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The obstruction play provides a glimpse of the essence of baseball

Oct 27, 2013, 11:08 AM EDT

19th Century Baseball

Some people — maybe most people — look at last night’s game-ending obstruction play and feel some level of dissatisfaction. Even if they admit it was correct on the merits, there is some sense that it was wonky and weird.  I totally get that. But for me, the obstruction play and all of its weird wonkiness provided a glimpse at the essence of baseball.

I don’t mean “essence” in terms of drama, dynamics and aesthetics, of course. In those terms nothing beats a walkoff home run, the 27th out of a perfect game, a laser throw to the plate, a runner going first to third at top speed or a 99 m.p.h. fastball that leaves a slugger flummoxed and humbled. I wouldn’t dare suggest that an odd play that ends with Joe Torre waving a rule book during a hastily-assembled press conference is better in any sense of the word than an actually dramatic and exciting baseball play in which one player’s athletic prowess trumps that of another. I simply mean that the obstruction play helped distill what baseball is, by its very naturewhen it comes right down to it.

And what is baseball? A decidedly 19th century construct shaped by all manner of rules and conventions. A construct In which, unlike its 19th century contemporaries such as boxing, weightlifting or horse racing, physical prowess is nowhere as nearly close to everything. Rather, it’s about physical prowess being channeled alongside a set of ground rules and formalities that require the mind and discipline to work hand-in-hand with the body and its fast-twitch muscles. It’s a pursuit in which force being applied via instinct rather than calculation is almost always punished rather than rewarded.

In its effort to reign in nature’s impulses via these formalities, it reflects the time of its creation. A time in which man believed nature could be and should be tamed if only enough work was put into it. Often times — maybe most times — 19th century man totally bollocksed up that impulse. He decided that a raging river can be channeled in thus-and-such a fashion and be used to serve his will. That an impenetrable forest can be tamed and utilized for thus-and-such an industry. It was hubris that the world is still paying for.

But in baseball — at least in my mind — man got the balance right. He found a way to impose his will over something naturally occurring that resulted in an actual improvement: the athletic impulse reigned-in and set against challenges, but not defeated. The perfect blending of man’s primal and enlightened selves. Of might and mind working in tandem to accomplish something that is useful. Enjoyable. At its best uplifting. It’s as close as we get to a distillation of the Renaissance or Enlightenment mind in a sporting context.

The sports which came later all have a heavy dose of this as well. Football, basketball and hockey all have scads of rules, conventions and settings where the impulse to simply flatten the opposition via brute strength is channeled through formality.  Ask Ryan Leaf what a cannon arm does for you if you don’t have a brain and a plan. Ask any opponent of Michael Jordan how his mental game did just as much to defeat them as did his leaping ability. Ask anyone in the NHL why the biggest goons and the fastest skaters all get schooled by those who apply mind and body in equal measure. All modern sports, to some extent, owe their existence and greatness to that 19th century impulse.

source: Getty ImagesBut the other sports also have instances — often critical instances — in which it is agreed, tacitly or otherwise, that the rules should be dispensed with or relaxed and that the raw physicality should take precedence. Where the rules against, say, pass interference or hacking should be relaxed because it’s late in the game and some physical, emotional and dramatic climax should be allowed to the come to the fore. Whistles are swallowed. The call is made to “simply let them play.” In those cases it is understood and expected that the balance should swing back to the primal when the clock’s seconds wane.

Not in baseball. At least not when baseball is administered properly. In baseball the rules are the rules from start to finish and are not dispensed with simply because time is running out. Oh, wait, in baseball time never runs out. As Earl Weaver reminded us, there is no clock in baseball. There is no moment that is truly more critical and thus more demanding that formalities be dispensed with due to an incessant tick-tick-tick. “You’ve got to throw the ball over the damn plate and give the other man his chance,” Weaver said. “That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.”

So many people with Boston IP addresses are telling me this morning that, though the call on the Middlebrooks/Craig obstruction play was technically correct, it perhaps should not have been made. The play — with its collision and tripping and stumbling and dashing home — should have been “allowed to proceed” rather than having a rarely-thought-of rule invoked to determine the outcome. It was the ninth inning of a close World Series game, they’re basically arguing. It was too important to allow the imposition of a rule trump the running and throwing of men.

Baloney. That call went to the heart of what baseball truly is. A sport in which there is or at least should be no relaxation of the rules due to the exigency of a critical moment. Baseball does not and should not allow for times in which aesthetics or raw physicality excuse the relaxation of the rules. It’s, by design, a sport in which the beauty and glory of the entire pursuit is a product of the mixing of the two things. Dana DeMuth, whether he realized he was doing it at the time last night, was ensuring that this anachronistic yet eminently satisfying balance was maintained.

Refrain from calling obstruction on that play? To do so would be a betrayal of baseball’s very essence.

109 Comments (Feed for Comments)
  1. titansbro - Oct 27, 2013 at 1:22 PM

    This article is pointless drivel. I could only stomach the first 2 paragraphs.

    • cur68 - Oct 27, 2013 at 1:55 PM

      Go read sports somewhere else, then. All the other commenters saw it different than you, so you’ll just have to excuse us while we enjoy the content. Don’t let the Blog Door hit your ass on the way out, either.

      • gloccamorra - Oct 27, 2013 at 2:10 PM

        Well said. Some people with short attention spans should stick to headline news.

    • fatheruburu - Oct 28, 2013 at 12:38 AM

      It’s because you are an idiot, titansbro. Sports fans like you are the reason I nearly lost all interest in sports a few years ago.

    • powercorrupts2 - Oct 28, 2013 at 1:19 AM

      Thank you Craig Calcaterra for a very well written article giving your take on the essence of baseball. Your writing was outstanding.

  2. wallio - Oct 27, 2013 at 2:25 PM

    The call was correct yes, but there is no reason that one of the games of your Championship Series of any sport (much less the World Series the oldest of the old) should end with a press conference and a rulebook. Say what you want about the NFL, in the playoffs the refs let them play.

    • sadpandarevolt - Oct 27, 2013 at 2:39 PM

      So let me see if I understand this: in a World Series game, rules should be ignored so wallio can be happy?

      Also: The players DID decide this game. Craig would have scored easily if he’d not been obstructed. He was obstructed, so he was awarded home. Craig and Middlebrooks (and the catcher) decided that play.

      • wallio - Oct 27, 2013 at 3:50 PM

        Can you honestly say that you were satisfied? Can you honestly say “that was an awesome game” without adding the “except for the end”? I personally can’t. After watching all 3 games just far I don’t think I’ll watch anymore (maybe I’ll come back for a game 6 or 7 if there is one). I just don’t like the refs influencing games like that. And no the players did not decide the game, they simply didn’t. Who’s to say the umps won’t manipulate today’s game as well? I would not be able to watch without thinking “man I hope they don’t screw this up later”. Again the call was correct, yet still terrible.

        Now you can say I’m one guy who cares, and go watch football. But it really is stuff like this that holds baseball back. And to have a writer talk about how “this is what makes baseball great”, really? The NFL has all but disavowed the tuck rule game. Again, the call was correct, but it should never have happed. And every football fan everywhere, knew it. So yes tonight anyway, I think I will watch football.

        And the NBA? Please, don’t insult me. That joke isn’t even fit to be on TV. How long since there last riot?

      • stex52 - Oct 27, 2013 at 4:07 PM

        My point exactly, wallio. When you decide that you selectively enforce the rules to allow some “flow of the game” to go on, you end up with a free-for-all. And people who are angry because referees sometimes actually enforce the rules.

        If a rule interferes with the game as it should be, we are free to change the rules. But selective enforcement will make things much worse.

        BTW, I gave up on the NFL and the NBA some years back.

      • wallio - Oct 27, 2013 at 4:16 PM

        Maybe it would make it worse, maybe it wouldn’t. I don’t know.

        What I do know is that to me Game 2 was baseball in a nutshell. GREAT pitching nearly all game, then one swing of the bat changed everything. Then errors (a neat baseball exclusive) change everything again. It was really great.

        Then we had last night. One man, not playing, changes everything, and needs the rules committee to back him up? Really? And THAT is the “essence of baseball”? Seriously?

        It left a bad taste in my mouth. And I know I’m not the only one.

      • sadpandarevolt - Oct 27, 2013 at 8:42 PM

        Wallio, that is completely insane. The players, by definition, decided the game. The “refs” didn’t decide anything. They applied a rule correctly. If you have a problem with that… don’t watch any sport.

    • stex52 - Oct 27, 2013 at 2:59 PM

      Maybe you would be happier watching the NBA. Every “great play” there seems to be either a travel, a foul, or goal tending. Baseball is fine, thanks..

    • Chris - Oct 27, 2013 at 3:14 PM

      Yeah! The playoffs should never have the referees decide a big play, unless it’s a New England football team and Tom Brady is the quarterback.

      • flsteve11 - Oct 27, 2013 at 5:41 PM

        Why go back that far? The Super Bowl last year was decided because the refs decided to call pass interference against SF, which led to their drive to take the lead. Then not against Baltimore at the end of the game. I guess since it wasn’t the final minutes it was ok to call the penalty a few minutes earlier, but at the end it’s “let them play”. Selective enforcement basically decided the superbowl. That or a judgemental call. (And let’s not even get into when they decide to call, or not call, pass interference, holding, personal fouls, etc in everyday games)

        Baseball has the LEAST amount of having officials decide games.

      • flsteve11 - Oct 27, 2013 at 5:42 PM

        That would be Baltimore’s drive to take the lead of course.

      • powercorrupts2 - Oct 28, 2013 at 1:15 AM

        The referees use their subjective judgement to decide plays everytime the ball is put into play in baseball. They call strikes/balls on every pitch.

    • ksbigler - Oct 27, 2013 at 4:18 PM

      The first part of your first sentence says all anyone needs to know: “The call was correct…” End of story. All games are played according to the rules and obstruction is part of the rules of baseball for good reason. I completely agree with sadpandarevolt – the actions of the players did decide this game – and Craig would have beat the throw had he not been obstructed (regardless of whether or not the obstruction was intentional).

      It’s crazy for you to suggest that the umps manipulated the game. The umpires did their job: they called the game according to the rules based on how the plays unfolded during the game. Even in the NFL, where “in the playoffs the refs let them play”, the refs wouldn’t completely ignore a very clear cut rule that would appropriately determine the outcome of the game – even if it was a rule that seldom came into play.

    • curiousrob - Oct 27, 2013 at 4:46 PM

      If referees in the playoffs in the off-season sports don’t blow whistles, and ignore the rules, then so much the worse for the off-season sports! Actually, I’m not even sure that’s true, since I remember seeing a documentary about a famous American football game in which someone was scoring a touchdown and a coach or a player jumped off the opposing team’s bench and tackled the runner. (Just looked it up. It was the 1954 Cotton Bowl. The referees disallowed the tackle off the bench and awarded a touchdown to the injured team. ) I’m sure there was a press conference at the end of that, too.

      I’m glad that pro baseball follows the same rules whatever the type of game, whatever the game situation. If that sets baseball apart from the off-season sports, good! Another thing specifically about this particular rule — the obstruction rule — is that it keeps baseball primarily a non-contact sport (unlike soccer, American football, and hockey). It’s another good thing about baseball. (The only baseball rule that seems to contradict it is the one that seems to imply that runners can try to cream catchers in tag plays at the plate — I don’t like that rule!)

    • jblokhed - Oct 27, 2013 at 8:53 PM

      Yes! Let’s eliminate pass interference in the NFL playoffs. Especially if it isn’t intentional! (Or if can be made to look unintentional.). By all means, tackle those open receives and the refs should keep their flags in their pockets if it might be decisive to the outcome!!!

    • fatheruburu - Oct 28, 2013 at 12:55 AM

      Your argument is self-defeating. “The call was correct..” period. End of story. But instead you continue because it was correct but… you didn’t like it. A microcosm of the problem with our society today, no? For what it’s worth as a neutral fan I was pleased to see a situation-independent resolution that took place on the field within about a minute of the play. The press conference afterward was a much-needed explanation and reiteration of the rules, but did nothing to spark controversy or bring embarrassment to the game on any level.

  3. ningenito78 - Oct 27, 2013 at 2:47 PM

    And now every Red Sox fan wants to punch Craig in his wonky face.

  4. stex52 - Oct 27, 2013 at 2:57 PM

    By the way, on a completely different topic.

    Wasn’t that a fantastic play by Pedroia to get Molina at the plate? Without him there is no controversy because there is no need to throw to third.

    Everybody seems to have forgotten that great play.

  5. jakecopeland22 - Oct 27, 2013 at 3:10 PM

    Reblogged this on 50 Shades of Jake and commented:
    Couldn’t have said it any better myself.

    No seriously, I couldn’t have.

    • stex52 - Oct 27, 2013 at 3:39 PM

      Oh, I’m quite sure you couldn’t have.

      • jakecopeland22 - Oct 27, 2013 at 3:41 PM

        Boston fan? LOL. Sorry ’bout it.

      • stex52 - Oct 27, 2013 at 4:08 PM

        Nope, not a Boston fan.. I just don’t think you could have made a better comment.

  6. nothanksimdriving123 - Oct 27, 2013 at 5:23 PM

    Yes, Ferrell’s moves can be questioned. Yes, Salty should have held the ball, not throw it. Yes, the call adhered to the rule as written. Yes, as Torre said, it was “a little unfair.” Craig’s overdone prose aside, what of the rule itself? It declares that from one instant to the next, the moment Will had the ball get past him despite his best efforts, in that very instant, with no time at all to modify his position, the rule says he ceased to be a fielder and became an obstruction. That, despite the fact the runner chose not to run down the baseline but instead to try to climb over Middlebrooks, thus obstructing any attempt by Middlebrooks to get out of his way. A rule that allows for no wiggle room for a wise umpire to judge its applicability to a situation, a rule that essentially says Middlebrooks cheated when he had no realistic opportunity to not cheat, is one that perhaps ought to be re-examined.

    • seahawkgoat - Oct 28, 2013 at 12:51 AM

      The people down voting this article are the same people screaming from on top of a very tall horse that the Redskins should change their name.

      Maybe you’re right, maybe you’re not. But at least consider the other sides viewpoint.

      All nothanksimdriving is suggesting is that the rule be re-examined. The fact that the down votes are the majority to an unbiased post just shows how out of touch many baseball “purists” are.

  7. djjeffhall - Oct 27, 2013 at 5:30 PM

    Beautiful article, thank you.

  8. papichulo55 - Oct 27, 2013 at 6:27 PM

    Agreed, great article. Very Posanski-esque.

  9. extavernmouse - Oct 27, 2013 at 7:03 PM

    To those of you who think this shouldn’t have been called by the rulebook:

    “Baseball is almost the only orderly thing in a very unorderly world. If you get three strikes, even the best lawyer in the world can’t get you off.” ~Bill Veeck

  10. jblokhed - Oct 27, 2013 at 9:02 PM

    And Joe Torre is suggesting that the Official Rules of Baseball be “looked into” to alter a rule which has governed baseball at all levels for over a hundred years, because of one correctly called play. And how amazing is it that professional players who have been playing for an average of 20 years each have never heard of such a thing as obstruction. Stupid or lying?

    • nothanksimdriving123 - Oct 27, 2013 at 10:10 PM

      Jblok, or how about sincere? Given how infrequently some rules come up in a game or even a season, I’ll bet there are players, managers, even umpires who are unfamiliar with a few. Let’s switch the channel slightly. You are a US citizen? Have been for more than a decade? I’ll quiz you on our Constitution and I’ll bet you have trouble passing.

  11. kev86 - Oct 27, 2013 at 9:12 PM

    Article sponsored by HallmArk

  12. drelms - Oct 27, 2013 at 9:43 PM

    Once again calcatera has written a meaningless bit of drivel. Read the first couple lines and I felt queasy. “wonky and weird”, really?

    I don’t believe Oscar Madison would ever use those words writing any of his sports columns.

    For those of you to young to remember he was the co-character on the “Odd Couple”, who was a sports beat writer and even tho he was only a TV character, brought more to the sports table than calcatera ever could.

    • billyboots - Oct 28, 2013 at 1:00 PM

      Then you should probably find a different place to read baseball articles. Sorry, but if you hate this place, stop coming. Don’t whine about it, just stop coming. You’d be better off sending Craig a message by giving his bosses fewer page-views then posting your drivel that he will never read and the majority of others don’t want to view either.

  13. mrznyc - Oct 28, 2013 at 8:52 AM

    Most times, when you throw the ball into left field with the winning run on 3rd base, you have a tendency to lose.

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