The word "obstruction" appears 37 times in Major League Baseball's official rulebook. The most salient portion comes at Rule 2.00, which defines obstruction as "is the act of a fielder who, while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner."
In the "comment" section of that rule, the rule on obstruction—a rule that will unquestionably undergo microscopic analysis following Game 3 of the World Series—is clearly defined within almost perfect context.
"After a fielder has made an attempt to field a ball and missed, he can no longer be in the 'act of fielding' the ball," the rule reads. "For example: an infielder dives at a ground ball and the ball passes him and he continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner, he very likely has obstructed the runner."
Here is where your Boston Red Sox fan friend clings dearly to the words "very likely." And where he, scrambling to parse the rulebook to find ways he can justify thinking Jim Joyce screwed his team, lands squarely on the part of the rule where MLB acknowledges obstruction is a "judgement call."
Joyce could have chosen to not call it. He could have avoided the controversy that comes with making one of the craziest calls in World Series history. ESPN Stats & Info put it best: There had been no game in postseason history to end with an obstruction call before Saturday night.
MLB has been around for a damn long time, folks. For something to never have happened in its postseason history, well, that takes the type of ridiculous anomaly that you cannot even put into words before it happens.
Had Joyce, whose career is already partially defined by a controversial call, swallowed his whistle so to speak, it would have been understandable. But in that scenario, Joyce would have been facing a different source of criticism.
Because, unlike the call he actually made, Joyce would have been wrong to avoid calling obstruction.
Let's go back and describe the play, since I've only discussed it in mere generalities thus far. With Game 3 of the World Series tied at 4-4 in the bottom of the ninth inning, the St. Louis Cardinals had runners on second and third with one out. Jon Jay came to the plate and hit a hard ground ball to Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who fired home to get Yadier Molina trying to score the game-winning run.
Boston catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia then attempted to nail Allen Craig running to third base, but his throw went wide of the bag and went skirting down the left field line in foul territory. Craig then tried to rise to his feet and scamper home for the game-winning run, only to be tripped up by Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who had dove in an attempt to catch Saltalamacchia's throw.
By the time Craig had gathered himself, he was dead to rights. Daniel Nava threw a strike to home plate, and the game was seemingly headed for extras.
Only Joyce's Call Heard 'Round the World changed the series. Craig was awarded home, and the Cardinals were awarded a 5-4 victory in Game 3 and a 2-1 series lead.
"I'm absolutely shocked that a game of this magnitude could be decided like that," Red Sox pitcher Jake Peavy said after the game. "Doesn't he have to be in the baseline? It just doesn't seem right."
In a way, Peavy's right. Having a game decided by an umpire, referee or game official never feels "right." It often leads to inane conversations about when is the right and wrong time to make a call. There seems to be an unspoken idea that there are certain instances—usually in fourth quarters, ninth innings, etc.—where an official is just supposed to shut the hell up and only call things when it's egregious.
But you know what? Middlebrooks' obstruction was exactly that. It was egregious. He lifted his legs, tripping the baserunner, who was thrown out at home as a direct result of Middlebrooks blocking his path. It's irrelevant whether Middlebrooks was just getting up so he could get out of the way or if he's merely feigning innocence in the aftermath of being caught.
None of that matters, because intent is mentioned nowhere in the rule. It doesn't matter when a pitcher accidentally throws a fourth ball and walks in a game-winning run, does it? Or did Bud Selig enact a backsies program while I was asleep?
"Intentional or not intentional. He just has to clear the path," Joe Torre, MLB's executive vice president for baseball operations, said via MLB.com. "I know sometimes it's unfair because he's laying on the ground, but that's the way the rule is."
"Really, that doesn't play into that play," Joyce said. "With the defensive player on the ground, without intent or intent, it's still obstruction. You'd probably have to ask Middlebrooks that one, if he could have done anything. But that's not in our determination."
There it is. Black and white. From the rulebook, Torre and Joyce.
But if you think there's universal agreement that Joyce's call was correct, umm, think again. Search the poor man's name and any degrading epithet you can think of on Twitter. You'll come back disappointed to share a species with some of these people.
That's the heat of the moment. You can forgive Peavy's frustration and the frustration of the entire Red Sox clubhouse. They just suffered the fourth defeat via error in World Series history, per ESPN Stats & Info. The most recent one prior to Saturday?
Bill Buckner in 1986.
Couple that with the fact that the Game 3 winner in 1-1 series wins about two-thirds of the time, and Boston may have just seen a ring drop from its finger in the most soul-crushing way possible.
As for Joyce? The criticism holds no merit. He made a correct split-second judgement call in the most pressure-packed situation there is for his profession.
So maybe we should be applauding rather than vilifying.
*All quotes are via MLB.com postgame press conference coverage unless otherwise cited.
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