Obstruction in Baseball

Obstruction in Baseball October 27, 2013

I know you come here to read theology, not baseball rules. But I was an umpire for over 20 years, so I’ve got opinions when I see things like what happened last night in the World Series. In the last 12 hours, the call, the rule, and the interpretation has been hashed and rehashed. Fair enough. Here are a couple thoughts from my perspective:

It was obstruction, not interference. That may seem like a technicality, but it’s important in baseball. Interference is when an offensive player interferes with a defensive player.

Example 1: player on second steals third and righthanded batter moves in front of the catcher as he tries to make the throw.

Example 2: runner going from first to second adjusts his route in order to interfere with second baseman attempting to field a ground ball.

You see, in both cases, the interference is deliberate. If the righthanded batter in Example 1 stands still in the batter’s box, it is the catcher’s responsibility to throw around him. If the runner in Example 2 runs straight two second, he does not have to avoid the fielder (however, if he gets hit with the ball before it passes an infielder, he is out).

Obstruction, unlike interference, does not have to be deliberate. The two most common example of obstruction are 1) when a batter swings and hits the catcher’s mitt — this is always obstruction, as long as the batter is in the box; and 2) when a runner rounds first and heads for second and runs into the first baseman. In both cases, it is the defensive player’s responsibility to avoid contact.

That being said, there is inadvertent contact in baseball, as there is in almost any sport. I’ve watched last night’s replay many times, and I think they got the call right, particularly because the MLB rulebook says this:

“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.”

However, they didn’t get it completely right. Among the the mistakes they made was not immediately throwing their hands up and calling “Time.” Both umps — third base and home plate — pointed at the collision, but they allowed the play to continue. That’s not what you do in obstruction. Like a balk, you immediately call “Time,” stop the play, and advance the runners one base.


Baseball fans, your thoughts?

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  • It was an amazing way to end a World Series game. But according to Tom Verducci in Sports Illustrated, it’s not automatic that the next base is awarded to the obstructed base runner:

    “An obstruction call does not automatically give the runner a free base. The runner must continue his attempt to get to the next base, and if he is tagged out, it becomes the judgment of the umpire at that next base — in this case, DeMuth — to decide if the obstruction prevented him from scoring. In other words, if Craig simply jogged and was tagged out far from home plate — as Miguel Tejada once did in the playoffs for Oakland — DeMuth would have called him out. But because Craig was out by only a step or two — the steps that Middlebrooks’ trip cost him — it was an easy call by DeMuth to award him home plate.”

    Read More: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/mlb/news/20131027/world-series-game-3-red-sox-cardinals-obstruction/#ixzz2iwqiAiUG

    • I don’t think Verducci is quite right:

      “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.

      “(b) If no play is being made on the obstructed runner, the play shall proceed until no further action is possible. The umpire shall then call ‘Time’ and impose such penalties, if any, as in his judgment will nullify the act of obstruction.

      • spartygw

        Thank you. I don’t know why Joe Buck and McCarver continue to talk about “in the umpires belief the runner would have otherwise scored”.. Clearly they don’t know this rule.

      • Paul Christensen

        As I see it, Rule 7.06 (b) applies here. Since no play was directly being made on Craig at the moment of obstruction, the play “shall proceed until no further action is possible. The umpire shall then call ‘Time’ and” impose penalties. Time wasn’t called immediately because Craig had already been called safe at third (because of the overthrow) before the obstruction.

        • I can see that’s one way to read it. But the obstruction also happened on a throw intended to put the runner out. So it could also be read that it was in the course of that same play that the obstruction occurred.

  • I’m a baseball fan but was not an umpire for 20 years so I’ll take your word for it. I just like the fact that I can now come here for both theology AND baseball wisdom.

  • Perry L. Stepp

    As I watch the play, what I think I see is Craig causing the obstruction by tripping the third baseman. Why is Middlebrooks on the ground? Because Craig, while sliding into third base, tripped him.

    If I’m correctly describing it, Craig causes the obstruction. Does that change the call?

    • Yes, if they had thought that’s what happened, it would not have been obstruction.

    • Steven

      But I don’t see Craig causing Middlebrooks to fall. It looks to like he fell because his foot was on the base as he lunged to field the ball thus tripping OFF the base.

  • Bob Carlton

    As one sportswriter wrote this morning “strict proceduralism wins the day, and so do the Cardinals”.

    As for me, I prefer my strict proceduralism in Florida electoral recounts, software code and discussions of John Calvin’s POV.

  • ChuckQueen101

    Wouldn’t it be great if we could call “Time” and throw every Tea Party republican out of Congress.

  • Matt Cleaver

    If you haven’t read Scorecasting, you should. One of the insights of the book is that fans like it when there are non-calls that would affect the outcome at the end of the game and get angry when an official makes a (correct) call in the final seconds that determines the outcome. Fans want to see it “played out on the field.” As such, officials tend to swallow the whistle, so-to-speak, at the end of the game.

    It seems that was what was happening here. The umpires were likely hoping that he would be safe AFTER the throw, so they wouldn’t have to make the call. Everyone goes home happy. But, since the throw was on the money and he was tagged, they had to make the call.

    • While Tony makes a compelling argument that “Time” should have been called, Matt’s take rings true to me. Of course umpires are aware of and affected by the context of the moment: fans, inning, score, expectations, desire to continue being chosen to ump the Series, etc. They don’t want to be so affected, but, you know, human nature.

      I wonder, if this had happened in, say, the 2nd inning rather than the 9th, would the umps have reacted differently? Would they have been quicker to call “Time”?

      Oh, and since we’re giving our baseball resumes: I haven’t read Scorecasting. But I played through high school. Umpired for a few years after that. Then played softball for 20 years. Been a fan as long as I can remember. Finally, regardless of how much Tim McCarver loves Molina, Johnny Bench is still the greatest catcher of all time.

  • Stephen Herring

    Runner going from first to second…..always has to avoid a fielder attempting to field the ball. He CAN run straight in from of him in the base line….however, if the fielder is in the base line fielding a batted ball the runner must avoid contact….even to the point of going around the fielder. (I have been umpiring for 36 years).

  • After playing baseball through high school and softball for another 34 years I can’t thank the good umpires enough for their helpfulness in providing structure and integrity to the game.
    One of my last “gamer” plays was making a deliberate, “I don’t care,” in-the-park HR off a single at age 52 (my last year). I’ve been able to do this successfully 4 times (or about 1 per decade). In every case I chose correctly and never wasted my time at bat. The idea is to take a calculated chance that the hotdog team on the field full of itself and its prowess will be caught by surprise as you do something stupid like continuing to run past the plays being made at the base. What you hope for is that the defense will squib the catch and mis-throw to the next base. Which they must do if you are to succeed.
    Anyway, rounding the play at first I continued towards second hoping first base would mis-throw into the short stop’s glove. He did. And the ball bounced off the bag and rolled quickly into short RC. As I rounded second I made a wide turn instead of a quick narrow turn towards third base (saving time on the play wasn’t on my mind). The (mouthy) second baseman dressed in pinstripes came around short RC field to pick up first base’s errant throw to the short stop and didn’t adjust his line to then hit me square in the shoulders (I was expecting my head so low were my considerations of him). It bounced up and over my head towards the third base line fence and clanged around there for awhile as I came into third. At which point I nearly fell rounding third on a tight turn (I needed speed to get me to home or I would be thrown out). Tripping, I took three large steps ruing my misfortune before taking a face dive into the dirt – and just about did but before falling I thought I should pick up my head to look from the ground ahead to the plate. What I saw was an empty home plate. Incredibly no one was there. At which point I collected my legs by slowing down to avoid falling and then trotted in to home. Apparently both the catcher and third baseman were still trying to catch the knuckler rattling along the fence line; the ump had left the plate; and the dumb first baseman was still standing around watching the spectacle. By then my oxygen had run out and I was spasming for air as my guys 15- 25 years younger stood stunned by what happen (and though they tried to replicate it by aggressive base running were thrown out each time). Crazy but fun to shut down the mouths of your preening opponent. We took a 1 run lead and never let go of it (even though we didn’t wear pinstripes and didn’t yap). Ya gotta luv it. I could never get enough of those days.
    Anyway, by your definition I may have interfered with the play, but by taking a normally wide turn I don’t think I strayed outside the “baselines” except to have used all of it. Rules-within-rules-within-rules. I was counting on the fact that old guys aren’t expected to be either smart or fast. And tried to play to their expectations. I think it worked and helped me to finish my last season with a smile on my face thinking about all the fun times we had playing competitive ball.

    • Great story, Russ. Thanks for sharing!