Last year, Atlanta Braves fans watched in horror as the St. Louis Cardinals benefitted from a controversial “infield fly” call in the National League Wild Card game which effectively ended the Braves’ eighth-inning comeback. The Cardinals went on to win 6-3, but their victory was largely overshadowed by the public outcry over umpire Sam Holbrook’s interpretation and application of the Infield Fly Rule.

Last Saturday, the Red Sox felt the same pain after another controversial call went the Cardinals’ way and concluded (in rather anticlimactic fashion) Game 3 of the World Series.

The game itself was the stuff of postseason legend. Both clubs brought their A-game on the mound and at the plate. The Red Sox came from behind twice in front of a formidable crowd at Busch Stadium. Players on each side made clutch defensive plays. Afterwards, sports commentators agreed that Game 3 had all the trappings of a great, entertaining game — baseball at its best. Perhaps it’s only fitting, then, that it ended on a play that highlights one of baseball’s greatest controversies: the enforcement of time-honored rules that many claim have turned anachronistic.

In Game 3 this past weekend, the call at issue was an “obstruction” error on the Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks, which allowed the Cardinals’ base runner Allen Craig to score the game-winning run. Although Craig was tagged out on a throw from the right fielder to home plate, the run was allowed because Craig would have been safe had he not tripped over Middlebrooks.

Rule 2.00 of the Official Baseball Rules [PDF] defines “obstruction” as an “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.” A Comment to the rule provides that a fielder can occupy space when “in the act of fielding a ball,” but once he has attempted to field a ball and missed, he can no longer be in the act. Notably, the rule does not require the fielder to have intended to impede the base runner’s progress. Thus, even a player who accidentally falls and cannot move out of the base runner’s way quickly enough is guilty of obstruction. Ultimately, the rule was designed to squarely place the burden of preventing collisions on fielders rather than base runners. It’s more of a safety provision than anything else.

Most commentators and fans agree that the umpires made the right call in Game 3. Under the letter of Rule 2.00, Middlebrooks clearly obstructed Craig’s path, and the run should have been allowed. But in the moment, as the Cardinals bench cleared and Craig lay flat on home plate in obvious pain, neither side really understood why the run counted. Apparently, even the players are unfamiliar with the obstruction rule. Or, perhaps no one expects it to be called at such a crucial point in the World Series?

Of course, the rules are the rules no matter what day it is. But try telling that to Middlebrooks, whose error cost his team a World Series game. If, as he claims, the obstruction was unintentional, is such a harsh penalty really fair?

Even though base runners advance at their own peril following an obstruction (that is, they can still be called out if they would’ve been out regardless of the fielder’s error), the rule still seems to be a Draconian punishment when applied to accidental obstructions. Major League Baseball (MLB), of course, could modify the rule to give obstruction an element of intent. This would still protect from collisions by deterring fielders from attempting to obstruct the base path without also penalizing those fielders who collide accidentally.

At the end of the day, however, such a rule change seems unlikely. For one, unlike the Infield Fly Rule, the obstruction provision is really about ensuring players’ safety. Although it doesn’t do much in the way of deterring accidental collisions, Rule 2.00 certainly prevents fielders from purposely using their bodies to keep runners from reaching the bag.

Still, the rule could be re-written without compromising the legitimate goal of protecting players’ safety. But, as many fans might suspect, there is another reason why Rule 2.00 probably won’t change: tradition. A major part of baseball’s appeal is its status as America’s favorite pastime. For better or worse, baseball today looks much like it did in the beginning because very few aspects of the game have changed – including the rules.

Of course, MLB could surprise us and change it. Although Game 3 likely won’t be remembered for what it should (as a night of quality baseball), it could be remembered as the impetus for change in one of the world’s most steadfast professional sports. In any case, you can bet there will at least be rumblings about it during the offseason – especially if the Cardinals end up winning the Series.

After all, it’s been over a year and fans are still griping about the “infield fly” of the 2012 NL Wild Card game – and that wasn’t even for all the marbles.

–Morgan Morrison

Image Source

Tagged with:

5 Responses to After Game 3, MLB Should Consider Rewriting the Obstruction Rule

  1. Morgan Morrison says:

    Except that it is. It’s only Draconian punishment if the fielder didn’t intend to obstruct – i.e., he physically couldn’t get out of the way. I was trying to analogize a non-intent-based obstruction rule with the “eggshell skull” rule in torts, or “general intent crimes” in criminal law. There are good and bad arguments for why intent shouldn’t be considered in these contexts. This blog post was an attempt at pointing out one of them.

  2. Richard Hershberger says:

    What is all this talk of draconian punishments? The “punishment” is that the result of the play is reset to what it would have been had the offense not occurred. That is no punishment at all. The fact that it was at the end of an important game doesn’t magically change this. Had the fielder not obstructed the runner, the runner would have scored. I am utterly mystified at the notion that refusing to allow the fielder to benefit from his obstruction is somehow an extreme penalty. And no, intent is not relevant.

  3. Bradlee Edmondson says:

    I initially ascribed some intent to Middlebrooks as well, given that his legs do seem to fly up at an unusual time, though I have since softened my belief in his intent. But I will just note that the rule prohibits “imped[ing],” not colliding, so even if the rule had an intent element, Middlebrooks could still be argued to qualify: intentional impedance of the runner’s progress with the legs, resulting in a collision with his body.

    Either way I think both of you made the point that the rules are the rules no matter what the import of the game or the particular play, so I’m not sure it’s worth the review they’re apparently going to do.

    What’s more, the current objective standard is easier to apply, since it doesn’t require any determination of intent (which I think weighs slightly in its favor), and the current rule favors offense, which is good for the fans (which I think weighs heavily in its favor). If the defense makes an error and then can’t get out of the way, well, tough luck, the runners advance.

    That said, I am personally a Red Sox fan, so… yeah, we were robbed on Saturday!!

  4. Morgan Morrison says:

    Actually, the rule doesn’t allow the runner to advance to the next base. The whole “advance at your own peril” rule means that when the runner chooses to continue, he may or may not be called “safe” at the next base. If the runner had been out by a mile regardless of the obstruction, then the umpire will call him out.

    I think the issue isn’t so much the “degree” of punishment in cases where the obstruction is unintentional; rather, it’s the fact that there’s punishment at all. If the player clearly physically could not get out of the base runner’s path in time, it seems unfair to let the tie go to the runner. He’s taking the chance to advance just like he would if someone bobbled the ball in the outfield. The accidental collision should have no different effect.

    Of course, if the collision is intentional, then that’s a different story. It appears that you believe Middlebrooks intentionally collided with Craig (although, as the umpires correctly asserted, the collision was with Middlebrooks’ body, not his legs). In that case, if there was an intentional collision, then we are on the same page and the tie should go to the runner on a close play.

  5. Jacob Schumer says:

    The harshness of the penalty was entirely from the context. The rule simply grants an advancement of one base along the basepath, which is probably the lowest penalty possible in baseball. How often will an obstruction call come with the game tied, with two outs, at the bottom of the 9th, with the runner coming from 3rd—all in a World Series game? Virtually never.

    It’s a completely fair rule in any other context, and it seems like it was fair here. If you impede the runner on their way to a base, the runner gets that base for free. It’s a proportional punishment in any sense, and in this case, the runner actually fell over, which was likely the reason he was out in the first place.

    Rewriting the rule to incorporate intent would be a whole new can of worms, but I’m not even sure if it would be relevant in this case, as all objective indication was that the fielder lifted his legs as the runner was trying to go over them. Allow me to channel captain hindsight: