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Whether obstruction or the 'Tuck Rule,' rules are rules, like them or not

Posted by David D'Onofrio  October 27, 2013 07:00 AM

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It was late, and it had been a draining night of curious decisions and dicey situations, but Red Sox fans running on some combination of adrenaline and disbelief turned their televisions to NESN, or wherever, and listened as Joe Torre and three umpires sat before the microphones to explain a call that will live in World Series history forever.

Having already scurried to find baseball's rule book online, they scrutinized everything those officials had to say, as if hoping to hear evidence that the ruling was indeed as wrong as it felt to them. And based on the way Twitter exploded with each explanation, they didn't like that deciding umpire Jim Joyce initially said Will Middlebrooks' feet caused Allen Craig to trip, then contradicted himself by saying "the feet didn't play too much into that;" they didn't like hearing that there was essentially nothing Middlebrooks could've done to avoid the call after diving into the runner in his effort to catch the ball; they didn't like being told that Craig was running "literally on the chalk" when in reality the path he took to collide with Middlebrooks was actually several feet inside the foul line; and they didn't seem to like the idea that intent was irrelevant.

But when the umpires were finished, even without a completely clear explanation, the fact remained: It was the right call, based on the letter of the law.

So, Red Sox Nation, meet Raider Nation – your new brothers in rules-based outrage.

Followers of the New England sports scene need no reminder of why the Raiders feel they were wronged back in the postseason following the 2001 football season, but if you need a reminder, open up a new tab and type “Tuck Rule” into Google. Go ahead. We’ll wait.

Okay. Now that everybody’s on the same page, we can all agree that under the NFL rules at the time, referee Walt Coleman was correct in ruling the way he did upon reviewing the for-a-moment fumble Charles Woodson forced on a blitz of Tom Brady. Following the rule exactly how it was written, the result of the play was an incomplete pass.

Regardless of whether it was fair, whether the act of tucking the ball back into the body should be considered part of the throwing process, whether that’s actually what Brady was intending to do, or whether you think the rule is flat-out ridiculous, it was the rule in place when that game began. Therefore, its edicts govern the officials’ decisions during that contest.

And the same is true of what happened on Saturday night in St. Louis. It doesn’t seem fair that if Middlebrooks gets tangled with a runner when sprawling out to try and glove an errant throw he gets penalized for it if the runner then attempts to run. Essentially there was absolutely nothing he could to avoid the call once the ball got past him, and the umpires said as much afterward.

It doesn’t seem logical that the way the rule is written, if the fielder “continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner, very likely has obstructed the runner,” but the umpires said afterward that Middlebrooks could not have tried to get up.

It doesn’t seem right that Craig could embellish the collision by reaching out and pushing Middlebrooks with his hands, but players are taught to try and touch a fielder – more often in a hopeless rundown – because the rule is written to side with the runner in the case of contact. It doesn’t seem to make sense that there’s no judgment made on intent, and thus no allowance for incidental contact. It doesn’t seem just that the fielder is penalized for where his body happened to take him while trying to make a play, while the runner was allowed to run on the grass inside the baseline – and thus have no choice but to run over the third baseman – just because his body bounced in that direction after his popup slide.

But according to the way the rule is written, that’s the way it goes. Joyce made the right call. The Cardinals would’ve had a major gripe if he hadn’t. So the Red Sox lose. Fair and square.

Perhaps the rule will be revisited and rewritten, or at least clarified to answer some of the questions coming out of a high-profile, real-world example. Major League Baseball added language after a 2003 obstruction call involving Miguel Cabrera – and the NFL eventually went back and revised the Tuck Rule more than a decade after it was most famously enacted. Of course, that’s done little to calm the Raider fans for whom the incident still strikes a nerve, and who still carry a grudge – and Red Sox fans are likely to the same for a while, too.

Though let’s not lose sight of one reality while seeing red. Even after that call, the Raiders still had a chance to win the game. They still led that Divisional playoff, and they still had a chance to keep the Patriots from getting into field goal position. Then, even after Adam Vinatieri booted the greatest kick in NFL history through a driving snowstorm, Oakland had a chance to stop the Patriots from getting back into field goal range for another kick during overtime.

And the Red Sox still have an opportunity to win this World Series. That play might’ve cost them a chance to go up a game, but St. Louis’ advantage is still just 2-1. This is a team that has prided itself on its resiliency and relentlessness, and on its win-the-next-day mentality, so there’s every reason to think this will ultimately be remembered as just a wildly unexpected speed bump. Win Sunday or Monday and they will restore home-field advantage, and get a chance to go back to Fenway Park needing two victories to win a championship.

The latter of those would come on Halloween, in fact. Perfect. Their new brethren from Oakland would fit right in to the party.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Dave D'Onofrio is a sports journalist who focuses on the Red Sox and Patriots, and also writes's "Off The Field" blog about what Boston's sportsmen do away from the More »

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