Ask the Ump: Obstruction, That Thorny Beast

May Day is an international celebration of workers’ rights, thanks to some massacre or other that happened in some American city during a strike many years ago.  So, every nation on earth takes a day off work for this, except in the US, where we had Labor Day long before any of this happened.  Why do I bring this up?  Because instead of obstructing workers’ rights, its seems that Red Sox SS Alex Cora spent his May Day holiday obstructing Yankee runner Derek Jeter from returning to second base.  Or did he?  You can review the argument here (Although this is mainly about the ump’s judgement, which is something no one is actually allowed to question):

Anyway, to the question at hand: When fielding a throw, is it obstruction if an infielder blocks the progress of a runner with his body?

The short answer to this is no. If a fielder is going for the ball and trying to make a play, then it’s tough luck on the runner if that fielder gets in his way. Likewise on a thrown ball, it is tough luck on the fielder if the runner knocks him over while going to the base. This is one of those situations where it helps to be large. I hope this makes sense, since the obstruction rule is really very simple. Any questions? This is Ask the Ump. So, ask!

16 comments… add one
  • I thought the only place where you could block the base w/o the ball was catcher. He’s the only one on the field with the equipment to withstand a hit from the runner. Couldn’t this lead to harder contact while attempting to bust up double plays etc? Baseball has always taken pride on the finesse of their athletes and this obstruction rule seems to contradict that to a degree.
    But I could be wrong. I remember thinking about this when Jeter dislocated his shoulder in TOR a few years back. Nothing was called then. It could be that I’m thinking of non-major league rules.

    Nate May 18, 2006, 11:13 am
  • Good question, Nate. The rule book does not distinguish between the catcher and other infielders in the obstruction rule. Maybe other infielders are more protective of their bones in this regard. Many amateur leagues have a so-called “must-slide” rule for breaking up double plays at second base, but no such rule exists in the Majors. I remember way back when, Dave Winfield once walked to second base without sliding and the SS’s throw to first hit Dave on the shoulder. The ruling? Ball is in play. In that case, of course, it was not a question of obstruction but of possible interference with the attempted double play. But Dave had a “right” to the basepath as long as he wasn’t waving his arms around. Similarly, infielders have a “right” to try to apply a tag in front of the base.

    Ump May 18, 2006, 12:11 pm
  • This is interesting. My question is, to what extent if any, is intentionality involved. Ump writes: ” If a fielder is going for the ball and trying to make a play, then it’s tough luck on the runner if that fielder gets in his way.” But is there a difference between blocking the plate as part of the natural action of going for the ball, and intentionally impeding the runner from reaching the base if the path of the ball does not demand that kind of positioning? This happened in a play last night in California: Jose Molina made a brilliant tag at the plate on a Toronto runner by stretching to keep his back foot across the plate while he caught the ball up the line. The Toronto player was blocked, and had to go around him, and Molina was able to get back quickly enough to make the tag.

    YF May 18, 2006, 12:25 pm
  • Another good question. If there is a difference between an intentional and an unintentional blocking of a base, the rule book does not define it. Most umpires have to use their common sense here. It may be that professional umpires have clearer guideliness on this in the secret interpretation manual that only they get to see. As for the rest of us, we just have to put up with pontification from announcers and bar-room buddies. The basic guideline is that if a defensive player has the ball or is in the process of fielding a throw, his is most probably not guilty of obstruction (unless he is really blatant about it).

    Ump May 18, 2006, 12:35 pm
  • In your Winfield situaiton, wouldn’t he have to make an attempt to get out of the way since, at that point, he’s technically out? I realize he’s a mountain of a man and that was probably pretty difficult. I guess I was under the impression that until the fielder has the ball they must provide a clear path to the base. If not, couldn’t 1B (say a large one) block off guys like Eckstein etc. since they are attempting to receive the ball? I just see the possibilities of contact more likely with the deffinition you provided and I thought baseball went to pretty great lengths to prevent that.

    Nate May 18, 2006, 6:30 pm
  • Does anyone know how many times was obstruction actually called, say, last year in the major leagues? It seems extremely rare.

    Adam May 19, 2006, 3:47 am
  • Nate- Your question reflects a common misunderstanding. Runners like Winfield – or more famously Reggie Jackson in the World Series – are not required to get out of the way of defensive plays (unless we are talking about fielding a batted ball, which is a different thing). Rather, the rule book says that they must not intentionally interfere. Being in the basepath does not constitute intentional interference. Winfield was in the basepath, which is where he is allowed to be.
    Adam- Obstruction and interference are a lot less rare than they seem. The average fan doesn’t see it a lot, but in researching my book (out later this year – Baseball Brain Teasers), I noticed it comes up at least a dozen or so times a year. Once Todd Zeile committed obstruction and interference within the space of a few innings. There was once a ALDS game between the Red Sox and A’s where obstruction was called twice. I think a lot of fans don’t realize when it happens.

    Ump May 19, 2006, 6:13 am
  • Reggie may have been legally in the basepaths, but sticking out his thigh…..that was intentional interference! Thankfully it wasn’t called.

    YF May 19, 2006, 9:39 am
  • Right you are that Reggie ever-so-slightly stuck out his thigh. But Tommy Lasorda argued that “he has to get out of the way,” which was wrong. Anyway, let me turn the tables and make this The Ump Asks. In our original play with Derek Jeter, let’s say that it was obstruction when he was blocked from returning to second base. What would the penalty be? Anyone know out there? I know, but I’m not telling until someone guesses!

    Ump May 19, 2006, 9:50 am
  • That is a great question. I’d say he’s entitled to the base he was looking to go to (2nd), but that doesn’t impose any penalty for an illegal action.Does he get to advance to the next base, in this case third, seeing as he was technically between 2nd and 3rd when the play occurred? Or is he entitled to 3rd base for the above reason, and does he then get an extra penalty on top of that–home? Holy crap! We were robbed!!!!

    YF May 19, 2006, 10:16 am
  • Ah, YF, your phrases betray you. “Entitled to the base he was looking to go to” is the stuff of childhood myth. Nowhere in the rule book does it say anything about where a runner is intending to go. But full credit for your quick understanding that reading a runner’s “intentions” would lead to no penalty at all in returning him to second base. The penalty for obstructing a runner while making a play on him is one base – so Jeter would have gotten third base. If no play is being made on the runner, then it all depends on what he would have done had the obstruction not taken place.

    Ump May 19, 2006, 10:46 am
  • It’s been a couple of months since the last post on “Ask the Ump: Obstruction, That Thorny Beast,” but I’m interested to see what the Ump (or others) think of the following play from Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS: “Varitek throws out Williams,” at http://mlb.mlb.com/NASApp/mlb/mlb/ps/y2004/video.jsp?view=bos_nyy
    As a Red Sox fan, I’ve watched this play a few times (as part of the 2004 commemorative DVD set), and it honestly seems that Mueller shouldn’t be allowed to block the entire bag like this (intentionally or not) — Bernie and Torre did raise quite a stink afterwards, but to no avail. Interestingly, if Williams had been called safe, he almost certainly would have scored later in the inning, and the Yanks could have swept.

    johnfitz44 September 22, 2006, 4:32 pm
  • Maybe I’m some kind of techno-fool, but I don’t seem to be able to view the video replay. The rule of thumb is that if Mueller is fielding a throw, then it’s likely not obstruction.

    Ump October 11, 2006, 8:30 am
  • Ok, I figured out how to watch it. There is likely some secret manual that only ML umps get to see that will cover this play. Not having seen it, and offering just my personal opinion, I do not think this is obstruction, and I would have called Williams out. In fact, I once called out a runner who was picked off first in a similar play. Keep in mind that Williams did not need to slide into Varitek’s leg. He could have gone to the base in any way he pleased, including running into Varitek without sliding. The truth is, baseball can be a nasty contact sport. I hope this helps.

    Ump October 11, 2006, 8:56 am
  • Thanks for the note! It does seem though that it would have been tough for Williams to get to third base safely in any other way — if he had decided to run into Mueller without sliding, he probably would have overrun the bag. I’m surprised the standard for obstruction is so high…wonder why more infielders don’t block the whole bag with their leg when taking a throw. (Other than the pain of getting spiked, of course!)

    johnfitz44 October 17, 2006, 1:20 am
  • I don’t think this was so extreme. The whole top of the base was available for Williams, if he just lifted his foot over Mueller’s leg. (Sorry to mix of Mueller and Varitek before – the fact is, I don’t really care what Red Sox players are called!)

    Ump October 18, 2006, 7:21 pm

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