Sunday, October 27, 2013

Hate the Game

St. Louis Cardinals' Allen Craig gets tangled with Boston Red Sox's Will Middlebrooks during the ninth inning of Game 3 of baseball's World Series Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, in St. Louis. Middlebrooks was called for obstruction on the play and Craig went in to score the game-winning run. The Cardinals won 5-4 to take a 2-1 lead in the series. Photo: David J. Phillip, AP / AP
http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Obstruction-call-gives-Cards-win-in-WS-Game-3-4929713.php#photo-5373986


"Obstruction" cost the Red Sox a chance to take the first game in St. Louis and go up 2-1 in the series. Most things I'm reading about this back up the umpires' decision that this was indeed obstruction, and that it's an unusual call and a wild way to end the game. I have a few thoughts on this.

The first thought is simple. Have you ever seen this happen before? Have you ever seen a run score because the third baseman dove for a ball? I know this is a very unusual play, but I've seen my fair share of baseball games. Craig, the runner at third, was essentially awarded home the moment the obstruction occurred. What made this play wilder was that he would have been out had there been no call, but have you ever seen that before? I can't believe this is the first time I've seen a third baseman dive with a runner on third. I just have a hard time believing that Will Middlebrooks did something that was so out of the ordinary that people literally had to pull out the rule book to see what the rule was. It's not like the ball hit a bird that was flying by and the bird dropped the ball into the stands. This seems like a play that happens every once in a while.


Secondly, let's explore said rule book. Before we begin, I will say that, by the strictest letter of the law, obstruction was probably the right call, though not definitely. Let's see the rule in question:

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: If 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.

The commentary that I have seen about this play, and what Joe Torre and the umpires said after the game, is that Will Middlebrooks lifting his legs had nothing to do with the obstruction. The fact that he was definitely no longer in the act of fielding the ball makes this an open and shut case. The fact that he's in the way, and that the runner makes his own base line, makes this obstruction.

But is he really definitely no longer in the act of fielding? Here's what Deadspin commenter Navarchos, who is apparently an amateur leagues umpire, says about the call:

[T]here was nothing Middlebrooks could do. And guess what? IT. DOES. NOT. MATTER. His rights ended when the ball went past him; anything—ANYTHING—even a nanosecond after that is the act of a player not making a play.

I appreciate this person's insight into this complicated rule, but I have one question: is a fielder done "making a play" the nanosecond the ball gets past him? One could argue this, and that's essentially what everyone is doing. But it comes back to this point for me: what was Middlebrooks supposed to do? Whether he lifted his leg or not, there's no way in hell that he's getting out of the way of the runner in time for this not to be "obstruction" under these rules. In that respect, is he still not "making a play" on the ball? True, the ball is past him, and he has no chance of getting it, but he's still doing what he was doing when he was making a play, and he absolutely did not have time to be doing anything else. "Making a play" on the ball could (and perhaps should) constitute the entire act, from diving to getting up in a timely manner after you didn't get the ball.

I don't believe that Middlebrooks should be penalized for not being able to get up in time simply because he happened not to field the ball. Had he caught the ball, would this still have been obstruction if Craig tripped over his legs? According to the umpires and commentators, I really don't think so. That seems like an odd line in the sand to draw in this scenario.

From Craig's perspective, the argument is that if obstruction had not been called, he would have been out by a mile just because a fielder was in his way. While I definitely see merit in this assessment, I'm not sure it's totally correct. Let's look at the play:

Cardinals Win Game Three On Walkoff... Obstruction?

Maybe I'm crazy, but couldn't Craig have avoided Middlebrooks's legs? If the answer is no because Middlebrooks lifted his legs, then let's just admit that that's why the call was made. If the answer is yes but it doesn't matter, why doesn't it? Why does the runner, who is feet inside the baseline, have no responsibility in this scenario? The fielder is responsible for something he can't control (not being able to get up in time after diving), but the runner is not responsible for something he could control (avoiding the fielder).

In short, the interpretation of the rule seems reasonable but strict, and in many ways, it's a stupid rule. Baseball's rules are famously vague, and the obstruction rule is a classic example of that vagueness. The fact that people are saying that this was obstruction down to the "letter of the law" is a bit odd, considering the letter of the law is more than arguable in my view.

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