Skip to content

The obstruction play provides a glimpse of the essence of baseball

Oct 27, 2013, 11:08 AM EST

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. Wives of Jim Edmonds and Josh Hamilton to appear on The Real Housewives of Orange County

    Jan 31, 2015, 11:25 PM EST

    Los Angels Angels newly acquired outfielder Hamilton talks with reporters as his wife, Katie, looks on during a news conference in Anaheim Reuters

    Meghan King Edmonds and Katie Chadwick Hamilton, the wives of Jim and Josh respectively, will appear on the tenth season of The Real Housewives of Orange County.

  2. Red Sox plan to use Brandon Workman out of the bullpen

    Jan 31, 2015, 10:40 PM EST

    Brandon Workman Brandon Workman

    Brandon Workman will enter spring training as a reliever, attempting to grab a scarce spot at the back of the Red Sox bullpen.

  3. A.J. Preller still in touch with the Phillies about Cole Hamels

    Jan 31, 2015, 9:50 PM EST

    Cole Hamels Cole Hamels

    The Padres are still interested in Phillies ace Cole Hamels, though they may not be able to put together an enticing enough deal to attain him.

  4. Freddie Freeman: “I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”

    Jan 31, 2015, 9:00 PM EST

    Freddie Freeman Freddie Freeman

    The Braves may have pawned off many of their productive players, but Freddie Freeman still thinks they’ll compete in 2015.

  5. Someone apparently got Jayson Werth’s autograph in jail

    Jan 31, 2015, 8:10 PM EST

    Washington Nationals v New York Mets Getty Images

    Jayson Werth signed an inmate handbook for someone during his stay in jail in Fairfax, Virginia.

  6. Remembering Mr. Cub

    Jan 31, 2015, 7:10 PM EST

    Ernie Banks Ernie Banks

    Ernie Banks, who played 19 seasons in the major leagues, made an enormous impact on the game of baseball. That has been evident in the wonderful stories that have been shared over the last week.

  7. Rays sign Ronald Belisario to a minor league deal

    Jan 31, 2015, 6:05 PM EST

    Ronald Belisario AP

    The Rays added some depth, signing reliever Ronald Belisario on Saturday. It appears they’ll be adding infielder Alexi Casilla as well.

  8. Cubs sign Mike Baxter

    Jan 31, 2015, 5:30 PM EST

    Mike Baxter AP AP

    Baxter appeared in four games with the Dodgers last season and owns a .225/.331/.342 batting line in the majors. He’ll always be aces with Mets fans, though.

  9. Angels and Garrett Richards avoid arbitration with one-year deal

    Jan 31, 2015, 4:39 PM EST

    Garrett Richards AP

    Richards emerged as one of the best pitchers in the American League last season before tearing his left patellar tendon in August.

  10. Orioles sign Mark Hendrickson, invite him to major league camp

    Jan 31, 2015, 4:11 PM EST

    mark-hendrickson-orioles

    Hendrickson turned 40 last June and hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2011, but he still hopes to continue his playing career.

  11. Padres have discussed trade for Brewers’ Luis Sardinas

    Jan 31, 2015, 3:15 PM EST

    Luis Sardinas Getty Getty Images

    Padres general manager A.J. Preller has been very active on the trade front this offseason, but he might not be done yet.

  12. Chris Davis opens up about his Adderall suspension: “It was a moment of weakness”

    Jan 31, 2015, 2:05 PM EST

    Chris Davis AP AP

    Orioles slugger Chris Davis was on hand for the team’s annual FanFest today and opened up about the 25-game Adderall suspension which put an end to his disappointing 2014 campaign and left him on the sidelines during the playoffs.

  13. Brewers say “not much has happened lately” in trade talks for Jonathan Papelbon

    Jan 31, 2015, 12:40 PM EST

    Jonathan Papelbon AP

    The Brewers remain in the market for a closer, but trade talks for Papelbon don’t have much momentum at the moment.

  14. Former closer David Aardsma to throw a showcase for teams on Monday

    Jan 31, 2015, 11:25 AM EST

    David Aardsma AP AP

    Aardsma pitched exclusively in the Cardinals minor league system last year, but he’s hoping to get back on the radar in 2015.

  15. Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada is another step closer to signing with an MLB team

    Jan 31, 2015, 10:10 AM EST

    cuba hat

    While MLB still needs to give their approval, it appears that Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada is one step closer to finally signing with a team.

  16. MLB.com names Byron Buxton as baseball’s top prospect for second straight year

    Jan 31, 2015, 8:56 AM EST

    Byron Buxton Getty Getty Images

    Buxton repeats as MLB.com’s top prospect despite an injury-plagued 2014.

  17. Neal Cotts almost retired before signing with the Rangers in 2012

    Jan 30, 2015, 10:50 PM EST

    Neal Cotts Neal Cotts

    Neal Cotts battled numerous injuries and nearly called it quits before the Rangers signed him to a minor league deal in 2012.

  18. Joe Kelly said he’s going to win the 2015 AL Cy Young Award

    Jan 30, 2015, 9:40 PM EST

    Joe Kelly Joe Kelly

    Joe Kelly has some bold words for non-believers.

  19. Yasiel Puig: “[Juan] Uribe’s a fatty”

    Jan 30, 2015, 8:30 PM EST

    Yasiel Puig Yasiel Puig

    Yasiel Puig meant it in a good way!

  20. Rockies sign Omar Quintanilla and Rafael Betancourt

    Jan 30, 2015, 7:20 PM EST

    Rafael Betancourt Getty Images

    The Rockies addressed their depth on Friday, signing reliever Rafael Betancourt and utility infielder Omar Quintanilla to minor league deals.

Top 10 MLB Player Searches
  1. J. Shields (2888)
  2. T. Snider (2851)
  3. D. Mesoraco (2803)
  4. G. Richards (2512)
  5. J. Werth (2508)