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Rise and Phight: 5/1/2021

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New York Mets v Philadelphia Phillies
Matt Joyce, catching the wind
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Let’s talk about that awful call by the first base umpire in the Brewers-Marlins tilt on Wednesday. The umpire, Marty Foster, doubled down on the call, which at first blush might sound ridiculous. He called the pitcher for obstructing a baserunner who had already given himself up for out. The runner had surrendered himself because as he reached the pitcher the first baseman was about to step on the bag. He would never beat that out. The inning was over... until Marty Foster saw the runner gently, slowly dodge the pitcher and everything changed.

Well, here’s the rule. As it turns out, the rule makes no explicit reference to the outcome of the play. So, when he insists that he wasn’t wrong, Marty Foster is standing by a rather literal application of the rule. But, although the outcome of the play is not explicitly referenced by the rule, whether Foster applied the rule correctly turns on what ‘impedes’ means.

Foster is relying on something like the following interpretation: A impedes B whenever A forces B to alter B’s predetermined course of action. The video evidence is clear. The runner altered his path before the first baseman touched first base. So, this definition, which certainly matches some natural uses of ‘impede,’ supports Foster.

But another natural use of ‘impede’ could be defined as follows: A impedes B whenever A hinders B from completing B’s predetermined course of action. Again, the video evidence is clear. The runner would not have reached first base safely, even if he had not had to dodge the pitcher. As a result, the pitcher did not hinder the runner. This definition, then, does not support Foster.

Which definition should we prefer? I prefer the second because the point of rules like this one is to prevent one side from gaining a competitive advantage by undermining the spirit of the game. Baseball is a bat, ball, and glove game. Teams should compete in ways that connect their bat, ball, and glove skills to winning and losing. The obstruction rule is among the rules MLB adopted to ensure that connection. But the rule is a limited tool. If a player strays outside the spirit of the game accidentally or nonviolently and does not impact the competitive state of the game, rules like obstruction should not apply.

But until MLB either writes its rules more clearly or instructs its umpires to be less literal, Foster has a point.

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