to follow this post and its hidden meaning. Let me if I got this right. (Okay, I’m not a lawyer, feel free to improve upon my terminology…)

    Defendant was 90 feet outside the safety of his home and claims he had not broken any laws when he illegally detained by a law enforcement officer. In particular, defendant claims Law Enforcement Officers threw a round, hard object in his direction with the intent to cause him physical harm and/or injury. Defendant further claims that after attempts to injure him with the round hard objects failed, Law Enforcement Officers illegally detained him as he was attempting to find safety as his home. Defendant claims these actions were attempts to deprive him of life and liberty without legal justification or probable cause. Since the defendant had not performed illegal acts, defendant claims that he is constitutionally entitled to safe passage to his home away from the harassment of the Law Enforcement Officers. Defendant further claims that an illegal conspiracy inhibited, at least temporarily, his travel to the safety of his home by two Law Enforcement Officers (aka Third Base Man, The Catcher, and Left Fielder). Defendant claims that had his travel not been delayed by the conspiracy, defendant would have been able to safely make his way to home (aka as “Home Plate”). Now the defendant comes before this court and prays Your Honor grant relief in his favor and order the Law Enforcement Officers to cease and desist in their illegal actions and that the defendant be allowed to occupy his home.

    Defendant further prays His Honor will reject the Law Enforcement’s motion that for Reverse Habeas Corpus (“Give Us The Body”) and that defendant be allowed to travel unmolested to his home.

    Judgment

    Defendant is ordered released without haste and shall not be harassed further during his journey home and once safely in his home, Law Enforcement is enjoined from contacting him for the remainder of this day.

    So ordered by the Honorable RGK.

  5. I respectfully submit that the umpire’s mechanics on this play were correct. His gesture was to point at the play, not to award the base. The gesture was very likely accompanied by a vocal call: “That’s obstruction!”

    No base could be awarded until the ball was dead. Play continues since a play was not being made on the obstructed runner. If a play was being made on the obstructed runner, the ball would be dead immediately and a base awarded.

    Note that a base was not automatically awarded in this case. The base was awarded by the home plate umpire who noted his colleague’s call and ruled (correctly) that the runner would have scored easily had he not been obstructed. I suppose people of good will could argue that he was not obstructed and I suppose that that’s the point of this exercise.

    I am not a lawyer and do not have the mental capacity to argue against what I consider to be a textbook application of the rules. My brother would agree with that: he makes his own argument below.

    Al Bonowitz
    1987 graduate, Harry Wendelstedt School for Umpires

  6. I respectfully submit that the umpire’s mechanics on this play were correct. His gesture was to point at the play, not to award the base. The gesture was very likely accompanied by a vocal call: “That’s obstruction!”

    If he believed obstruction obtained, he was mechanically incorrect. Rule 7.06 states When a play is being made on an obstructed runner, the umpire shall signal obstruction in the same manner that he calls “Time,” with both hands overhead.

    No such signal was made at any time.

  7. My argument on why the umpires misapplied the obstruction rule ….. The rule, by its plain reading, implies intent is needed in order for an obstruction call to be made. The rule defines obstruction as the “act” of a fielder under specific conditions which impedes the progress of a runner. “Act” is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the “doing of a thing” or “something done voluntarily.” The definition of act implies a conscious decision on the part of the actor to voluntarily do something or to intend that something be done. Applying the definition to the rule, the player would have to intend by his act to impede the progress of the runner.

    On the play in question, the third basemen Middlebrooks, after attempting to catch the throw from the catcher, was lying on the ground with the baserunner on top of him. The first instinct of nearly all baseball players, unless you’re Alex Rodriguez (my anti-Yankee bias), would be to get up from the ground, which is what Middlebrooks was attempting to do. In his attempt to get up, he became further entangled with the baserunner wanting to advance home.

    In his actions, Middlebrooks was not engaged in an act with the intent of impeding the runner. His “act” was simply trying to get up off the ground. The act was a voluntary effort to get up, not a conscious decision to impede the runner. In addition, the act was an involuntary, natural instinct to get off the ground. Thus, the umpire should not have made the obstruction call.

  8. Under rule 7.06a, that would be correct. But no play was being made on the obstructed runner (it could not be as the ball was in left field at the time of the obstruction), so time could not be called until play is completed (rule 7.06b). Since the game ended when home plate was awarded (following Saltalamacchia’s tag), time did not need to be called.

  9. Under Rule 7.06, no time needed to be called; the umpire is merely required to signal obstruction in the same manner that he calls “Time”, not actually to call time. Thus the premise that no time could be called is irrelevant.

    Further, if the umpire believed obstruction had occurred (which seems clear from the commentary and the video), the play had, in fact, ended with the obstruction. This is corroborated the fact that the home umpire signaled safe upon the runner’s (tagged “out”) arrival, and pointed to the third base umpire who had called obstruction, albeit mechanically wrongly. The tag never officially occurred because the play had ended with the obstruction.

    Finally, obstruction had indeed occurred: the third baseman tripped the runner as he was trying to advance and the left fielder was trying to throw him out at home. A play was plainly in progress.

    And this is a bit far afield from the judge’s challenge.

    Eric Hines

  10. Rule 2.00 says nothing expressly about intent. Nor does the comment to the rule. But the rule speaks in the active voice — “the act of a fielder who . . . impedes” – not in the passive voice (e.g., “if a runner is impeded by the body of a fielder . . . ”). Use of the active voice together with the phrase “act of a fielder” suggests that intent is relevant. The example provided in the comment is consistent with some intent to impede. It says that a fielder who, after diving at the ball, but who “continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner . . . has very likely obstructed the runner.” The word “continues” suggests a choice to stay prone on the ground, rather than trying to get up. Confirming that the issue isn’t just the prone position of the fielder after the ball has passed, the commentary goes on to say that a fielder who “continues” to lie on the ground “very likely” has obstructed the runner. Why “very likely”? Why not more definitive language, like “has obstructed the runner”? The variable this qualification suggests is whether the fielder, in “continuing” to lie on the ground, thereby intended to impede the progress of the runner.

    In the play at issue, there is no evidence that, between the time the ball passed Middlebrooks and the time Craig got up to start toward home, Middlebrooks “continued” to lie on the ground. There simply was not enough time between those events — which were very nearly simultaneous — to find that Middlebrooks “continued” to lie on the ground rather than try to get up. Thus, no intent could be established, and the lack of intent precluded a ruling of obstruction.

    (Also, Craig was out of the base path between third and home, which seems like it should matter. I know this has nothing to do with intent, but just sayin’.)

  11. There is a distinction that must be made between an act done voluntarily without regard to an intent of a particular result and an act done voluntarily with the intent to cause a particular result. This distinction is common in, for example, tort law. If I voluntarily (i.e., intentionally) walk on your property thinking it was my property, I have committed the intentional tort of trespass simply because I intended to walk on the property even if I did not intend to trespass . Here Middlebrooks voluntarily (i.e., intentionally) lunged after the ball, attempted to get up, etc. even though he did not intend to obstruct. But as stated above, an act can be “something done voluntarily” without the specific intent to cause a result. So, even though the rule defines obstruction as an “act” of a fielder, there is no implication of a requirement that the person intend “to impede the progress of a runner,” just the intent to do the act which in fact impedes the progress of a runner.

    (Having lived in New England for 57 years, it’s painful to even attempt to diminish an analysis that concludes the call was wrong!)

  12. As one who has donned the black heart (the chest protector), I would merely cite Justice Jackson: “We are not final because we are infallible. We are infallible because we are final.” I blew a call or two in my day, and a couple of them–one, an interference call I should have made–still haunt me today. But there is no avenue of appeal, even in the case of the no-hitter that wasn’t. While umpires can be fired for blowing calls (just try that in the case of a judge!) and face some level of accountability for their failures, if the ump rings you up, he wrings you up. Period. Any argument you might make to the contrary is, by definition, futile. No JNOV. No vacatur.

    Your only remedy was to get in the umpire’s face and question his parentage … and if you avail yourself of it, an early shower. 🙂

  13. Getting out of a pickel 101: Make contact with a fielder (without the ball, preferably the guy that just threw it) involved in the run down at any cost. You’ll either clear the benches or get awarded the next base.

    I’ve seen it go the former way in Lawton, Oklahoma and I’ve seen it go the latter way in Grand Junction, Colorado.

  14. The most astounding thing about the play was that the players did not know the rule. Of course the rule still applies and ignorance is no excuse, but it seems to me that the players are paid to know the game – including the rules. Just like the question posed by Judge Kopf, I think this aspect of the play has relevance to the law.

    Society is governed by rules (laws) that apply whether individuals know them or not. However there is hardly the uproar seen after this play when individuals who have significantly lesser means than professional baseball players violate a law that they didn’t know about. Should the players know the rules? Of course they should, but they get paid a significant amount of money to play the game. If we don’t expect baseball players to know the rules of the game, then how can we expect the poor and uneducated in our society to know all of our laws?

  15. Nate,

    Take off your lawyer’s hat for a moment. As a former college catcher at the University of Nebraska Kearney (who caught Joba Chamberlain for a while), don’t you think there should have been a massive bench clearing brawl to highlight the umpire’s call? Sucker punches galore–that would have made the event PERFECT!

    Good to hear from you my friend.

    All the best.

    RGK

  16. I realize that the competition is over. That being said, how about the opinion of someone who loves baseball and dogs and the sheer joy of a good fair game. I believe a player is afforded at least a reasonably clear opportunity to throw just as a player should be afforded a clear opportunity to run. In this case, one player blocked a baseman from catching a throw, just as the baseman somewhat MAY have blocked a run. They should have cancelled each other out and the game should not have been won on such a questionable score. It’s the World Series. Let ’em play, boys, let ’em play!

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