What baseball umpires can learn from the Vatican
Allen Craig of the St. Louis Cardinals gets tripped up by Will Middlebrooks of the Boston Red Sox during the 2013 World Series.
October 29th, 2013
11:37 AM ET

What baseball umpires can learn from the Vatican

Opinion by Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

(CNN) - This is a post about the instantly infamous “obstruction” call that ended Game 3 of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday.  But it starts with an epiphany I had years ago about Vatican law.

This epiphany came in the form of a 2005 op-ed on gay Catholic priests, written by John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter.

As a long-time observer of all things Vatican, Allen was trying to explain to American readers why there will always be gay priests. In so doing, he drew a sharp distinction between Italian law (which holds sway in the Vatican) and Anglo-Saxon law (which prevails in the United States).

Italian law “expresses an ideal," he wrote. "It describes a perfect state of affairs from which many people will inevitably fall short. This view is far removed from the typical Anglo-Saxon approach, which expects the law to dictate what people actually do.”

So when Italians say “no gays in the priesthood,” they are not expressing what we in the United States refer to as a law. They are expressing an aspiration. They are saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if there were no gays in the priesthood.” Or, as a senior Vatican official told Allen, “Law describes the way things would work if men were angels.”

I was livid on Saturday night when I saw the Cardinals’ runner Allen Craig awarded home plate (and the game) because of “obstruction” by Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks. In fact, I screamed so loud at the television set that my throat still hurts days later.

But I wasn’t just reacting as a lifetime member of the Church of the Boston Red Sox. I was outraged at the umpires’ misapplication of their rules.

Although baseball is America’s pastime, it works by Italian law. The shape-shifting strike zone is a model of subjectivity, varying from umpire to umpire, and from inning to inning.

Umpires routinely allow second basemen and shortstops to catch double play relays merely in the vicinity of second base in order to prevent injury at the hands of sliding runners. In fact, this happens so often it has a name (“the phantom double play”).

All this is to say that baseball umpires are expected to exercise their judgment.

As many baseball pundits have noted, the umpires acted in World Series Game 3 according to the letter of the law (which in this case turns out to be Rule 7.06 on “obstruction”).

As umpire John Hirschbeck himself explained in an interview after the controversial game — the only World Series contest ever to end on an obstruction call — intent does not matter:

”Obstruction is the act of a fielder obstructing a runner when not in the act of fielding a ball. It does not have to be intent. There does not have to be intent, OK? Once he has the opportunity to field the ball, he can no longer in any way obstruct the runner. That's basically the rule.”

During the same interview, Joe Torre, Major League Baseball's executive VP of baseball operations, cited Rule 2, which offered this almost eerie example of "obstruction": "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."

Fair enough. That certainly does seem to describe the Game 3 situation. But notice the language here. “Very likely” indicates that umpires are supposed to exercise some discretion here, some subjectivity, some judgment. Which is how it should be.

Those who claim that the umpires in this case should have followed the letter of the law misunderstand the nature of the baseball rulebook, which throughout baseball history, from Little League to the major leagues, has been interpreted in the spirit of Italian rather than Anglo-Saxon law.

We have always expected umpires to exercise their discretion, to pay attention to particulars as they interpret the rules.

The purpose of Rule 7.06 is to prevent fielders from hindering runners as they proceed from base to base. Yet this same rule recognizes that fielders have the right to field their position.

In this case, these two rights literally bumped up against one another in the bodies of Will Middlebrooks and Allen Craig. The Red Sox third baseman dived to his left in an effort to catch a ball coming his way from his team’s catcher. He had every right to reach for the ball, just as the Cardinals' runner had every right to slide into third base.

As soon as the ball shot past Middlebrooks, Craig tried to jump over him and tripped as he was heading for home. Third base umpire Jim Joyce signaled obstruction, and the home plate umpire, yielding to Joyce’s judgment, awarded Craig home plate, despite the fact that he was tagged out easily by the Red Sox catcher.

So my question is this: What was MIddlebrooks supposed to do? If he possessed superpowers that elude mere mortals, he could have teleported his body to another dimension, but failing that, his body was going to fall where gravity took it.

To call this obstruction is to tell Middlebrooks and every future third baseman that they cannot dive to their left for an errant throw, or that they do so at the risk of awarding the runner a free pass home. And that doesn’t make any sense, because as the rule itself recognizes, the fielders have every right to field their position.

To return to the Rome and Vatican law, what we have here is a conflict between two modes of legal interpretation.

Cardinals fans who lauded the umpires for following the letter of the law were demanding Anglo-American interpretation. But baseball, despite its American origins, has always been governed by an Italian approach.

“If men were angels,” the Red Sox third baseman could have winged his body away a millisecond after diving for the ball. But men are not angels, and Game 3 should have gone into extra innings.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Catholic Church • Sports • Vatican

soundoff (528 Responses)
  1. Tom Kienzle

    As a former High School and college baseball umpire who volunteered many years as a Little League umpire and has been teaching new umpires in youth baseball now for twenty years AND a Roman Catholic I was thoroughly amused by Mr. Prothero's take on the Series game ending Obstruction call and his big picture analogy from the Vatican.

    The rule he sites is correct referring to the act from the individual player but the big picture is that the offensive team cannot hinder the defense from making a play -that's intereference. And the other side of the coin is that the defense cannot do things to hinder the offense from scoring – that's obstruction. When the defense threw the ball forcing another defensive player to dive out of his position he was then in jeopardy of causing obstruction and when the offensive player made contact with him, tripping over him, the act of obstruction had clearly occurred. It was the correct call against the Red Sox, for the Cardinals. Now if it had been the Angels as the American League representative the runner probably would have miraculously hopped over the third baseman without contact so the call would not have been made and even the Vatican would be happy!

    November 6, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
  2. kronsbeast

    The obstruction call was definitely correct. Although the 3rd baseman was not at fault for being in the way, the catcher, a member of the same team, was at fault for his wild throw. If obstruction had not been called, the runner would have been out at the plate. It would not be right to punish one team for the other team's mistake.

    November 5, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
  3. Twilight troll

    The Vatican's holy water will do nothing to protect you from umpires.

    November 5, 2013 at 10:23 am |
  4. Youtube - Neil DeGrasse Tyson - The Perimeter of Ignorance

    god is. hundreds of millions base their lives on his realty, on his personal presence manifested, in knowing him. ancient texts abound proclaiming the same things


    November 3, 2013 at 3:58 am |
  5. thetruth323

    I will start by saying that I have been an umpire for over 20 years, umpired 100s of games from Little League to Junior College and I would guess that I have made an obstruction call in less than 1% of those games. It is unfortunate that a World Series n't game had to end on an obstruction call but the umpire got the call absolutely correct. And to your question, "what was Middlebrooks supposed to do?" He is supposed to clear and let the runner go to home pate unimpeded, not only did he not clear, he purposely put his legs up! This call was text book. As to your insinuation that baseball allows things like the neighborhood play, or phantom double play, the only time an ump gives the guy some slack is when it will have ero impact on the outcome of the play. Stick to religion Stephen, you don't know baseball or umpiring.

    October 31, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
    • Reality # 2

      Stick to religion? Steve P. even fails at that. His students should demand a refund!!!

      November 1, 2013 at 7:50 am |
  6. bootyfunk

    he destroyed every living thing and right, like he could make a unicorn!

    October 31, 2013 at 1:43 am |
  7. Camilla


    October 30, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.