World Series 2013: Jim Joyce had to call obstruction, because baseball isn't football

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Why there's no such thing as letting the players play.

Rules patch sports where they're broken—where the simple, elegant idea that led to the sport's invention frays as clever players begin brushing up against its edges. Dickey Pearce, baseball's first real shortstop, realizes he can deaden a ball by sticking his bat in front of it, and the elegant idea of baseball swallows it whole, and a new strategy emerges. Ross Barnes, the National League's first batting champion back in 1876, realizes he can bunt a ball fair that will eventually roll impossibly foul and take first base, and the baseball he's supposed to be playing is side-stepped entirely.

You want as few of them as possible, and as simple as possible. Ross Barnes's bunts could have led to a ban on deadening the ball entirely, or a new line running down the side of the field, or an umpire watching his eyes and trying to figure out what he was trying to do; instead we got a precise redefinition of a fair ball using materials that were already on the field.

You want them to be as clear as possible—as automatic as possible—because discretion is a minefield. The rules we hate and fear and complain about constantly all call for the umpire's judgment in a way that we know, personally, is unrealistic. We know the umpire can't call all the balls and strikes correctly, and that the referee can't be sure it was pass interference, because we know our own limitations.

Some of it's unavoidable—somebody has to judge who's safe and who's out—but when you continually introduce new judgment calls for the referees to make you're left with the NFL's rat king of passer-roughing and receiver-interfering and illegal blocking. Rather than address what makes interfering with the receiver or roughing the passer so dangerous or game-breaking, you stretch the smooth original dimensions of the sport into something that doesn't work without all the kludges.

Here's Will Middlebrooks, and here's Allen Craig tripping over him, and here's a problem: It isn't happening in June, or the first inning, but on the last play of a World Series game. You can imagine how this might go in football or basketball, and I think the reason it's a controversy at all is that a lot of people carried on doing that.

In baseball only an umpire's strikezone reshapes the game; he can favor the pitchers, or the hitters, or he can seem to favor chaos and uncertainty. People hate this, and they ought to. In football and basketball, though, officials are (supposedly) influencing the tone of a game. You hear this from announcers in every playoff basketball game, whether it's happening or not—the players are getting more physical, they're policing themselves, they're being allowed to play the game themselves or should be.

And it's easy to draw a line from that to this play, which looks a little more like football or basketball than most. Let the players play; don't end the game on a ticky-tack foul. Will Middlebrooks fell over in the course of making the play; he didn't appear to fall over on purpose; sometimes players trip.

But once a sport has to decide to let the players play, it can't do it anymore. Jim Joyce watched Allen Craig trip over Will Middlebrooks. He knew the rule. Once he saw the play and knew the rule, there was no way for him to not decide the game. Either he called obstruction, and the Cardinals won, or he decided to Let The Players Play, and they were out of the inning.

When an official is forced to make a judgment call you're watching a sport at its breaking point; a decision is left to one man because there's no way to resolve it inside the ebb and flow of the game itself. Somebody has to decide whether a player's been obstructed or not; that one's easy. Degree is more difficult, which is why he only needs to decide whether the obstruction was the difference between a run and an out. Intent is impossible, and baseball has wisely pushed it out of Jim Joyce's brain. Major League Baseball makes its share of mistakes, but they don't make this one. They do not let the umpires let the players play.

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