Baseball is a game of many rules – written and unwritten, enforced and unenforced, strictly interpreted and loosely applied.
Me? I’m a rule guy. If a rule is necessary, then it should be written. And if the language of a rule is clear, that rule should be fully enforced and applied to the letter. It’s the former lawyer in me, I guess.
So when I saw Jason Heyward called out for interference last night, my instinct at first was that it was one of those “technically it violated the rule, but it’s absolutely never called like that … but still, a rule is a rule.” Then I started to question myself, though, about whether that play actually qualified as interference, even if I were willing to set aside the fact that the play is never called in a situation like that.
Turns out, it wasn’t even interference by the letter of the law for several reasons. So much went wrong with that call.
If you didn’t see the play live, here’s where you can watch the replay.
In sum, Heyward hits a dribbler up the first base line that Matt Moore tracks down, spins and throws toward first base. Heyward’s final step before reaching the base is with his left foot, and it lands inside the base line. Moore’s throw – while standing in foul territory – hits Heyward’s right leg shortly after it arrived at first base.
Here’s a still of the step in question:
FYI: Rules explicitly allow runner to take step into fair territory as he reaches first base, exactly as Heyward did. Badly blown call. pic.twitter.com/yveAOvIbfx
— Brett Taylor (@BleacherNation) May 25, 2017
It was the kind of play where interference should never even cross your mind, particularly given that Moore was throwing from foul territory, and it hit Heyward on the side of his body that was also in foul territory. Whatever the letter of the rule, it just kinda looks like nonsense to call interference there – Moore arguably had a better angle to throw to first because of Heyward’s final step! And he was going to be safe anyway!
OK, then, so what’s the rule? The rule in question is 5.09(a)(11) (emphasis mine):
“In running the last half of the distance from home base to first base, while the ball is being fielded to first base, he runs outside (to the right of ) the three-foot line, or inside (to the left of ) the foul line, and in the umpire’s judgment in so doing interferes with the fielder taking the throw at first base, in which case the ball is dead; except that he may run outside (to the right of ) the three-foot line or inside (to the left of ) the foul line to avoid a fielder attempting to field a batted ball;”
Right off the bat, you can see where this call went awry. Heyward’s presence absolutely interfered with Brandon Belt’s ability to take the throw … but the “in so doing” aspect means that it has to be Heyward’s step outside the three-foot lane that led to that interference. But that had nothing to do with the reason Heyward blocked the throw – Heyward blocked the throw because it came from foul territory! It would have been even more blocky if he’d been a step over to the left! And since it’s an umpire’s judgment call, the ump should have seen that this one was clearly not interference.
That one not working for you? Too flabby? That’s OK, because the comment to the rule offers an even more convincing, directly-on-point argument for why this was not interference (again, emphasis mine):
“The lines marking the three-foot lane are a part of that lane and a batter-runner is required to have both feet within the three-foot lane or on the lines marking the lane. The batter-runner is permitted to exit the three-foot lane by means of a step, stride, reach or slide in the immediate vicinity of first base for the sole purpose of touching first base.”
You could argue that Heyward’s single step with his left foot outside the line, which took place in the “immediate vicinity of first base,” was for the sole purpose of touching the base. It was just part of his normal stride so that he could get his right foot lined up to reach the base. If he hadn’t done that, he’d be twisting back awkwardly to lunge with his right foot to try to beat the throw.
In fact, I would argue that the Heyward play is precisely why this comment exists in the first place! The interference rule is not designed to force a runner to contort himself awkwardly and unsafely to stay in the lane at the moment he reaches the base.
For even further support, check out the video in this tweet that Mike (and several others, thank you) sent me. It’s umpire Ted Barrett explaining this very comment to the rule, and literally describing the Heyward play step for step:
— Mike Thompson (@kingofdanger) May 25, 2017
So, by every way of looking at this thing, that was not interference, the call was wrong, and the Cubs got screwed. Thankfully, it didn’t matter in the outcome, but that’s no reason not to call attention to this play to ensure no other umpire gets it this wrong, and to ensure that baserunners know they are allowed to do what Heyward did.