Marlins-Dodgers Interference Play: Why Umpires', Vin Scully's Calls Were Correct
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Umpires may have finally emerged from Los Angeles following an eventful weekend series between the Miami Marlins and Dodgers, though their getaway day proved more arduous than the leisurely Sunday matinee's lopsided 6-2 score would indicate.
For legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, however, it was all in a day's work.
While veteran chief Brian Gorman and his umpiring crew might have left the City of Angels without racking up a high-profile ejection—unlike colleague Dan Bellino, who in Boston ejected embattled Red Sox skipper Bobby Valentine—Sunday's game nonetheless dispensed its own enigma of controversy, intrigue and, of course, plenty of confusion amongst players, coaches and fans alike.
Fear not, bewildered guests, for this quagmire on the quadrangle is a mystery no more, thanks to a thorough analysis of the Official Baseball Rules, or, if you're looking for a shortcut, the equally industrious expertise Hall of Famer Scully, who nailed the call immediately and on his very first try.
That is more than can be said for the umpires, who took a full five minutes to—and give credit where credit is due—get the play right.
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In the midst of a seventh-inning Los Angeles rally, young Dodger Luis Cruz (B1) stepped to the plate with one out and two runners aboard—new blue Adrian Gonzalez at second base (R2) and veteran Andre Ethier at first (R1).
Down in the count, Cruz skied a 1-2 offering from Miami's Chad Gaudin (F1), the pop fly ominously hovering over that Bermuda Triangle between home plate, the pitcher's mound and the first base bag—you know the one, where the simplest of fly balls turns into a clumsy game of hot potato.
As the ball reached its apex and began its downward trajectory, Gaudin, catcher Rob Brantly (F2) and first baseman Carlos Lee (F3) ran toward the descending orb, Lee colliding with Ethier, who himself was attempting to locate the baseball in the bright blue SoCal sky.
As Brantly dropped the catch along the foul line and the ball squirted away into foul territory, Ethier took off for second and, after some confusion at second base, Gonzalez was tagged trying to reach third base.
The Initial Call on the Field
As any umpire will tell you, any time the batter steps to the plate with less than two out and runners on first and second base (or the bases loaded), such a scenario is an infield fly situation, meaning that a routine—more on that later—fly ball on the infield, which is a fair ball, shall result in the batter being declared automatically out.
By this rule, B1 Cruz was declared out, though the ball remained alive.
Though first base umpire Todd Tichenor had identified the collision between Ethier and Lee as illegal, yelling "interference," the contact was initially ignored and play was allowed to continue, resulting in R2 Gonzalez being tagged out at third base, effectively resulting in an inning-ending double play.
As the Marlins jogged toward their first base dugout, Dodgers skipper Don Mattingly—who has already been ejected an MLB-leading six times, most recently drawing a two-day suspension for his histrionics—consulted plate umpire Tony Randazzo, who brought in the remaining umpires—Gorman, Tichenor and third base umpire Bob Davidson—to discuss the apparent double play.
After a five-minute delay which featured multiple discussions between Mattingly and the umpires, Marlins skipper Ozzie Guillen and the umpires and multiple internal umpiring crew conferences, during which Ethier was initially returned to first base, the umpires arrived at their final conclusion.
R1 Ethier was declared "out" for interfering with F3 Lee, while B1 Cruz was returned to the plate to hit again with a 1-2 count. R2 Gonzalez, meanwhile, was returned to second base.
The Umpiring Analysis, Breakdown and Verdict
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As complicated as it might have looked on the field, this play, as called, is fairly simple.
The infield fly rule—Rules 2.00 (Infield Fly) and 6.05(e)—specifies that in this situation, the batter is out if a fair fly ball can be caught by an infielder, including the pitcher and catcher, with "ordinary effort."
Furthermore, if the declared Infield Fly falls to the ground either intentionally or unintentionally, runners may advance at their own risk, the force play having been removed by virtue of the batter being declared out when "Infield Fly" was called.
The infield fly rule, for the purposes of this play, is also completely irrelevant.
Taking precedence over the infield fly rule is the illegal contact that occurred between Ethier and Lee—offensive or runner's interference (Rules 2.00 [Interference][a] and 7.09[j]), which states that a batter or runner is out if he fails to avoid a fielder, whether accidentally or not, who is "attempting to field a batted ball."
Moreover, and this is the kicker, on any interference, the ball is dead (Rule 2.00). Because the ball is dead at the moment of interference, and the interference occurred before the ball became fair, the infield fly rule never took effect.
If any argument were to be made against this call, according to the PBUC and MLB Umpire Manual, only one fielder is entitled to the protection bestowed by Rule 7.09(j) at any given time, meaning that at any single moment in time, only one fielder—either Brantly, Gaudin or Lee—is considered to be in the act of attempting to field a batted ball for the purposes of Rule 7.09(j).
In ruling Ethier out for interference, Tichenor's judgment was that at the moment Lee ran into Ethier, Lee was that fielder who was in the act of fielding a batted ball.
The Broadcasting Analysis, Breakdown and Verdict
Forget instant replay, just set Vin Scully up as that eye-in-the-sky umpire.
The master of broadcasting knew his baseball rules and their application immediately, calling the play as if he were umpiring on the field instead of in his booth behind home plate: "Hold everything, forget the play. Forget the play...The play is dead because of the [interference] at first base."
Had Tichenor or Gorman conveyed Scully's resolute acuity from the onset, the game would have proceeded without nary an iota of controversy, argument or uncertainty.
That is more than can be said about most modern broadcasters—in 2007, Chicago White Sox play-by-play man Ken "Hawk" Harrelson completely ignored two umpires' obstruction call while just this season, Harrelson was censured for his conduct by MLB Commissioner Bud Selig after questioning an umpire's ejection of a pitcher for intentionally throwing at a batter under the auspices of Rule 8.02(d)(1).
The verdict? Short of hiring Scully to serve on MLB's Playing Rules Committee—of which Gorman is the only current umpiring representative—the League should encourage teams and media outlets to follow the lessons of the Vin as it relates to rules and analysis.
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For instance and in regards to this particular play, Scully, calling the game solo, got the call 100 percent correct in real-time.
Meanwhile Marlins broadcasters Rich Waltz and Tommy Hutton initially and correctly called Ethier out, though they like the umpires failed to initially recognize the dead ball situation, eventually stating that both Gonzalez and Cruz were somehow out while mathematically inclined viewers struggled to figure out how three players could be declared out with only two outs needed and no "fourth-out" appeal play in the picture.
In a poll of umpire enthusiasts, 45 percent of respondents chose Scully as the best broadcaster in baseball, citing his rules knowledge and fair approach to artful storytelling, while 12 percent chose second place crew Jon Miller, Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow of San Francisco Giants acclaim; it was Krukow who once said, "Umpires don't get applause...I think you need to point out that they're really special at what they do."
Great broadcasting is beneficial for baseball. As author Curt Smith wrote in 1997, "Storytellers are baseball's play-by-play and color men who have created the legends and lore of the game...Baseball has been shaped into America's pastime by these wizards of the microphone."
So as Scully announces his energized return to the broadcast booth for the 2013 season and the Dodgers prepare for their highly anticipated "Vin Scully Bobblehead Night" on August 30, it appears now is the most appropriate of times to cite yet another example of the magic that Hall of Fame broadcasting can bring to the ballpark.
Gil Imber is Bleacher Report's Rules Featured Columnist and owner of Close Call Sports, a website dedicated to the objective and fair analysis of close or controversial calls in sports.
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