Obstruction!

You know you have had a strange ending to a game when one of the leading videos on MLB.com is of a press conference by the umpiring crew.

Game Three of the 2013 World Series will certainly live long in the memory as the game that ended on an obstruction call, putting St. Louis into a 2-1 series lead over Boston.

Obstruction isn’t an especially common occurrence in MLB games. I went years keeping score of MLB games without really knowing much about the rules around it as the play hardly ever cropped up.

Often the best way to learn is through finding out you don’t know something and then filling that gap in your knowledge. I suspect I’m far from the only baseball fan who knows a lot more about obstruction this morning than I did prior to Game Three.

The umpires did a good job after the game of explaining the laws and the thought-processes they followed in applying them on this particular play. The main thing to keep in mind is that the law is there to be fair to the baserunner and that they have a right to attempt to progress to the next base – in this case home plate – without being impeded.

It was tough on Will Middlebrooks as, even with his feet raised, I don’t think anyone believed he was trying to impede Allen Craig. However, intent doesn’t come into it and it’s not unique in sporting rules that a law fair to one side means that the opposing player can be seen as hard done by.

In football, if a goalkeeper as last man makes a genuine attempt to get the ball, trips the striker and denies a clear goal-scoring opportunity, the opposing team will get a penalty and the goalie will be sent off. The ‘double jeopardy’ aspect of this seems harsh, but it’s there for a reason and it’s up to the goalkeeper as a professional footballer to know the laws and to play within them. In other words, when he stretches to get the ball, he does so knowing if he gets it wrong he will be sent off.

In the case of Middlebrooks, the argument that he had nowhere to go and ‘couldn’t evaporate into thin air’ (as I read one Red Sox fan putting it) is completely irrelevant. Middlebrooks should know the laws of the game. When he lunged to try and catch the ball he did so knowing that if it went past him and he ended up in Craig’s way, he would be left obstructing the baserunner.

As in the goalie example, Middlebrooks had a split-second to decide how to react to the throw coming down the line and if he had more time or could re-do it then he probably would have fielded it differently, but in sport you only get one crack at it. The way Middlebrooks played it meant he obstructed Craig so he has to accept the penalty.

It should also be noted that the decision at third base didn’t itself result in the winning run. Home plate umpire Dana DeMuth still had to make a judgement call as to whether Craig would have scored had he not been obstructed (again, as in football where the referee makes a judgement on if a clear goal-scoring opportunity has been denied).  It was a close play at the plate and so DeMuth’s decision to award the run was sound.

The cries of Jake Peavy and David Ortiz that this wasn’t the way to end a World Series game should be brushed aside as heat-of-the-moment comments driven by understandable frustration at losing in such a bizarre way. The umpires cannot ignore the laws of the game just because the result will be the game-winning run. And, indeed, the fact that it ended the game made it all the more important that the umpires called it. Considering the badly hobbled Craig nearly beat the throw home anyway, it would have been a travesty for the umpires to have ignored the obstruction that otherwise would have denied the Cardinals the victory.

Yes it was unusual and yes it was a very harsh way for the Red Sox to lose the game, especially considering the wonderful piece of fielding by Dustin Pedroia that started it all off, but Boston’s bad luck ultimately was that the umpiring crew made the correct call.

In amongst all the discussion, that should not be overlooked or downplayed in anyway. On an unusual play in the most intense situation imaginable with just one real-time-speed chance to look at it, the umpires got it spot on.

Doesn’t it sum up the life of an umpire that they can make an exceptional call on a very difficult play and they still end up under the spotlight.

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One Response to Obstruction!

  1. AB November 20, 2013 at 1:33 pm #

    With hindsight and a careful reading of the rules, I think it was the wrong call. The explanatory notes in the rules are pretty explicit as to the right of the fielder to attempt to make a play, and that obstruction only comes into effect should he *continue* to lie on the ground after the play is over. Note the importance of the word *continue* implies that an option to move has not been taken. The attempt to make a play is only over once sufficient time has passed for the player to have moved.

    Now, watch the clip in real time, and come back and tell me that Middlebrooks *continued* to lie on the ground. The contact with the runner comes merely a fraction of a second after he hits the deck.

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