Monday, October 06, 2008

Voluntary Release

I'm not talking about the armed forces here. Of course, this is about baseball, and the fact that I've never seen a bigger blown call in such an important game. It's one thing watching Don Denkinger miss what is strictly a judgment call in the 1985 World Series, but what happened tonight was a rule interpretation, was totally obvious, and easily correctable.

Most people don't know this--the announcers clearly didn't--but, after making a catch or applying a tag, a fielder must show voluntary release of the ball in completing the catch or tag. On the blown squeeze play tonight, Jason Varitek made the tag on Reggie Willits at third, but the ball came loose when his elbow hit the ground. He clearly did not release the ball voluntarily, and there is no question that the third-base umpire couldn't possibly have seen it this way.

I'm surprised that Mike Scioscia didn't know this, because if he had, it would have been a no-brainer for him to ask the umpire to get help in interpreting the rule. Additionally, based on Major League Baseball's relatively new philosophy of making sure to get the call right, I can't understand why the crew chief didn't automatically call for a conference on this one.

I'm now waiting for someone to point out the mistake. It's been 14 years since I went to umpire school, and I still remember this, so I'm completely flabbergasted that it seems I'm the only one who knows the correct interpretation of this rule. The fact that no one else seems to know has me questioning whether or not I'm mistaken, but I don't think I am.

Updated 10/7/08 @ 12:36AM: Apparently, MLB's Director of Umpires says that the ruling was correct because Varitek had the ball firmly in his glove when applying the tag. Rule 2.00 defines a tag as "...the action of a fielder in...touching a runner with the ball, or with his hand or glove holding the ball, while holding the ball securely and firmly in his hand or glove."

In the same section of the rules, the definition of a catch has the added stipulation that "In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional."

So, maybe I'm wrong, but my understanding is that the accepted interpretation (the baseball equivalent of case law) is the same principle applies to the tag as to the catch. However, that opinion does not seem to be reinforced by the Director of Umpires or the wording of the rule book. I'm still not convinced, but maybe I'll back off on my statement that this is the most blatant blown call in an important game that I've ever seen. For now, that is. Stay tuned on this one.

Updated 10/7/08 @ 7:13PM: On "Mike and Mike in the Morning" today, Dave Campbell, about six minutes into an interview that you can listen to on, states "...there's a rule book, and then there's the case book. It's very difficult to get a hold of the case book." Well, I have a copy of the case book, or at least the Brinkman/Froemming Umpire School's version of it, which is titled "Rules of Professional Baseball: A Comprehensive Re-Organization and Clarification", Fourth Edition. My copy of this edition is last updated in 1992, so unless the interpretation has changed since, here's what it says:

"Catch" and "tag" are similar concepts. A tag occurs when the ball is live and a fielder has the ball in his hand or glove (or both) and:

(a) a base is touched by his person or

(b) a runner is touched by any part of the glove/ball or hand/ball combination.

Such fielder must show complete control of the ball during and after the touch, and show this control by voluntarily releasing the ball. If, during or after the touch and before voluntary release has been shown, the ball is bobbled or dropped, it is not a tag.

I'm assuming that, if you've read this far, you saw the game and the play last night. That being the case, I'm sure you can decide for yourself. Did Varitek voluntarily release the ball when his elbow hit the ground?

I guess the real question here is what interpretation of the rule is correct? I honestly thought that the case book I possess contains the accepted interpretations of what is a very vague rule book. But, I really don't know. All I know is, whatever the answer, it has no bearing on the outcome of last night's game. However, I still want to know the answer to the question of does the principle of voluntary release apply to a tag play? The answer to this question would make it abundantly clear whether or not last night's ruling was, in fact, the correct one.


  1. Thanks for the info on "voluntary release." I bailed after the game and didn't see the statement.

  2. Interesting. I'd never heard about the "voluntary release" thing before. People in our section interpreted it like a fumble in football -- the ground caused the fumble.

  3. That was probably the worst 25 minutes of Willits's life right there (unless you count the time he learned his name was Reggie Willits)...

  4. Honestly. I was surprised the call stood - and I am a Red Sox fan. Just thought you had to maintain control after the tag.

    Then again the transfer at second base when turning the Double Play has become such an interpretation of the rules that it has become a grey area that I wonder if it carried over into that play..

    Great site- will stop by more often.

  5. Do you have a link to see the play again?

  6. Try this link:

    Angels-Red Sox Game 4 Wrap

    Select the "Varitek tags out Willits..." video, just below the video screen in the center of the page.