On Saturday the Devil Rays beat the Mariners 2-1 in ten innings on a walk-off obstruction call, and even for an obstruction call, it was an odd one.
With one out, the Rays had the bases loaded. Carl Crawford, who had singled, was on third. Aubrey Huff, who had been walked intentionally after a Julio Lugo sacrifice, was on second. Rico Baldelli, who had walked on four pitches, was on first. Tino Martinez was at the plate. Clint Nageotte, who came in with two outs in the ninth, was pitching. Martinez hit a 2-2 pitch to left. The ball wasn't particularly deep, and Crawford returned quickly to third after feinting a run at the plate. It seemed that play would continue with Jose Cruz, the next batter, coming to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded.
However, Paul Emmel, the third base umpire, signaled Crawford home. Apparently, shortstop Jose Lopez ran over to third and started to lean in front of Crawford, obscuring his view of the catch so that he wouldn't know when to start for home. I say "apparently" because only one of the replay angles even caught a glimpse of Lopez. But that one did show him listed for to his left.
It's difficult to say whether Lopez's lindy had any effect on the play. Sure, he had no business going near third on the play, but it certainly seemed that Crawford scoring was a low-percentage play. But the Rays got the win. Seattle manager Bob Melvin came out and argued but to no avail. He even argued the call when he came out to exchange lineup cards in the next day's game, drawing an ejection before the game even started.
OK, let's set aside whether Lopez was trying to obscure Crawford's view and whether Crawford would have been able to score. Or even if Crawford could have just turned to his third-base coach to determine when and if to go. My question is whether it qualified as obstruction.
Here's the definition of obstruction and the rule concerning its use:
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. 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.
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. 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. Under 7.06 (b) when the ball is not dead on obstruction and an obstructed runner advances beyond the base which, in the umpire’s judgment, he would have been awarded because of being obstructed, he does so at his own peril and may be tagged out. This is a judgment call. NOTE: The catcher, without the ball in his possession, has no right to block the pathway of the runner attempting to score. The base line belongs to the runner and the catcher should be there only when he is fielding a ball or when he already has the ball in his hand.
It boils down to whether Lopez "impede[d] the progress of any runner". I don't think you can say that he impeded Crawford. That's not to say that calling it obstruction was out of line with the intent of the rule. Nor am I saying that there is no precedent for the call. I just couldn't find one. I am also not saying that even without precedent, the interpretation of the rule was outside the ump's purview. It was at worst a creative interpretation.
What I am saying is that the obstruction rule doesn't work as was made eminently clear in the Red Sox-A's series last year. It's high time for the rule to be re-written in a way that actually makes sense, but baseball is more concerned with things like Barry Bonds' steroid use and determining homefield advantage in the World Series based on an exhibition than with actually straightening out their own rules.