- Parent Category: Larry's Corner
The concept of obstruction in baseball has been part of the game since near its inception. For umpires to truly understand obstruction, we need to first define it and then look at how obstruction has been viewed over the history of the game of baseball. Remember that there is more than one rule source we need to look at - high school, college and professional. They all have a little different take on what obstruction is and how to enforce the rule.
As early as 1857, the Knickerbocker Rules recognized and penalized the act of obstruction. Rule 23 stated, "If the player is prevented from making a base by intentional obstruction of an adversary, he shall be entitled to that base and not be put out." This rule was adopted for the 1st Official Rules of 1876. No significant change in wording occurred until 1897 when "obstruction" was clarified by explaining that if the fielder had the ball in his hand ready to meet the base runner, no obstruction should be called. That criterion for defining obstruction is also part of the definition found in today's rules.
Through the first half of the 20th century, these original guidelines prevailed. The runner had the right of way unless the fielder was in the act of fielding the ball or had possession of the ball and was ready to touch the base runner. In 1950, a new obstruction rule was written and established two types of obstruction: (1) The batter becomes a runner and is impeded as he advances around the base; and (2) A runner who is caught in a rundown is impeded as he attempts to reach a base.
In the first type of obstruction, the ball remained live and the umpire awarded bases as he saw fit after all play had stopped. In the rundown situation, the umpire stopped play and awarded the runner the base he was attempting to reach. If the base he was attempting to reach was occupied by a succeeding runner, that runner was permitted to return to the base he last legally held.
The obstruction rule was completely revamped in 1962. This revision produced the exact wording of today's professional baseball rule. That same year, the Casebook Note was added which established that the catcher had no right to block the pathway of the runner attempting to score unless he had the ball in his possession or was in the act of fielding it. Clarification Notes were added in 1976 and helped explain three situations: (1) the proper procedure for calling obstruction when a play is being made on the obstructed runner; (2) the proper enforcement and award when the ball is thrown into dead territory; and (3) the liability an obstructed runner assumes as he advances around the bases after the obstruction. These notes were incorporated in 1978 and remain to this day.
In high school (National Federation of High School or NFHS) rules, obstruction is defined as any act, physical or verbal (8-3-2) that hinders a runner (2-22-1; 2.22.1c).
In college (NCAA) rules, obstruction is defined as the act of any fielder who, clearly without possession of the ball, blocks the base (plate) or baseline and impedes the progress of any runner (2 - Obstruction AR; 8-7b).
In professional baseball (Official Baseball Rules or OBR), obstruction is the act of any fielder who, not in possession of the ball nor in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner.
Let's look at the following play to determine how to rule on obstruction in all three of the above definitions and rule codes.
With a runner on second base and a single to right field, the runner tries to score. The catcher sets up in the base path a full step toward third from home, readying himself for the throw. The runner (not maliciously) slides into the catcher and is tagged out. At the time of the contact, the throw from the outfield has reached the cutout in front of the plate.
Ruling: In high school and college play, since the catcher was not in possession of the ball, the ruling is obstruction. In professional baseball, there is no obstruction and the runner is out because the catcher was in the process of fielding the ball.
How do you umpire this play?
In high school, you would put out the left arm to the left side of your body with a closed fist (delayed-dead ball signal) and announce, "That's obstruction!" and let the action come to a close. Then call "Time!" and award the runner home and allow the batter-runner to keep what he has earned. He could have been thrown out trying to advance to second or trying to get back to first base. All of what happens after the obstruction would be allowed to take place. You would point at the runner and say, "You, home!"
In college, you would point at the play with your right hand and say, "That's obstruction!" and let all action come to a close and then call "Time!" and award the runner home and allow the batter-runner to do as above.
In pro ball, you would call the runner out if the catcher made the tag properly and again allow all play to come to a halt. There would be no need to call time because there was no obstruction.
In summary, the obstruction rule is not a difficult concept to understand but is not an easy task as an umpire to manage because there are a number of facets to keep in mind. You must recognize obstruction when you see it. There doesn't always have to be physical contact - obstruction can occur when a player forces a runner to go around them (don't forget that a runner can be called out for going too far out of the way when a fielder is attempting to tag him with the ball). In NFHS rules there is malicious contact to consider while in the NCAA there is flagrant contact to consider. In professional baseball there are no worries about malicious or flagrant contact, but most amateur umpires must deal with both.
This is just a beginning look at obstruction. There are more differences than highlighted in the simple play above and understanding them is key to learning the more complex nature of this rule.