Skip to content

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.

Latest Posts
  1. Eduardo Rodriguez dazzles in major league debut

    May 28, 2015, 11:39 PM EDT

    ARLINGTON, TX - MAY 28:  Eduardo Rodriguez #52 of the Boston Red Sox throws against the Texas Rangers in the first inning at Globe Life Park in Arlington on May 28, 2015 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Red Sox prospect left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez tossed 7 2/3 scoreless innings in his major league debut against the Rangers on Thursday.

  2. Rockies prospect David Dahl requires surgery on spleen after outfield collision

    May 28, 2015, 10:51 PM EDT

    rockies logo

    Rockies prospect David Dahl suffered a “massive laceration” in his spleen following an outfield collision Thursday and required season-ending surgery.

  3. Video: Josh Hamilton doubles in first at-bat back in Texas since returning to Rangers

    May 28, 2015, 10:03 PM EDT

    ARLINGTON, TX - MAY 28:  Josh Hamilton #32 of the Texas Rangers smiles on base after hitting a double against the Boston Red Sox in the second inning at Globe Life Park in Arlington on May 28, 2015 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Hamilton got a rousing ovation from the home crowd in his return to Texas.

  4. Diamondbacks expected to call up Jarrod Saltalamacchia on Friday

    May 28, 2015, 9:05 PM EDT

    Miami Marlins v New York Mets Getty Images

    Jarrod Saltalamacchia was cut loose by the Marlins earlier this month after proving to be a disappointment in his three-year, $21 million contract, but the Diamondbacks are ready to give him a shot.

  5. MRI shows no structural damage in Scott Kazmir’s shoulder

    May 28, 2015, 8:22 PM EDT

    OAKLAND, CA - MAY 17:  Scott Kazmir #26 of the Oakland Athletics pitches against the Chicago White Sox in the top of the first inning at O.co Coliseum on May 17, 2015 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Kazmir left his start yesterday against the Tigers after three innings with shoulder tightness, but it sounds like he might not have to miss much time.

  6. Masahiro Tanaka expected to rejoin Yankees next week

    May 28, 2015, 7:40 PM EDT

    WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 20: Pitcher Masahiro Tanaka #19 of the New York Yankees works out prior to the Yankees baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on May 20, 2015 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Washington Nationals/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Tanaka has been sidelined since April 23 due to a right forearm strain and right wrist tendinitis.

  7. Struggling David Ortiz will get a couple of days off to work on his swing

    May 28, 2015, 7:01 PM EDT

    <> during the sixth inning at Fenway Park on May 24, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. Getty Images

    The 39-year-old Ortiz has just one hit in his last 20 at-bats and is batting an uncharacteristic .216/.303/.377 with six home runs and 18 RBI across his first 43 games this season.

  8. Indians place Carlos Santana on paternity leave list

    May 28, 2015, 6:15 PM EDT

    carlos santana getty Getty Images

    The Indians placed Santana on the paternity leave list Thursday following the birth of his daughter.

  9. Daniel Nava goes on the disabled list with a sprained thumb

    May 28, 2015, 4:52 PM EDT

    ALCS - Detroit Tigers v Boston Red Sox - Game One Getty Images

    Nava has struggled all season, hitting just .159 with zero homers.

  10. Chris Sale dominates the Orioles

    May 28, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Seven and two-thirds innings, 12 strikeouts and nothin’ else doin’.

  11. Pirates top-100 prospect Nick Kingham undergoes Tommy John surgery

    May 28, 2015, 12:50 PM EDT

    Nick Kingham Pirates AP

    Kingham cracked top-100 prospect lists last season and this season.

  12. Jon Jay ready to return, will add to Cardinals’ outfield logjam

    May 28, 2015, 12:16 PM EDT

    jon jay getty Getty Images

    Jay has been out since May 10 with a wrist injury.

  13. The Big Unit: Wide Angle Watcher

    May 28, 2015, 11:53 AM EDT

    Rush

    I don’t do requests and even if I did, I would’t do Rush requests. But you all have broken me down.

  14. Grant Balfour is leaning toward retirement

    May 28, 2015, 10:30 AM EDT

    Grant Balfour Getty Images

    He just opted out of his deal with Tampa Bay.

  15. Alex Rodriguez is the all-time AL RBI champion. Sorta.

    May 28, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT

    New York Yankees designated hitter Alex Rodriguez pumps his fist as he runs the bases after breaking Willie Mays' record on the all-time home run list after hitting his 661st home run in the third inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium in New York, Thursday, May 7, 2015.  (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) AP

    Where is the asterisk-applying crowd when you need ’em?

  16. The Brewers Double-A team’s 55-game road trip is actually going quite well

    May 28, 2015, 9:19 AM EDT

    Old Bus

    In other news, Taco Bell restaurants in Southern League towns are experiencing record sales.

Top 10 MLB Player Searches
  1. J. Hamilton (3585)
  2. D. Wright (2954)
  3. J. Lucroy (2802)
  4. A. Garcia (2718)
  5. Y. Puig (2691)
  1. J. Cueto (2675)
  2. R. Castillo (2628)
  3. M. Adams (2538)
  4. P. Fielder (2372)
  5. B. Harper (2339)