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Obstruction of Justice—A Case of Fenway Robbery
2003-10-06 01:44
by Mike Carminati

Kill the obstruction rule. That's the only answer since killing the umpire is apparently no longer an option.

Why? Because today's umpires have no idea how to apply the rule. They have divorced it from its original intent and have evolved the rule to the point that it is not only a contradiction of that intent but is self-contradictory as well.

If you missed it, the Red Sox beat the A's 3-1 last night on an eleventh-inning, pinch-hit home run by Trot Nixon, thereby avoiding elimination in the Division Series. The game's outcome, and in my opinion anything further that the Red Sox accomplish in this postseason, was muddied by the many controversial, strange and, oddly umpired plays.

First, in the bottom of the second with one out and no score, the Red Sox had Jason Varitek at third and Gabe Kapler at first. The A's had already booted two double play balls for two errors (Tejeda and Chavez). Damian Jackson then grounded to Eric Chavez at third. Chavez threw the ball home and Ramon Hernandez and Chavez seemed to have Varitek caught in a rundown. I say "seemed", because apparently Hernandez forgot it was a rundown and he proceeded to follow Varitek three-quarters of the way back to third. Chavez was gesturing wildly for the ball. When it came Chavez was on the bag, the throw was wide, and Chavez was found to have obstructed Varitek's path to third. Varitek, therefore, was awarded the next base after the last one he had occupied. Since that was home, Varitek thereby scored the first run of the game and Chavez was assessed an error.

The score was still 1-0 in Boston's favor when Oakland batted in the top of the sixth. With one out, Eric Byrnes was at third and Erubiel Durazo was at first. Miguel Tejada hit a dribbler towards third. Derek Lowe, the pitcher, fielded the ball but threw wide of home. The throw was up the third base line, and Varitek lunged towards the ball blocking Byrnes' path to the plate. Byrnes' feet were blocked by the catcher and his body pivoted like the old man at the end of the Mousetrap game, driving him hard to the ground. However, Byrnes missed the plate. As Varitek ran to retrieve the errant throw, a limping Byrnes shoved him with both hands as he proceeded slowly to the dugout. Varitek then picked up the ball and tagged Byrnes out. Had Byrnes merely touched home, he would have scored. Apparently, he hadn't realized that a) he did not touch home and that b) homeplate umpire Paul Emmel had made no call indicating the play was still active. Varitek was not assessed an obstruction since catchers are allowed to block the plate if they are going for the ball.

Tejada and Durazo moved up on the play. Next up was Eric Chavez who was walked intentionally. The next batter was game one hero Ramon Hernandez. Hernandez hit a high chopper that went under shortstop Nomar Garciaparra's glove for an error. Manny Ramirez retrieved the ball in shallow left field and relayed it home. Erubiel Durazo scored from third, but as Miguel Tejada rounded third, third baseman Bill Mueller blocked Tejada's path home. Tejada jogged home pointing continually back at Mueller to indicate the infraction and was tagged easily by Varitek. Third base ump umpire Bill Welke had called obstruction, but Tejada was called out at home. The umpires conferred, Ken Macha argued, but the call stood.

Then to lead off the bottom of the eighth with the score still tied, Chad Bradford threw an 0-1 pitch to Nomar Garciaparra who apparently grounded out to third. But Emmel called a non-pitch given that Bradford had not come to a set position before delivering the pitch. Garciaparra stopped halfway apparently claiming that the ball hit him on the thigh, which would therefore mean it was dead, but repeated replays from various angles failed to support this. (Oh, and one last controversy stemmed from the Red Sox' Kim changing his cap tipping to an obscene gesture—guess which one—when the crowd started booing him for having given up the lead in game one.)

While the baseball conspiracy theorists may draw a direct line from the gift Cliff Floyd acquisition to the fleecing of Japanese baseball of Kevin Millar to the Soviet Olympic basketball victory by the Sox last night, I'd prefer the explanation of the umpire incompetence. All of these events were on commissioner Bud Selig's watch thoughor at his behest. Selig was in attendance last night and was as ineffectual as ever. (By the way, for a relatively thin man, why does Selig without fail appear in public shoving gobs of food into his twisted mug? The man makes George Costanza engorging a sundae at the U.S. Open seem refined.)

Also, after a conversation with his Bud-ness, umpiring official Steve Palermo changed his opinion on the Tejada play from a critical to a conciliatory one:

"The runner is in peril to be put out," said Steve Palermo, a baseball supervisor of umpires. "Bill Welke determined that Miguel Tejada would not have scored if there had not been obstruction."

Heck, in the postgame interview, Trot Nixon, who hit the game-winner, disclosed that he had not hit the home run, but rather that Jesus Christ himself had. Talk about your inside connections!

So what happened? Not that this is an excuse for the umps but the obstruction rule is confusing and highly subjective. For the record here is the rule and the definition of obstruction in the rulebook:

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.

Section (a) was cited in the Varitek case and section (b) in Tejada's. The difference between the two being that a play was being made on Varitek but none was being made on Tejada at the time of the infraction. I agree with that assessment. However, I disagree with the application of the rule in both cases.

Replays clearly show that Chavez collided with Varitek in attempt to field the late throw from Hernandez, which went to the backup man. I submit that Varitek was not obstructed and the play should have continued with Varitek very likely making his way back to third safely.

On the Tejada play, the collision did not occur until Tejada had rounded third. Mueller had gone to cover third in case Garciaparra had fielded the ball cleanly and had attempted a throw there. However, the collision occurred after Garciaparra booted the ball and it seems that Mueller's only attempt at the time of the obstruction was to block Tejada's path home. I know that section (b) does not automatically award the next base to a runner and rather states that he advances "at his own peril", but given that Tejada had already passed third, the collision definitely slowed his path to the plate. I disagree with the assessment that Tejada's slow canter home is grounds for declaring that he would have been out. Clearly Tejada's reaction was a result of the obstruction and if he had been running full force, he would have probably scored barring a perfect throw from Ramirez.

Again that's my opinion. Welke is entitled to his own. As a matter of fact, it is the only one that matters. However, asking an umpire to assess the fielder's arm strength and accuracy and the baserunner's speed after an obstruction play is ludicrous. It is clear to me that the intent of the fielder in the second obstruction call was to block the runner. However, I do not believe that the same could be said of the first obstruction play.

How dissimilar was the Chavez play to the Byrnes play at the plate? Both fielders were going after the ball though neither fielded it. Chavez lunged with his arm for a relay throw and Varitek lunged with his leg. In my opinion Varitek had no play on the ball and know it. He then made the only play he could, which was to block the plate and hope for the best, which was forthcoming. Apparently on the Chavez play Hernandez had realized that he threw too late to Chavez and was throwing to the fielder behind him, thinking Chavez would rotate out. Chavez did not realize this and lunged clearly for the ball but could not catch it. If anything, the Chavez play is less a case of obstruction than the Byrnes one.

By my scorecard, that leaves a clear-cut case of obstruction by Mueller that ended up helping the guilty team, a possible but never called case of obstruction by Varitek on Byrnes that cost the offense, and a dubious case of obstruction by Chavez that automatically cost the offending team a run.

Therefore, the dichotomy between the two halves of the bifurcated rule ended up deciding the result. The mildest infraction carried the stiffest penalty while the most blatant infraction left the call open to whatever the umpire's opinion was based on very dicey evidence. How does Welke know whether Tejada running unobstructed would have beaten Ramirez's throw? Shouldn't an apparent close play go to the obstructed runner? If you were the third baseman, wouldn't it make sense according to this interpretation to obstruct the runner on a close play and hope that the ump rules in your favor?

But wasn't the original intent of the rule to prevent these sorts of shenanigans? From The Rules and Lore of Baseball:

John McGraw, the great ex-New York Giants' manger, used to pull the following stunt, which was an act of obstruction, when he played for Baltimore many years ago. When a runner was on third base and ready to leave third after an outfield fly, McGraw used to hold the runners [sic] belt to slow him down.

How different was what Mueller did to Tejada? Maybe it was not as blatant but the intent was the same.

Or how about this:

Eddie Stanky when managed Chicago between 1966-1968...had a neat trick that would involve Pete Ward, his third baseman. When an opposing runner attempted to score from second on a hit, Ward would move into the path of the runner, and then step aside just before the runner got there. (This would obstruct the runner's path.) There would be no contact, but Ward's actions would cause the runner to break stride just enough to give the Chicago outfielders a chance to nail the runner at home. The umpires finally caught on to Ward's trickery and nailed him a few times. Once they realized the umpires were on to them, Stanky and Ward soon scrapped this caper.

This sounds mild compared to Mueller's play. I submit that the game has been cleaned up to such an extent that umpires rarely see obstruction nowadays. Given that the umpires have become tremendous egomaniacs, they feel confident that they can assess the final result of a broken play, e.g., Tejada would be out at home, instead of assessing a punishment for the infraction. Apparently based on prior uses of the rule, Tejada would have been granted home.


Boston and Washington played a night game on May 21, 1955, in which Boston outfielder Jackie Jensen and Washington pitcher Mickey McDermott were involved in an obstruction play and mild skirmish.

In the top of the twelfth inning, Jensen was on first base with two out. Picked off by McDermott and trapped, Jackie made a break for second, then returned to first base. On his way back to first, his progress was obstructed by [first baseman] Mickey Vernon. Obstruction was called by the second base umpire, Ed Runge, but he didn't make any gestures to go with the call.

Jesnsen was steaming about the obstruction as he charged toward McDermott, who was waiting to put the tag on him at first base. Jensen pushed McDermott down, and the ball was knocked out of the pitcher's hands.

At first base, umpire Hank Soar called Jensen out for interference. The Senators, believing the side was retired, walked off the field. However, senior umpire Bill Summers said Jensen was obstructed by Vernon and should be given first base. Today Jensen would be given second base, one base beyond the last base legally touched. On the play, Jensen and McDermott got into a scuffle, and both were ejected from the game.

The only difference was that a play was being made on Jensen and not on Tejada, but why should that by the main criterion? The rule is divided into one section that clearly lays out the results if obstruction occurs when a play is being made on the player. The second half leaves the result completely up to the umpire's power of predicting the future. This is the same section of the rule that was employed in the NLCS last year. At the time Benito Santiago was obstructed by Miguel Cairo and was awarded third, because in umpire Jeff Nelson's view Santiago would not have made it home.

Isn't it time for baseball to unify and recodify this silly rule? The original intent, which was to clean up dirty play, has been lost and dirty plays now result in rewards for the offending team. How many times does baseball need to be embarrassed on a national stage to do something about it? Indeed, this game was the poster child for the inanities of the split rule. If baseball does not do something this offseason which, considering baseball's typical response, it won't, then they never will.

Finally, here's the little used stretch/set position rule:

SET POSITION is one of the two legal pitching positions.

The pitcher, following his stretch, must (a) hold the ball in both hands in front of his body and (b) come to a complete stop. This must be enforced. Umpires should watch this closely. Pitchers are constantly attempting to "beat the rule" in their efforts to hold runners on bases and in cases where the pitcher fails to make a complete "stop" called for in the rules, the umpire should immediately call a "Balk." (c) At any time during the pitcher's preliminary movements and until his natural pitching motion commits him to the pitch, he may throw to any base provided he steps directly toward such base before making the throw. The pitcher shall step "ahead of the throw." A snap throw followed by the step directly toward the base is a balk. (d) If the pitcher makes an illegal pitch with the bases unoccupied, it shall be called a ball unless the batter reaches first base on a hit, an error, a base on balls, a hit batter or otherwise. A ball which slips out of a pitcher's hand and crosses the foul line shall be called a ball; otherwise it will be called no pitch. This would be a balk with men on base.

You'll notice that the pitch was called a ball and the count was 1-2 when Garciaparra got the infield single. Again the intent of the rule was to protect runners and batters. However, how useful is it if Garciaparra was able to hit the ball about as equally well as the next pitch which was from a set position?

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