Last night, in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game Six of the New York-Boston ALCS, Alex Rodriguez intentionally interfered with Bronson Arroyo as he attempted to make a tag on Rodriguez at first base.

I’m not particularly interested in the factual matters behind the call; it may well be that someone utterly degraded and diseased by Yankee partisanship could see Rodriguez’s action differently. What I am interested in is the legal circumstances behind the act of calling A-Rod out and bringing Derek Jeter back to first base, when he clearly would have made it safely to second base were it not for the umpires’ call.

It may surprise many of you (as it surprised many in our IRC chat on #baseball_primer) that the umpires in fact – again, according to the way they (and I) saw the facts – made the right call. That call, incidentally, is intentional offensive interference by A-Rod.

Traditionally, most interference calls are made under Rules 7.08 or 7.09. However, in this case (as in the case of Rob Fick’s karate chop in last year’s NLDS versus Chicago) the interference is actually called under the general definition of “Interference” in Rule 2:

(a) Offensive interference is an act by the team at bat which interferes with, obstructs, impedes, hinders or confuses any fielder attempting to make a play. If the umpire declares the batter, batter runner, or a runner out for interference, all other runners shall return to the last base that was in the judgment of the umpire, legally touched at the time of the interference, unless otherwise provided by these rules. In the event the batter runner has not reached first base, all runners shall return to the base last occupied at the time of the pitch.

This is the reason for Derek Jeter being sent back to first. Under the rulebook, the umpires do not have the power to step in and judge that Jeter would have made it to second base without the interference. The act of interference means that the ball is dead and the runners must return. No doubt the interference penalty is set as harshly as possible – in order to discourage interference.

What about the lane? Had A-Rod been out of the lane (as Rob Fick was in the play from last year’s NLDS) the interference is uncontroversial: he would be out under rule 7.09(k). But my view of the play showed that A-Rod was clearly in the lane. Still, being in the lane does not excuse the runner from interference completely; it does excuse the runner from being called out for unintentional interference, but a player can be called out for intentional interference anywhere on the field (and additionally, offensive players must vacate any space needed by a defensive player to make a play – this is under Rule 7.11). Umpiring expert Jim Booth, in his excellent discussion of interference, states that for an interference call to be made on a runner in the first base lane, it would have to be “obviously intentional”.

In the final analysis, offensive players are not allowed to interfere with any defender making a play anywhere on the field.

There was one aspect of the play, though, that the umpires did not get right, and it bears keeping in mind. A-Rod’s conduct, as it was determined by the umpires to be intentional interference, was certainly unsportsmanlike conduct – the umpire therefore has the authority (and, I would argue, the duty) under Rule 9.01(d) to eject a player for unsportsmanlike conduct. Clearly, so as not to antagonize the Yankees and the crowd further, and perhaps to “even up” the calls, this was not done – but there is no doubt in my mind that it was not good umpiring. Messages, for better or for worse, must be sent – even in the ALCS – and it should be made very clear, as clear as possible, that conduct such as A-Rod’s should not be permitted. I have no doubt that A-Rod is not a “cheater”. Going outside the bounds of the rules in a game, as he did, isn’t the sort of thing that deserves a moral sanction. But it can’t be tolerated on a big-league ballfield.

But beyond that very small disagreement with their judgment, I have to say that I was enormously proud of the umpiring crew last night. On the disputed home run call in the fourth inning, the umpires huddled, discussed the matter thoroughly and got the call right – even though it meant overruling a member of the crew. Similarly, in the eighth, the umpires huddled, discussed the matter to the necessary extent, and made the right call – again overruling a member of the crew.

Before the start of the 2003 season, MLB told the umpires that it was moving to a new standard of umpiring. No longer would it be permissible to defend an umpire’s wrong calls by bending interpretations of the rules, or relying on “continuous action” defense (where an umpire’s wrong call is judged to stand because of the effect it had on the ensuing play). Instead, umpires were encouraged to conference together on the field where necessary, but to get the call right – and to make the necessary choices and decisions to administer a more flexible, less rule-based, justice on the field. If necessary, where a call on the field is overruled, umpires are instructed to make such awards as they think would have happened had the call been made correctly in the first place. This allows the umpires to tailor the solution as the facts allow, rather than depending on the rule book to anticipate all the possible eventualities. For a legalistic person like myself, this is a drawback, but to baseball fans, interested in a fair contest, it’s a significant net positive.

It hasn’t worked perfectly smoothly – umpires have butchered some decisions related to “continuous action” decisions – but MLB’s continual hammering of the importance of getting the call right, no matter what the cost, has paid off in spades. Umpires who five years ago would not hesitate at all to let a wrong call stand in order to protect a fellow crew member, last night were taking MLB’s lessons to heart and making sure that their calls were fair. Goodness knows, I criticize the umpires strongly enough when they do things wrong. But today, I’m happy to be applauding them for doing things exactly right.

Update 8:49am – Larry Mahnken pointed out to me in private e-mail that the ALCS is not the place to be “sending messages”. Larry’s right, and I phrased that inelegantly. What I mean is that there is no room to tolerate unsportsmanlike conduct on the field, at any time, ALCS game or not. It’s not about “sending messages”, but about what is and isn’t permissible. Ultimately, though, each umpire has to be the judge of what he will and will not permit.

Update #2 – 9:34am – Reader “Noffs” over at Baseball Think Factory pointed me to a quotation from section 6.1 of the MLB Umpire Manual which discusses intentional interference… “[w]hile contact may occur between a fielder and runner during a tag attempt, a runner is not allowed to use his hands or arms to commit an obviously malicious or unsportsmanlike act such as grabbing, tackling, intentionally slapping at the baseball, punching, kicking, flagrantly using his arms or forearms, etc. to commit an intentional act of interference unrelated to running the bases.” The Umpire Manual is the bible of MLB Umpires, going into much more detail than the Official Rules.

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