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October 5, 2003

Controversy at Fenway

Did the Umpires Make the Right Calls?

by Jason Grady

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Rule 2 - 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. It is entirely up to the judgment of the umpire as to whether a fielder is in the act of fielding a ball.

Not to be confused with...

Rule 2 - Interference (a) Offensive interference is an act by the team at bat which interferes with, obstructs, impedes, hinders, or confuses any fielder attempting to make a play.

Rule 7.06 - 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 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.
(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.

In Saturday's ALDS game between the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics, both types of obstruction were exemplified and the umpires got both calls exactly right, in terms of the rules.

First, in the bottom of the second inning with Jason Varitek on third base, Damian Jackson hit a grounder to third baseman Eric Chavez. With Varitek hung up between third and home, Chavez decides to make a play on him rather than throw to first.

Now, it was unacceptable to my high school baseball coach for a rundown to take any more than one throw and we executed rundowns to that standard. I see professionals take two, three, four, and five throws to make a putout on a runner that is hung up and I am flabbergasted each time. I mention this because if Chavez and catcher Ramon Hernandez had executed the rundown with any semblance of proficiency, the ensuing controversy never would have happened.

Chavez pumps, pumps and throws to Hernandez. Error 1. The first objective in executing a rundown is to get the runner up to full speed because obviously the difficulty of changing directions increases as the runner's speed increases. Hernandez waits, waits and waits for the throw. Error 2. As Varitek approaches Hernandez, Hernandez should sprint towards Varitek. But wait, he does not have the ball! Correct. When Hernandez takes off, that is Chavez's cue to throw and vacate the baseline (this is crucial, too). Varitek is running full speed towards Hernandez. Hernandez is running full speed towards Varitek. With that momentum and Hernandez just receiving the ball, the runner could be Michael Johnson and the fielder Edgar Martinez and the runner could not reverse fields fast enough. One throw, one out.

In the event that the rundown is not run properly, the process is reversed in the other direction. Chavez should vacate the position because he can obstruct the runner if Hernandez does not return the ball in time. This is not what happened in this case, Chavez actually was trying to field a throw when the obstruction occurred, but he should not have been there in the first place. There was a backup behind him to take his place in the rundown as there should be. The call, i.e. the judgment that there was obstruction, against Chavez was close, but Chavez did not help himself, looking out of place most of the time.

Once the judgment is made, a ruling must be enforced, and according to 7.06a--remember the play is being made on the obstructed runner--third base umpire Bill Welke did all the right things, in no uncertain terms, and without hesitation. He raised both hands, signaling the play is dead, presumably calling "Obstruction," (actually he waved his hands high in the air numerous times and presumably shouted "Obstruction! Time! Time!"), pointed to Chavez presumably repeating "Obstruction," then pointed to Varitek "You!" and then home "Home!", awarding the base based on rule 7.06a. Question the judgment call if you wish, and I do, but the ruling was spot on.

In the Oakland sixth, Ramon Hernandez chops one past Nomar Garciaparra. The runner on second, Miguel Tejada rounds third, but is obstructed by third baseman Bill Mueller. This is rule 7.06b--a play is not being made on the obstructed runner--and again third base umpire Bill Welke did everything right. He points to the location of obstruction with one hand and shouts "Obstruction." He does not throw two hands up in the air repeatedly signaling a dead ball. It may seem like a confusing distinction, but they are very distinct and again, it is not unreasonable to expect a player, especially a professional, to know the rules of the game he plays. Tejada, though, assumes this obstruction is the same as the obstruction he witnessed innings before. Unfortunately, he is wrong. The play is not dead and no bases are awarded. The play is ongoing and it is the responsibility of all players, offensive and defensive, to continue the play to its end.

I have heard arguments that calling Tejada out was the easy way out for the umps with an obvious scapegoat. I disagree. Tejada being put out was due to his own ignorance of the rules, indefensible for a professional, but probably the norm. Tejada's ignorance is also not something the umps have to compensate for..."Well, he thought the play was over. That is why he stopped. We should give him home." Sorry, no dice. Tejada's job is to finish the play. If he is safe, well then, he is safe. If he is called out, it is in the umpire's judgment whether he would have been safe if for the obstruction and if so, the umpire will overturn the out due to the obstruction. Incidentally, there will be cases when the runner would obviously still have been out and cases when the runner would obviously have been safe. For the middle ground, umpires will tend to "penalize" the defense for the obstruction, giving the benefit of the doubt to the runner, so if Tejada had continued the play and been thrown out, it is likely that would have been overturned.

There has been a ton of discussion--rule lookups, deep thought and analysis--going on since these plays happened, and it is still being debated. Bill Welke made both these calls in a split second and got them both exactly right (at least in terms of the rules, I still mildly question the Chavez judgment). MLB umpires (and officials in other sports) take their jobs extremely seriously, don't throw tantrums like players or managers, don't get on TV and say how the players screwed them and get things right even when talking heads are saying they did not. While I still contest that judging the strike zone is beyond the capabilities of the human eye, I also contest that umpires talents' are almost always undervalued and underappreciated.

Lastly, as for protesting, you can never protest a judgment call. In this instance the ump says: "In my opinion, Chavez obstructed Varitek." He may have, he may not have, but in the ump's opinion, he did. At that point, enforcing the rule of that judgment is the only question, and as stated above the umpire enforced both rules properly. There is no basis for a protest in either case.

Related Content:  Eric Chavez,  Ramon Hernandez,  The Call-up

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