Posted October 17, 2013

After another incident in postseason, future of ‘neighborhood play’ in doubt via replay system

ALCS, instant replay, Umpires
Austin Jackson and Stephen Drew

Austin Jackson should have been called safe on this second inning forceout in ALCS Game 4. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

The Tigers’ five-run outburst in the second inning of Game 4 of the ALCS on Wednesday night might have gone on even longer if not for the application of the so-called “neighborhood play.” Second base umpire Dan Iassogna was particularly generous in calling Austin Jackson out at second on a forecout when Boston shortstop Stephen Drew did not actually have possession of the ball until long after he stepped on the bag and moved out of the way. All of which raises a very big question: When expanded instant replay goes into effect in 2014, how will such a play be handled in the case of a challenge?

To review, the situation under discussion came with the bases loaded and one out. The Tigers’ Jose Iglesias hit a grounder to normally sure-handed Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who flubbed the pick-up long enough that the Sox weren’t able to turn an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play, which would have held the score at 1-0. Pedroia did manage to throw to second ahead of Jackson’s arrival, but by the time Drew touched down and made the pivot, the shortstop was several feet away from the base. Iassonga ruled Jackson out, even though this appeared to be a far more liberal application of the neighborhood “rule” than is usually seen. Via SB Nation, here’s a GIF of the play (the full video is here):

It was the second time this week that the play has caused controversy. In NLCS Game 3, the Cardinals lost a baserunner at second when umpire Ted Barrett ruled Yadier Molina out even though Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez was off the bag when he caught the throw from first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. In both that case and the one from last night, neither manager of the disadvantaged club — St. Louis’ Mike Matheny and Detroit’s Jim Leyland — came out to argue, likely because the call wouldn’t have been changed anyway.

However, if the instant replay rules that go into effect next year were already on the books — thereby allowing virtually all calls outside of balls and strikes to be reviewed — and either Matheny or Leyland had issued a challenge by throwing his flag (or whatever), it would have made for an interesting debate: Would the letter of the law (the official rules) have been enforced, or would the spirit of protecting players from bodily harm have prevailed? Those in charge of the new replay system have yet to clarify, but they will need to before it’s rolled out.

The problem is that the neighborhood play isn’t actually in the rulebook. While Rule 7.08(e) states that a runner is out when “he or the next base is tagged before he touches the next base, after he has been forced to advance by reason of the batter becoming a runner,” the examples detailed thereafter make no mention of the fielder being allowed to tag the base before receiving the ball so as to prevent a collision. When a controversy arose about the practice during the 2009 ALCS, Rich Garcia, who spent 25 years as a major league umpire and at that point had served seven more years as a supervisor, said, “There is no such thing as the neighborhood play… You either touch the base or you don’t.”

Despite Garcia’s denial, the play — also known as the “phantom tag” — has persisted as an unwritten rule for decades. In his 2009 book The Unwritten Rules of Baseball, Paul Dickson quoted a 1992 article on the subject:

During an attempted double play, the umpire will call a base runner out if the man covering second or third has his foot near the base, rather than on it, to avoid the incoming slide… The umpire only rules an out when the toss is on target, the ball is caught cleanly, and the fielder’s foot is in the vicinity of the bag. This is not what the rulebook says… and the play is never formally acknowledged by the higher-ups in baseball. There is a reason for this unwritten rule that is intensely practical. “Historians say the rough-and-tumble play of the 1930s led to the ‘phantom tag call. Following the letter of the law resulted in too many collision, fights and injuries,” wrote Kirk Arnoot in an article on the neighborhood play in the Columbus Dispatch…”

As veteran umpire Tom Hallion explained the play to Bruce Weber while the latter researched his book on the craft, As They See ’Em, the neighborhood play is called when “everything stays in an ordinary progression of what’s supposed to happen, what should happen, what normally happens… even if he’s not right on the bag… if I call the guy safe, here’s what they say: “Do you want this guy f—— killed?”

In the eyes of Hallion and other umps, the onset of technology via high-definition television, slow-motion replay, more camera angles and internal video reviews of umpire performance have already curbed the application of the play at least somewhat. From supervisor and former umpire Randy Marsh in 2010:

“It’s technology… Years ago there were what, three or four cameras at a game? There are so many more now. These guys are under incredible scrutiny and they do a great job. There’s a camera looking over their shoulder on every call. They know it.”

As Wednesday night showed, even if it’s not as prevalent as in the past, the play still stands despite its lack of codification. It’s well intentioned in its desire to protect infielders from hard contact and potential mayhem — broken bones, torn ACLs, spike wounds — by baserunners whose slides often wind up nowhere near second base in an effort to break up the double play. Many of those slides could be called interference via Rule 7.08(b), when a runner “hinders a fielder attempting to make a play on a batted bal.” Once upon a time, takeouts like this cross-body block from the 1977 ALCS by the Royals’ Hal McRae on the Yankees’ Willie Randoph were the norm:

Generally, the neighborhood play amounts to no more than a split-second difference between a fielder grazing the bag with his foot and then removing it as he receives the ball and then unloads it. Via another SB Nation GIF, here’s Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria on a routine Marco Scutaro grounder from earlier this year:

That play didn’t raise an eyebrow, but the one by Drew did, both because it came on a run-scoring play in the postseason and because he appeared to be outside the Detroit city limits when he made it.

It’s possible that under the forthcoming challenge rules, some managers might be loathe to press the issue via replay but others would be aggressive at doing so. Some might keep the possibility of a challenge in their back pocket, waiting for the ideal moment to pounce, as Billy Martin did when it came to the amount of pine tar on George Brett’s bat after he homered against the Yankees back in 1983.

The replay rollout would seem like a good opportunity to codify the practice formally, or to banish it. Personally, I’d rather see the step taken in favor of protecting players. From here, it seems reasonable to proscribe a maximum distance from the bag that a player may be if he touches it just prior to receiving the ball in order to avoid the runner. It also seems reasonable to enforce interference rules more closely so as to cut down the potential danger of takeout slides whose target quite obviously isn’t the base.

Such a reform could come as part of a larger effort to avoid collisions on the basepaths, as the Rules Committee could address the accepted practice of blocking home plate without receiving the ball, which can lead to some gruesome and dangerous collisions with concussions, broken bones and millions of dollars in player salaries lost to the disabled list. Catchers-turned-managers Bruce Bochy and Mike Matheny are among those on board with such potential changes; the former saw the toll taken when Buster Posey suffered a broken leg in a 2011 collision, while the latter was forced into retirement by repeated concussions.

Except when bat meets ball or when the tag is applied with the glove, baseball isn’t intended to be a contact sport. It has evolved into one to at least some extent, but with a major change on the horizon, the powers that be have a choice as to how they want to address that. Even if they don’t take steps to reduce the number of collisions, they can’t avoid addressing whether to clean up the the neighborhood play or allow it to persist.

28 comments
RD
RD

They Royals play was way out of line because he went way over 2nd base.

Chip
Chip

IMO, if a runner isn't sliding into the base but instead is sliding at the fielder (whether this is at 2nd or 3rd to break up a double play our at home to take out the catcher), he should be called out for interference. If he's breaking up a double play, the trailing runner (presumably the batter) should also be called out.

Making this "neighborhood" phantom out an actual rule is a horrible idea. The point of implementing replay is to make things right, not make them more wrong. If you don't touch the bag while you're holding the ball, the runner should be safe.

The better response would be to try to prevent the injury and/or interference by prohibiting the runner from sliding at the fielder instead of at the base. The call at the end of the Cubs vs. Cards game (6/18/13) is a great example of how this can work, where the ump called both the runner and batter out.

Based on Rule 7.08(b) and the comment that follows it, the rule seems to say that sliding at the fielder is ok as long as you're touching the base with your hand, unless the umpire judges the hindrance "intentional." Perhaps that is part of the problem, as it probably makes umpires less likely to call interference unless it's completely obvious that there's no attempt to get to the base. If any bit of the rule should be changed, it's right there - make it state that the runner must slide directly towards the base, unless they are attempting to avoid the tag (and perhaps get their body away from the base but their hand under the tag).

And by the way ... what I learned was that an "unwritten rule" is not an actual rule that is enforced badly (or not at all). It's something like "don't talk to the pitcher when he's throwing a no-hitter" or "never make the last out at third base."

Outside the box
Outside the box

Why not just make it illegal for the runner from first to make a blatant attempt at taking out the fielder. Some of these guys slide 4 feet outside the base line, it's pretty ridiculous.

bravesfandp
bravesfandp

This article is pointless. As you can plainly see by the reply, Drew had the ball at the base prior to baserunner reaching, he just moved out of way to avoid collision. As for all that are whining about the catcher play, totally different scenario. Comparable scenario is force play at the plate, catcher tags plate & gets out of way of runner. As far as tag plays at the plate, the catcher has the option to avoid runner & place swipe tag. I have seen plenty of catchers do this to avoid collision. If you want to stand there and block plate, prepare to be ROCKED!

OkieStater
OkieStater

If the object is to protect the infielder, why not use the "neighborhood rule" at homeplate.  Ask Avila if he would object. 

ShifterKart
ShifterKart

They should throw out all home run records too until all fields are the same size. On field wall maybe 35 feet closer than another so a HR in one park would not be one in the other park. Like having one football field goal 6 feet wider than another...

Rickapolis
Rickapolis

I hate the 'neighborhood play'. Always have.

KCKen
KCKen

Why "protect" an infielder at second base while allowing a runner attempting to score the ability to steamroll a catcher at the plate with all the force of a football hit?  The latter has far more potential for serious injury (e.g., Ray Fosse's All Star game injury) yet is shrugged off as part of the game.  Enforce the rules as written and penalize excessive contact and Hal McRae/Pete Rose style hits.  Sure it adds another judgement call as to what is "excessive," but baseball is full of judgement calls already.

ron.kelly.2010
ron.kelly.2010

The author makes some good points. Another play that will come under scrutiny with instant reply is the attempt to tag an advancing runner, such as on a stolen base attempt. I often see the runner being called out when the ball beats him to the base and the tagging defender (e.g., the second baseman) gets the tag down in time, EVEN THOUGH technically the defender doesn't tag the runner before the runner reaches the base. This is also a kind of unwritten rule--as long as the ball reaches the base and the tag beats the runner, he's called out regardless of whether he touches the base before the tag is applied. Rarely does anybody argue. Unless baseball codifies this unwritten rule as well, instant replay is going to cause more problems than it solves.

DaveG
DaveG

Who cares.  I think that you are trying to fix something that isn't broken.  Both teams know that the ump will call the phantom tag equally for both sides and it still allows a slide to break up a double play.  If the second baseman HAS to touch second and the runner HAS to touch second then bad things are going to happen when that touching occurs at the same time.  At an age where much effort is being made to make professional sport safer do we want to mess with the already safe status quo?

chrislancette
chrislancette

This is one of the many reasons this life-long baseball fan is watching a whole lot less baseball than I used to. Any umpire who knowingly calls a runner out when no force was actually made or no tag applied should be fired. Arbitrary enforcement of rules makes baseball look silly.

Whatever
Whatever

The runner sliding into the fielder can be very easily solved by prohibiting the runner from targeting the fielder. MLB should also outlaw home plate collisions, because catcher's gear is not designed for receiving a blow from a guy running full speed for 90 feet and plowing into you. It's designed for protecting the catcher from balls and perhaps a bat to the head.

The neighborhood play is well known and is taught to umpires at all levels. All MLB would need to do is kick a few guys out of games for sliding into fielders and fine them and the practice will stop. Just think of how many double plays won't be completed because that extra half-second (giving the batter a step or half-step) has to be taken by the fielder in order to get the lead runner out.

Mulligan
Mulligan

Baseball is becoming less and less popular and the "unwritten rules" and no replay have a lot to do with it. Replay is easily fixed, the unwritten rules have chased me away since I was a kid.

MarkBlackford
MarkBlackford

This was as bad an example of the "neighborhood play" as I have seen. I say let 'em play it for real and give them nothing. 

PeterFunk
PeterFunk

Very interesting discussion. I think that if the runner's intent isn't to injure, the runner should be safe if the fielder steps off the base. Part of the game is staying on the base and holding the ball when you're getting the out. If the runner slides hard to try to break up the play, I think it should be at the umpire's discretion to call the runner out. However, I think it's important to keep in mind that a huge part of a play at second during an attempted double play turn is the closeness of a given play- if the "neighborhood" rules were to be codified, fielders would simply step off the base every time because they would be given the out automatically- this would be a problem because it would effectively disallow runners from beating throws to second. Although the throw or toss to second is probably the more difficult part of a DP turn, the catch at second matters too.

Ryan1
Ryan1

@Outside the box 

would be a better rule - I don't care if you go in leg up but you have to touch the base on a slide otherwise it should be ruled interference and both runners are out

B24
B24

@bravesfandp 

If you think he had the ball at the base before the runner, you might be the most ignorant (and probably blind) person on the face of the earth.  Dont forget your helmet and gloves before you get on the short bus Monday morning.  I would hate to see you get hurt.

Outside the box
Outside the box

@bravesfandp I hope you are joking. When he caught the ball his foot was off the base by 3 feet. Tagging the bag without the ball is like the catcher tagging a runner at home, then catching the ball later.

Ryan1
Ryan1

@bravesfandp 

based on the GIF, he did not have the ball when his foot was on the base, he got the ball after his foot had left the bag. 

blocking the plate is one thing, but actually touching the bag is another, I am fine with him grazing the bag but you have to have the ball first otherwise the runner is safe. 

AaronThigpen
AaronThigpen

@ShifterKart and that solves what problem with an antiquated/non-existent replay system in baseball? 

Dirty_Bob
Dirty_Bob

@ron.kelly.2010 

That's not an unwritten rule.  That's just a missed call.  They wouldn't teach you to try and slide under a tag if it you were going to be called out automatically.  Tags are a difficult call to make.  Your eyes pretty much have to see two different places at once(tag and the bag).  Often the ump has a bad angle to see it. 

rwidger
rwidger

@chrislancette  Could not agree more.  I used to live and die with baseball, now I really don't care anymore.  Play by the rules, no grey areas.  Every other professional league has made rule changes to improve the game, make it safer, or whatever.  Baseball just keeps doing the same crap year after year.  Get out of the stone ages baseball!!

bravesfandp
bravesfandp

@Outside the box @bravesfandp 

Are you a TARD?? I am not saying he had the ball when his foot was on the base. I am clearly saying he COULD have touched the base but did not to avoid collision. Bottom line he could have touched base but didn't want to get slid into. Is that SIMPLE enough for you to com-pre hend??

cureholder
cureholder

I think the previous commenters were confused by your phrasing:  "Drew had the ball at the base prior to baserunner reaching" implies that Drew had the ball AT THE BASE prior to the baserunner reaching, which he objectively did not.  He "could have touched the base" while holding the ball only if the base moved, his leg grew three feet, or he was able to fold space.