Obstruction!

2013 world seriesLast night presented baseball fans with something they had never seen: a World Series game ending on an obstruction / interference call. Veteran observers instantly recalled Game 3 of the 1975 World Series when Ed Armbrister, pinch hitting for reliever Rawly Eastwick, was NOT called for interference with Carlton Fisk on a critical tenth inning play. Attempting a bunt, Armbrister paused in the batter’s box, leading to a collision with catcher Carlton Fisk, trying to reach the ball. In any event, the controversial play did not end that game.

Returning to my hotel after last night’s classic contest, I wrote on Twitter, “I can’t recall ANY game ending on an obstruction call, let alone a WS game.” My fellow tweeps were quick to fill in the blank spots in my recall.

D.J. Short reminded me of a game that I had seen only six years ago (the mind is the second thing to go, I replied to him, with thanks). The Phils defeated the Mets 3-2 on August 28, 2007, as Marlon Anderson’s hard take-out slide was ruled interference (not obstruction, which can only be committed by the defensive team) and became the final out of the game. [http://goo.gl/FKyQ07]

Jacob Pomrenke directed me to a game I truly did not recall, Mariners at Devil Rays on August 6, 2004. In the bottom of the tenth, with the game tied at one apiece, Carl Crawford was awarded home plate when third-base umpire Paul Emmel ruled that Jose Lopez obstructed Crawford’s view of a catch made in left field while Crawford tagged up; Lopez was called for obstruction. [http://goo.gl/q3riIp]

Adam J. Morris and Dan Wade pointed out a game from 2009 when the final out of the game was called for interference because third-base coach Dave Anderson helped runner Michael Young to retreat to third base after starting for home. [http://goo.gl/QGAx9o]

But surely, I thought, there must have been a game in baseball’s Pleistocene Era when such a thing occurred. Maybe when an umpire caught Orioles’ third baseman John McGraw holding onto the belt of a runner rounding the bag for home?

Checking the log of forfeit and no-decision games at retrosheet.org, I find these interesting denouements—not the same sequence of events as last night, but in the same ballpark, so to speak.

08/21/1876, Chicago at St. Louis (NL): With the score tied 6 to 6 in the 9th, St. Louis put a runner on third. The next batter hit a drive down the third base line that hit the runner. The runner was allowed to score. Chicago left the field in protest. The game was awarded to St. Louis. New York Times, 08/22/1876, p. 2 (St. Louis).

08/11/1884, Buffalo at Chicago (NL): In the first inning, with a runner on first, the Chicago batter hit a groundball to the second baseman, who ran the runner back toward first to tag him. The runner threw his arms around the fielder to prevent him from throwing the ball. The umpire called the runner and the batter out. Cap Anson of Chicago did not think the batter should be out and refused to continue. Washington Post, 08/12/1884, p. 1.

05/03/1899, Louisville at Pittsburgh (NL): Louisville was ahead 6-1 going into the home half of the ninth inning. Pittsburgh scored three runs and had two men on base when a strange play occurred. Jack McCarthy hit a ball down the right field line. It looked foul but the umpire called it fair. The ball hit a snag in the field and kicked to the right. The ball headed toward a small boy standing near a door to the dressing room. As the ball approached, the boy opened the door, the ball and the boy passed through it, and the boy closed the door behind them. By the time Charlie Dexter, the right fielder, opened the door and retrieved the ball three run had scored. Louisville claimed fan interference, but umpires Oyster Burns and Billy Smith thought otherwise. Louisville protested the game. It was later called a no-decision. Chicago Daily Tribune, 05/04/1899, p. 4.

Willie Keeler with New York

Willie Keeler with New York

08/22/1905, Washington at Detroit (AL): Detroit and Washington battled through 10 innings with the scored tied 1 to 1. In the Washington half of the 11th inning with two out, two on, and a three-and-one count on batter John Anderson, Hunter Hill, the runner on third, bolted for the plate as George Mullin wound up to deliver the pitch. Jack Warner, the catcher, brushed past the batter, caught the ball and tagged the runner out by at least 10 feet. Umpire Jack Sheridan ruled the runner safe because of the catcher’s obvious interference with the batter. Anderson was awarded first on a walk. The Detroit club objected and started to argue. Sheridan calmly waited the required two minutes and called the game. The crowd then rushed the field to confront the umpire. The Tigers team surrounded the umpire and escorted him to safety. The police were called to quell the riot. New York Times, 08/23/1905, p. 4; Washington Post, 08/23/1905, p. 9.

09/03/1906 , Philadelphia at New York (AL): With two outs in the ninth inning of the second game of a doubleheader, the New York team was awarded a forfeit win after tying the game at 3. With runners on second and third (Willie Keeler and Wid Conroy), Jimmy Williams came to the plate. Plate umpire Silk O’Loughlin called two strikes before Williams hit a ground ball toward third baseman John Knight. Knight took a step backwards to field the ball and stepped into the path of Keeler. Keeler fell flat on his face while the ball rolled into left field. Keeler got up and scored. Several Philadelphia players stormed the umpire demanding that he called out on runner’s interference. Two of the players, Harry Davis and Topsy Hartsel, were very vocal and kept arguing. O’Loughlin finally had enough and called the game. After the game he said that the third baseman clearly obstructed the runner. Washington Post, 09/04/1906, p. 9.

17 Comments

By God, John, I love your work. This respect almost prevented me from commenting with a correction on your recent column, particularly because it might be nit-picking, but my career as a 44-year umpire (and lover of baseball rules) compelled me to do so. Obstruction, by definition, can only be committed by a member of the defensive team. Several of your examples are incidents of interference, not obstruction. Take care.

Thanks, Dennis. Always glad to learn!

Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G LTE smartphone

This makes total sense, Dennis, and in fact this incident and article solidified in my mind the difference of the meaning between the two words in real-life situations as well: interference can only be a proactive offensive act; obstruction can only be a reactive defensive act.

Great Article!

Do Bosox now have a new legend in the making? Will “Craig’s wild dash to the plate” of 2013 now replace “Slaughter’s scamper” or 1946? And is J. Saltalamacchia now destined to be immortalized as the new J. Pesky?

Saltalamacchia would be very fortunate to one day be as beloved as Johnny Pesky became in Boston.

Why do umpires allow a player trying to take out the shortstop or second basemen to prevent a double play to go outside the base path and often not sliding? Yet end a world series game on a play where there was NO intent.

It was the rule, the other member of the crew immediately held his arm out when the rule was broken, it was the Home ump that finished the call.
Someone brought up the hard slide to the bag, how about the proximity out where the infielder doesn’t even touch the bag.
If you don’t like the rule write the rules committee.

I think I will, too much inconsistency here. The umps did make the right call according to the rulebook, but it’s left to too much interpretation.

if it’s left to interpretation, then the correct call could not have necessarily been made. By definition, for the correct call to have been made, the rule would need to be black and white, and clearly, this one is not. To end a World Series game on a call like this (and please, let’s not forget Jim Joyce has missed bigger, easier calls in his career.) is an abomination.

Why is it an “abomination” to end a World Series game, or any game for that matter, with the correct call? Imagine the firestorm had the umpire not followed the rule and wimped out. The runner would have been out despite being impeded in his progress to the plate; in other words, the team committing an illegal act under the rules would have been awarded. Nobody wants fielders being allowed to trip, block, or hinder runners as they progress around the base paths, intentionally or otherwise. Had the “out” of Crain been allowed to stand, the loud response would have been that of my nine-year-old nephew: “That’s unfair!”

This isn’t the 1890s.

Ed Armbrister didn’t “pause” in the batter’s box. He actually took a step backward after beginning his forward progress toward 1st base. He appears to have dropped the bat on his foot or was trying to avoid tripping over his own bat. Either way, his intent shouldn’t have mattered under the rule, and he should have been called for “offensive interference” when he made contact with Fisk.

The runner was not in the base path. The base path was clear. He was obstructed outside the base path. A terrible call

I can’t really argue that the call was wrong. I would like to argue that a no-call would have been just as correct.
Allen Craig has a bum wheel. He has trouble getting to his feet, whether Middlebrooks is there or not. It appear that he actually move back inside the baseline and plants his hands on Middlebrooks’ back to help him regain his footing. Watch the reply. If he is using Middlebrooks to help him stand up, where’s the obstruction? At this point, Middlebrooks is actually helping rather than hindering the baserunner. You can see how much trouble Craig is in a few strides later when he stumbles again on his way toward home.
I think the worst part of the call is that DeMuth has to decide whether Craig would have made the extra base safely with no obstruction. He is hurting badly, and Nava’s throw is right on the money. I don’t blame Demuth for making the call, or Joyce for calling obstruction, but a no call wouldn’t necessarily be like a ref swallowing his whistle in the last 10 seconds of a basketball game. A no call here would be perfectly appropriate. And that’s why the play and the rule suck. A no call is just about as easy to justify as a call.

There is an interesting backstory concerning the Armbrister non-“interference” play with Fisk. Umpires, at that time, worked under different leagues and different interpretation of the rules, unlike today in which they work under one umbrella and all receive the same instructions. Three of the six umpires working the Armrister/Fisk game had been instructed not to call “interference” on such plays. Earlier in the year, in Spring Training, the league’s umpires, to be consistent, were trained to use that interpretation of the rule because both the catcher and the batter are in the right. The catcher has the right to field the batted ball without being interfered with, and the runner has the right to advance to first base without being impeded. Who has the right of way in this case? Both do. Should the two players collide, there is no call of interference (or obstruction) and may the best man win. (Of course, this interpretation applies only when it near a base and neither player intentionally obstructs or interferes with the other.) So, in the Armbrister case, the home plate umpire was doing exactly what he had been instructed to do and not call interference. The umpire took a lot of heat but he was totally correct considering that he was following the “official” league interpretation of the rule.

Baseball must have also thought the umpire (and his league) had the correct interpretation because the next year the following sentence was added to the Official Baseball Rules (7.09L casebook): “When a catcher and batter-runner going to first base have contact when the catcher is fielding the ball, there is generally no violation and nothing should be called.” The bottom line is, the umpire made the right call then and, should a similar incident occur in this year’s World Series, it will be still be the right call.

I had an interesting viewing experience for the game. The Baseball Hall of Fame held their “Watch the Worlds Series at the Hall” event. It was a great event and a great game with an ending that many if not any have ever seen before. I got a kick out of the reactions of the 150 people that were there attending the event.

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