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October 7, 2003

From The Mailbag

Controversy at Fenway

by Jason Grady

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Lots of mail in response to the recent article I put together on the two controversial calls at Fenway this weekend. Let's get to it:

You contend that rundowns should never require more than one throw. A properly executed rundown requires two throws. One to place the ball ahead of the runner and then another to finish the runner off. You want to run the runner back towards the base he came from rather than forward. This is so that in case of a dropped throw the runner will not obtain the next base but only get back to the previous base he had before the rundown.

-- JT
Say a pitcher fields a ball and has a runner caught between third and home. He should close the gap, sprinting directly at the runner. Actually, he should run a little towards the home plate side to encourage him back toward third, as you point out. Pitcher sprints, makes runner sprint, third baseman steps up, receives ball, tag is made, one throw.

Things get complicated when other runners are involved such as a rundown between first and second and then another runner takes off from third. But, in a single rundown, it should take one throw. Also, say a runner gets caught up due to a throw from the outfield. That is not the first throw of the rundown. Once the runner is between two players, one with the ball, he is in a rundown and it should take one throw.

What you mean, though, is that it was Chavez's imperative to get the ball in the hands of the catcher so that they could then run Varitek from home towards third in case of an errant throw. This can be defended, but I contend that a proper rundown requires two fielders and a single throw. Getting the ball ahead of the runner simply for the sake of it adds an extra fielder, an extra throw and more time. Why complicate things and increase the chance of an error?

I am a little outraged by the Byrnes play at the plate. While the rules may not prohibit it - I feel blocking the plate w/o possessing the ball is obstruction. Varitek never had the ball and in my mind should not be able to block the path. If the rule is not currently this way it should be. If it is a rule, and this is the playoffs, I think it should be called. But I won't hold my breath.

-- Paul Sieczkowski
You are correct in that by the letter of the rule book this is obstruction. However, it does not make for entertainment. This rule as it applies at home (and even other bases) has been ignored for quite some time. In lower levels, college and below, this is called, I would say sometimes.

Also, just because it is the playoffs does not mean you start adhering to the rules more strictly. You have to enforce the rules the same way you do for the whole season, otherwise there is no consistency.

To understand the enforcement of rules, you have to realize a number of things. First, the rule book is old. The way it is written is terrible, filled with contradictions, poorly organized and sometimes bares no resemblance to the game on the field since it has not been edited for decades, though the game itself has evolved. To that extent, the rule book requires a severe amount of interpretation. Some rules are iron-clad, some are bent and some are flat out broken. This is explained because the play on the field has evolved, but the book has not evolved with it. The strike zone is the most noteworthy example. The ghost play at second is another example.

For the most part, players know what they can get away with and what they can not. Casual fans even know most of these as well. Blocking the plate (or a bag) is obstruction, but is overlooked because it provides good entertainment. Announcers get to scream "What great job of blocking off the runner! Wow!" and then fans get to see the highlights over and over and talk about it: bragging if their team was on defense, complaining if their team was on offense. Players, managers, MLB officials or a combination of all, some point in the past demonstrated that this rule could be "sacrificed" for the sake of entertainment.

MLB overlooks rules just as often as umpires do. Minute Maid does not adhere to the minimum dimensions listed in the rule book because it made for more entertainment and more money. And let me make clear that umpires do not enforce or not enforce rules as they see fit, they are conditioned by what players, managers, fans and/or the league want. So any discrepancies between the letter of the rule and the spirit of the rule, i.e. what it is meant to do or not do, and how it is enforced is due to the influence of the way the game has evolved, not the umpires' whims.

There is no shortage of the rules being largely ignored. The key, though, is this: everyone knows that blocking the plate is never called. Offenses know it, defenses know it, fans, managers, and administrators all know it. Therefore, they are all playing under the same understanding. At least it is consistent, the umpires have never called it, players and managers never argue it because they know it is part of the game. The enforcement, or lack thereof, of this rule on the field has been consistent for a long time, so the outcry should extend towards the rulebook, not the umpires. And let it be known that umpires are the biggest advocates for re-writing the rulebook. The differences between the rulebook and the play on the field cause these confusions and subsequent debates and the umpires unfairly bare the brunt of the blame.

Incidentally, more egregious in this play was Byrnes shoving Varitek. This warranted an immediate ejection in my opinion.

One major issue that you didn't cover was the Byrnes play. If you watch the replay. Varitek never tagged Byrnes out b/c he was flagrantly holding the ball in his right hand (far from his glove) and tagged Byrnes with the glove. The umpire then incorrectly called Byrnes out. This was a flagrant error by the umpire with no wiggle room as to the rules. You can't tag someone out without the ball in the tagging hand. Play should have continued and Byrnes may have been alerted enough to score the run.

-- Josh Shinoff
You are correct in every sense. And let me also take this opportunity to explain that if Byrnes were to then head home he would not have been "out of the base path" even though he was 15 feet from any line.

This is another widely misunderstood rule. A player can go out of the base line; they do it all the time as they round bases in full sprint. The essence of "out of the base path" has two parts. One, there needs to be a play being made on the runner. Therefore, if a batter hit a ball down the left field line and were so foolish as to round first then circle around the mound on his way to second he would not be out of the base path. Second, base path and base line are not the same. The base line is the direct line between bases. A base path is a direct line between a runner and the base he is running towards. A base path is not created until a play is being made.

With Byrnes limping far from home or any base line and the ball at the backstop, he is not out of the base path because there is no play being made. Once Varitek has the ball and is attempting to make a play, a virtual base path is created from Byrnes to the plate. He has that line, with a three-foot berth on both sides, in order to get home if he had chosen to do so.

So, next time you see someone in a rundown and he runs ten feet from the line connecting the two bases and you hear an announcer say he was out of the base line, make sure you check that he was not already seven feet out of the baseline when the play, meaning the play on him, began.

While Miguel Tejada clearly was wrong to stop running, the last sentence of rule 7.06b states that the umpire shall impose such penalties, if any, as in his judgment will nullify the act of obstruction. Since Tejada stopped running because of the obstruction, he should have been allowed to score IF IN THE UMPIRES JUDGEMENT, HE WOULD HAVE SCORED WITHOUT THE OBSTRUCTION. With Tejada failing to finish the play, it wasn't obvious to the umpires on the field that he would have scored without the obstruction, so they had to rule the way they did.

-- Anonymous
Correct. If Tejada finishes the play and is out at the plate by, say a step or two, then the umps quite clearly could say, the obstruction made the difference. But, stopping 30 feet up the line, the umps can not legitimately extrapolate how close the play would have been if he had kept running, therefore they do not have a basis to nullify the obstruction. Many people have suggested that the throw was offline and it obviously would not have been in time anyway. This may be true, but it would have to be so extremely obvious before the umps could make such a leap, much in the same way that umps rarely give three bases to a runner on a ground rule double. Many times it is obvious a runner would have scored from first on such a play, but I can only recall once where I saw home awarded.
A runner [Robert Fick] in Sat. night's Cubs game who in running to first flailed his right hand at the last instant knocking Eric Karros' hand and ball... something that both at real speed and definitely in slow motion did not seem to be part of his natural running motion, but definitely a deliberate attempt to knock the ball out. As far as I know no call was made directly related to that aspect of the play, the umpire ruling, Karros had the ball made the force, and then had the ball knocked away.

-- BG
Actually it was his left hand and interference was called and Fick was declared out. I also understand that Cox was furious and fined him the max allowable. The league also fined him.
"The umpire shall then call 'Time' and impose such penalties, if any, as in his judgment will nullify the act of obstruction."

Shouldn't the umpire's call as to how to nullify the act of obstruction have been to award Tejada home, since clearly that's where he was heading and could reasonably have been expected to score? Why does it matter what Tejada did on his way home? If the umpire must take that into account then there is a slippery slope that could be exploited by the defense. For example, what if Hernandez had not hit a bouncer in the hole, and instead hit a gapper to the wall in right center; Tejada begins to head home from 2nd, gingerly making his way around 3rd, when Mueller shoves him onto the ground in foul territory before he touches 3rd. When he gets up he realizes he shouldn't try to score because the ball is being relayed home and he doesn't want to risk being thrown out.

In this instance the runner gave up his attempt to reach home after he reached 3rd, but clearly he was heading there before the obstruction caused him to change course. Would he still not be awarded home? If not, that would seem to affirm the strategy of knocking a player on his butt before he gets to 3rd as long as there's no play right there, just to slow or stop him on his way home. If he is granted home base, then the ump would have to assume he would have scored, which is what the umpire in Saturday night's game would not do once the runner changed course and stopped.

-- Casey Coneway
First of all, while it may have seemed reasonable that Tejada would have scored, it was not seen that way for reasons described above. Second, if Mueller intentionally shoves Tejada to the ground he will be ejected and quite possibly Tejada could be awarded home. So, this is not something a defense is going to exploit. Being knocked down is significantly different than being slowed down for a step or two. Tejada still had reasonable capacity to make a play for the next base. You are right in that there is a significant risk for Tejada to get up and try to score despite most likely being thrown out. If he goes and is thrown out by 30 feet, the umps could reasonably say being knocked down caused that gap. If he plays it safe, due to the egregiousness of the obstruction, the umpires could say he would have scored, but then he is relying on a judgment call. As it happened though, a runner was scoring from second on a throw from short left field. An umpire can not say he definitely would have scored because the obstruction only caused him a step or two, but the gap was 30 feet. If Tejada runs it out then the umpire can assess the time of the player and the ball arriving at home and make a judgment. But the player never arrived and not because he was on the ground but because he stopped on his own.
Related Content:  Second Base,  Umpires,  Rules,  Running Game,  The Call-up

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