With all the hullaballoo about Utley’s slide last night and the umpires’ calls or non-calls, including the one or ones in NY (whose names, addresses, telephone numbers, and social security numbers should be posted on the internet, according to Pedro Martinez), what was lost – or at least there was much confusion – was a discussion of the specific rule(s) that applies to that exact situation – the take-out slide that is, not whether Utley was safe or not on replay. For that you need to download the 2015 complete rule book, I guess. If you Google certain rule numbers, it takes you to the MLB “official rules” portion of their website in which at least some of the rule numbers appear to be completely different than in the actual current rule book.
In any case, last night after a flurry of tweets, Rob Neyer, from Fox Sports, pointed out the clearly applicable rule (although other rules come close): It is 5.09 (a) (13) in the PDF version of the current rulebook. It reads, in full:
The batter is out when… “A preceding runner shall, in the umpire’s judgment, intentionally interfere with a fielder who is attempting to catch a thrown ball or to throw a ball in an attempt to complete any play;”
That rule is unambiguous and crystal clear. 1) Umpire, in his judgment, determines that runner intentionally interferes with the pivot man. 2) The batter must be called out.
By the way, the runner himself may or may not be out. This rule does not address that. There is a somewhat common misperception that the umpire calls both players out according to this rule. Another rule might require the umpire to call the runner also out on interference even if he arrived before the ball/fielder or the fielder missed the bag – but that’s another story.
Keep in mind that if you ask the umpire, “Excuse me, Mr. umpire, but in your judgment, did you think that the runner intentionally interfered with the fielder,” and his answer is, “Yes,” then he must call the batter out. There is no more judgment. The only judgment allowed in this rule is whether the runner intentionally interfered or not. If the rule had said, “The runner may be called out,” then there would be two levels of judgment, presumably. There are other rules which explicitly say the umpire may do certain things, in which case there is presumably some judgement that goes into whether he decides to do them or not. Sometimes those rules provide guidelines for that judgment (the may part) and sometimes they do not. Anyway, this rule does not provide that may judgment. If umpire thinks is it intentional interference, the batter (not runner) is automatically out.
So clearly the umpire should have called the batter out on that play, unless he could say with a straight face, “In my judgment, I don’t think that Utley intentionally interfered with the fielder.” That is not a reasonable judgment of course. Not that there is much recourse for poor or even terrible judgment. Judgment calls are not reviewable, I don’t think. Perhaps umpires can get together and overturn a poor judgment call. I don’t know.
But that’s not the end of the story. There is a comment to this rule which reads:
“Rule 5.09(a)(13) Comment (Rule 6.05(m) Comment): The objective of this rule is to penalize the offensive team for deliberate, unwarranted, unsportsmanlike action by the runner in leaving the baseline for the obvious purpose of crashing the pivot man on a double play, rather than trying to reach the base. Obviously this is an umpire’s judgment play.”
Now that throws a monkey wrench into this situation. Apparently this is where the (I always thought it was an unwritten rule), “Runner must be so far away from the base that he cannot touch it in order for the ‘automatic double play’ to be called” rule came from. Only it’s not a rule. It is a comment which clearly adds a wrinkle to the rule.
The rule is unambiguous. If the runner interferes with the fielder trying to make the play (whether he would have completed the DP or not), then the batter is out. There is no mention of where the runner has to be or not be. The comment changes the rule. It adds another requirement (and another level of judgment). The runner must have been “outside the baseline” in the umpire’s judgment. In addition, it adds some vague requirements about the action of the runner. The original rule says only that the runner must “intentionally interfere” with the fielder. The comment adds words that require the runner’s actions to be more egregious – deliberate, unwarranted, and unsportsmanlike.
But the comment doesn’t really require that to be the case for the umpire to call the batter out. I don’t think. It says, “The objective of this rule is to penalize the offensive team….” I guess if the comment is meant to clarify the rule, MLB really doesn’t want the umpire to call the batter out unless the requirements in the comment are met (runner out of the baseline and his action was not only intentional but deliberate, unwarranted, and unsportsmanlike, a higher bar than just intentional).
Of course the rule doesn’t need clarification. It is crystal clear. If MLB wanted to make sure that the runner is outside of the baseline and acts more egregiously than just intentionally, then they should change the rule, right? Especially if comments are not binding, which I presume they are not.
Also, the comment starts off with: “The objective of this rule is to…”
Does that mean that this rule is only to be applied in double play situations? What if a fielder at second base fields a ball, starts to throw to first base to retire the batter, and the runner tackles him or steps in front of the ball? Is rule 5.09(a)(13) meant to apply? The comment says that the objective of the rule is to penalize the offensive team for trying to break up the double play. In this hypothetical, there is no double play being attempted. There has to be some rule that applies to this situation? If there isn’t, then MLB should not have written in the comment, “The objective of this rule….”
There is another rule which also appears to clearly apply to a take-out slide at second base, like Utley’s, with no added comments requiring that the runner be out of the baseline, or that his actions be unwarranted and unsportsmanlike. It is 6.01(6). Or 7.09(e) on the MLB web site. In fact, I tweeted this rule last night thinking that it addressed the Utley play 100% and that the runner and the batter should have been called out.
“If, in the judgment of the umpire, a base runner willfully and deliberately interferes with a batted ball or a fielder in the act of fielding a batted ball with the obvious intent to break up a double play, the ball is dead. The umpire shall call the runner out for interference and also call out the batter-runner because of the action of his teammate.”
The only problem there are the words, “interferes with a batted ball or a fielder in the act of fielding a batted ball.” A lawyer would say that the plain meaning of the words precludes this from applying to an attempt to interfere with a middle infielder tagging second base and throwing to first, because he is not fielding or attempting to field a batted ball and the runner is not interfering with a batted ball. The runner, in this case, is interfering with a thrown ball or a fielder attempting to tag second and then make a throw to first.
So if this rule is not meant to apply to a take-out slide at second, what is it meant to apply to? That would leave only one thing really. A ground ball is hit in the vicinity of the runner and he interferes with the ball or a fielder trying to field the ball. But there also must be, “an obvious intent to break up a double play.” That is curious wording. Would a reasonable person consider that an attempt to break up a double play? Perhaps ”obvious intent to prevent a double play.” Using the words break up sure sounds like this rule is meant to apply to a runner trying to take out the pivot man on a potential double play. But then why write “fielding a batted ball” rather than “making a play or a throw?”
A good lawyer working for the Mets would try and make the case that “fielding a batted ball” includes everything that happens after someone actually “fields the batted ball,” including catching and throwing it. In order to do so, he would probably need to find that kind of definition somewhere else in the rule book. It is a stretch, but it is not unreasonable, I don’t think.
Finally, Eric Byrnes on MLB Tonight, had one of the more intelligent and reasonable comments regarding this play that I have ever heard from an ex-player. He said, and I paraphrase:
“Of course it was a dirty slide. But all players are taught to do whatever it takes to break up the DP, especially in a post-season game. Until umpires start calling an automatic double play on slides like that, aggressive players like Utley will continue to do that. I think we’ll see a change soon.”
P.S. For the record, since there was judgment involved, and judgment is supposed to represent fairness and common sense, I think that Utley should not have been ruled safe at second on appeal.
Perhaps comments are binding. From the forward to the rules, on the MLB web site:
The Playing Rules Committee, at its December 1977 meeting, voted to incorporate the Notes/Case Book/Comments section directly into the Official Baseball Rules at the appropriate places. Basically, the Case Book interprets or elaborates on the basic rules and in essence have the same effect as rules when applied to particular sections for which they are intended.