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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.
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