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.
Rule 2.00 (Obstruction) Comment: If a fielder is about to receive a thrown ball and if the ball is in flight directly toward and near enough to the fielder so he must occupy his position to receive the ball he may be considered “in the act of fielding a ball.” It is entirely up to the judgment of the umpire as to whether a fielder is in the act of fielding a ball. After a fielder has made an attempt to field a ball and missed, he can no longer be in the “act of fielding” the ball. For example: an infielder dives at a ground ball and the ball passes him and he continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner, he very likely has obstructed the runner.
A few postseasons ago I wrote about the controversial call that wasn't, a play I thought should have been more of a controversy than it turned out to be. In contrast, this year's World Series included a somewhat controversial call that shouldn't have been. At least in my opinion, but not if you ask a couple bloggers who have since written about a play in game six they think was, or at least should be, against the rules.
If you're interested in completely digesting this subject, you can read those viewpoints at The Captain's Blog and The Platoon Advantage.
First of all, let me say both bloggers made some solid points in their posts and in subsequent discussions I engaged them in, either via comments or on Twitter. Otherwise, I probably wouldn't feel my own explanation of the play to be worth the effort.
As I said, the play in question occurred in game six of the World Series. In the bottom of the 6th inning, with the bases full of Cardinals and one out, Rangers catcher Mike Napoli picked St. Louis' Matt Holliday off third. But, replays showed Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre had used his foot to at least partially block Holliday's return path to the bag.
Both of the aforementioned bloggers claimed this was obstruction, that Beltre moved his foot there with the intention of blocking the base, not because he had to in order to receive the throw.
First of all, let me just say that when a fielder possesses the ball, he's allowed to be anywhere he pleases. It's really as simple as that. He has no obligation to yield any kind of "right of way" to the runner. By the same token, the runner, in this instance, has equal right of way as the fielder. As you're probably well aware, this is why there are occasional collisions between runners and fielders, although most of the time these occur at home plate.
To further illustrate "right of way," I'll discuss a hypothetical example not related to the play in question.
Imagine there's a runner on second base and a ground ball is hit to the shortstop, who is attempting to field it directly in the path of the runner. Up to the point the ball reaches the fielder, assuming he's in the act of fielding it, he has the right of way. That is, if the runner collides with him, it's interference on the runner.
But, if the ball passes through the shortstop's legs, for instance, and then the runner makes contact with him, it's obstruction on the fielder. In other words, if he's no longer in the act of fielding the ball, the fielder has no right to be in the runner's path at all.
However, if the shortstop is no longer in the act of fielding the ball because he has it securely in his glove or hand, the runner and fielder now have equal right of way.
This is a little confusing, I realize, but it's important to the Beltre-Holliday example because one point that's been made is Beltre planted his foot in the base path before he caught the throw. So, the question is, does this mean he's guilty of blocking the base without the ball and, therefore, obstruction?
The answer is no, and the explanation for this is that essentially Beltre does so at his own risk. If the throw gets away from him and Holliday makes contact with his body, he's then guilty of obstruction. Whether or not Holliday would be awarded home as a result is left to the umpire's judgment, but I'm not getting into that scenario.
The important point is it's not obstruction until the fielder impedes the runner (in this case, when contact is made), so since the throw was securely in Beltre's glove before Holliday slides into his foot, what Beltre did was perfectly legal.
As well it should be. Another point that was made is the fielder shouldn't be able to do this regardless. But, what we're potentially getting into here is trying to dictate where a fielder is allowed to be when receiving a throw and/or preparing to apply a tag. I don't think the rule book can possibly govern that.
I also don't think intent can be part of the equation. That is, did Beltre put his foot there with the intention of blocking the base? Is it obvious that the answer is yes to that question? I don't think so, but even if you do, is it not entirely possible to envision a scenario where the fielder moves his foot into the same position in the act of fielding the throw? Most importantly, though, do we really want to add a rule that requires the umpire to determine intent? There are a few such rules in the book right now, but it's my opinion these situations should be minimized, and I suspect most people would agree with me on that point.
So, where does this leave us? I think we can draw only one conclusion, and that's to say what Beltre did was completely within the rules, and it should remain that way.
Of course, I'm not trying to claim I'm in any way the final word on this subject. In fact, as I learned back in 2008 when I interviewed former Brinkman/Froemming Umpire School instructor, and operator of rulesofbaseball.com, Rick Roder, there are still sections of the rules that are gray enough that they're subject to different interpretations by different umpires. That fact remains a problem Major League Baseball has failed to address, but the obstruction rule does not fall into that category.