We mentioned in our discusstion of interference that the opposite of interference is Obstruction. That is, while interference penalizes base runners for impeding fielders who are in the act of making a defensive play, obstruction penalizes fielders who impede base runners who are advancing or retreating.
Obstruction is defined by rule in Definitions (obstruction):
Obstruction is the act of a fielder who, while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner.
Note that we've placed emphasis on the words "while not in possession of the ball." This is very important and is something we'll come back to. Another important point is that there does not need to be physical contact for obstruction to occur.
Beyond the rule book definition, Rules 6.01(h)(1) and 6.01(h)(2) extend the definition and clarify the rule.
There are two types of obstruction, commonly known as Type 1 obstruction and Type 2 obstruction (for their treatment in Rules 6.01(h)(1) and 6.01(h)(2), respectively).
Note: The 2015 revision to the Official Baseball Rules, in renumbering the rules, has disposed of the time-honored Type A and Type B obstruction. In the new rule book, these are now Type 1 and Type 2, respectively. I suspect, however, that most of us will continue to use the old terms when discussing them in the parking lot before and after games.
Type 1 Obstruction: Occurs when a play is being made on the obstructed runner, for example, when the catcher blocks the plate without the ball. This is an immediate dead ball and bases are awarded as appropriate.
Type 2 Obstruction: Occurs when a play is not being made on the obstructed runner, for example, when F3 is standing on first base watching a base hit to the gap and the batter-runner collides with him while rounding first. This is a delayed dead ball and the penalty can vary depending on circumstances.
Now let's go deep on both types of obstruction.
Type 1 obstruction
As we've said, Type 1 obstruction occurs when there is a play being made on the runner at the time the obstruction occurs. Call time immediately and award bases. We'll discuss base awards in a moment. Here are a couple of examples of Type 1 obstruction:
Catcher blocks the plate
A base runner has rounded third, heading for home, and the catcher is three feet up the line, blocking the base path, calling for the ball. The ball is in flight but before the catcher receiveds the ball the runner is forced to slow down and deviate from his normal his path to avoid a collision. Just as the runner passes by (or slides by) him, the catcher receives the ball and applies the tag.
Do we have an out? Not on your life. The umpire calls "Time. That's obstruction! You (pointing to the runner), home." The runner is safe and the run scores. (But make sure the runner touches home plate. He can be put out on appeal if he fails to touch home plate.)
This is probably the most common Type 1 obstruction. We're talking about the catcher setting up in a blocking position without possession of the ball. This happens often and with all of the frantic action with a close play at home, umpires can miss it. You must watch the catcher before the play arrives, while the play is still developing. This will prepare you to see and call the obstruction, if it occurs.
Important: One of the most difficult calls you'll ever make is closely related. I'm talking about when the catcher is in a legal position, but, as the runner arrives (at full speed), a bad throw pulls the catcher into the runner's path. Here you have the collision (literally) of two rules - obstruction and interference. The interference rule tells us that a fielder has the right to make a play on the ball, and yet the obstruction rule tells us that the runner has the a right to the base path.
We're in the territory of what's commonly called a "train wreck," and you'll also see this at first base when there is a close play and a bad throw. There is no simple answer on how best to judge this, but the most common umpiring advice supports a no-call, if you judge that both players were acting appropriately. Any action on the part of either player (either the fielder moves unnecessarily to impede the runner, or the runner deviates purposely to disrupt the fielder), and take that as a red flag and a cue to cal either interference or obstruction. But this all happens very fast, so you need to be mentally ready, so again, watch the players while the play is developing.
Fielder blocks the bag
You have a runner on first (R1). It's a close game so the first baseman (F3) is holding the runner on; the pitcher throws over frequently for the pickoff, but R1 gets back each time. Finally, with R1 leading off, F3 cheats up the line a bit. F1 throws the pick-off, R1 dives back but hits F3's foot and is stopped just short of the bag. Tag is applied.
Do we have an out? You guessed it – no way. "Time. That's obstruction! You (pointing to the runner), second base."
Of course, you can change up this scenario in a dozen (at least) different ways, and move it to any base, and you get the same result. The point is, a fielder without possession of the ball cannot deny access to a base to a runner advancing or retreating.
Obstruction in a run-down
A run-down ("pickle") can be tricky because each time the fielders exchange the ball and the runner reverses direction, the runner has created a new basepath. This is relevant because each time this happens, the fielder just threw the ball is likely in the direct line of the runner's reverse of direction and also is no longer in possession of the ball. That fielder, then, is in jeopardy of committing obstruction. You have to watch for this because it's easy to miss in the midst of a helter-skelter pickle, so (again) you have to be mentally prepared and watch the fielders (not just the runner) as the pickle develops.
We have more about this in our article, Basepath & Running Lane.
One wrinkle: "possession" vs. "imminent"
We've emphasized over and over that a critical element of judging Type 1 obstruction is the fielder's having (or not having) possession of the ball. This begs the question, then: precisely what constitutes possession? Is it ball-in-glove? Or is it "imminent"?
While we understand that once a player has possession of the ball, he can place himself between the runner and the base to which the runner is advancing. (In fact, that's what he should do.) But here's the problem: the professional rules (OBR) recognize a defensive player's right to occupy a blocking position when he is in the act of receiving the ball, when possession is "imminent." Many amateur leagues also recognize "imminent possession." Even Little League, until only a few years back (they changed in 2012, if I recall correctly) recognized imminent possesion.
The problem with imminent is that one person's immenent is another person's obstruction. And therein lies a wedge of ambiguity. And the ambiguity creates the potential for violent colisions (and serious injury) as the base runner hurries to beat the throw while the defender takes a wishfully blocking position in hopes of receiving the throw "imminently." Bang!
It's a nearly impossible judgment call and a guaranteed argument (from one manager or the other, depending on how you call it).
As I said, Little League has done away with imminent. So has the high school (NFSH) rule book, which now requires possession, as do a great many other youth programs. If you work leagues where this is not spelled out, then clarify at the plate meeting. For what it's worth, at my plate meetings I always specify that we're playing "possession," then wait to see if anyone disagrees or argues. If not, that's the rule.
And one last quirk
Rule 6.01(a)(10) Comment tells us that on a batted ball to the vicinity of home plate (a bunt, for example, or a dribbler on the first base line) if the the catcher and the batter-runner "have contact," there is normally no violation – no Type 1 obstruction. Of course, if you see either the runner or the fielder initiate an intentional act coincident with the contact, then make the call (interference or obstruction).
Calling and penalizing Type 1 obstruction
Type 1 obstruction is a dead-ball infraction. This means, the moment you see it, call it: "Time! That's obstruction. You ... " and point to the runner and vocalize the base award "... you, second base" "... you, third base" or whatever the award calls for.
The penalty for Type 1 obstruction is awarding the obstructed runner one base beyond the base last legally touched. In the case of runners who are advancing, this means you award the base to which they were advancing. In the case of a runner obstructed while retreating (as in a pick-off attempt), award the runner the base beyond the one they were retreating to (and previously occupied).
Type 2 obstruction
In Type 2 obstruction, a fielder impedes the progress of a runner, but this takes place away from the action and away from the ball. That is, no play is being made on the obstructed runner. Instead, a fielder simply gets in the way of a base runner and causes the runner to fall, slow down, collide, swerve out of the way – anything that impedes the runner's progress in any way.
Here are some examples of Type 2 obstruction. I'm sure you'll recognize most, if not all of these. Bear in mind, however, that this list is not exhaustive.
- Here's the classic (you see this one all the time in youth baseball). Big hit to the outfield through the gap. Batter-runner figures on a double. But the first baseman is standing on the bag (or near it) watching the ball – just standing there gawking, right in the runner's path. The runner either slows down and scoots around the first baseman, or he collides, maybe falling down. In any event, there are one of three outcomes for the runner. He either abandons his attempt to get to second, or he tries for second and makes it safely, or he tries for second and gets thrown out.
That's Type 2 obstruction, however, so you verbalize and signal the obstruction, but wait until action is complete before you call time and enforce the penalty – if at all. We'll go over this in the section on the penalty for Type 2 obstruction.
- Here's one that you saw in game 3 of the the 2013 World Series, where Boston third baseman Will Middlebrooks fell flat on his face and whose raised legs tripped Allen Craig, who was trying to score from third base. Umpire Jom Joyce called obstruction (Type 2) and awarded Craig home. The press made this out to be a controvesial call, but in fact it's an excellent example – textbook obstruction. Here's a video of the play. You can see Joyce (he's U3) signalling the obstruction right away (left arm outstretched with a fist); and then, once Craig scores, the plate umpire is pointing back to the call at third. (The announcer incorrectly calls it interference, a mistake that we hear from the crowd all the time.)
- Here's one that a lot of people don't know about. A fake tag (pretending that you have the ball and are making a play on the runner) – well, that's obstruction. Say you are a fielder and a runner is approaching second but you slap you glove like you've received the ball and so the runner quickly reverses direction to head back to first. That's obstruction. In another scenario, a runner is sliding into a base and the fielder (without the ball) lays down a tag, causing the runner to believe he's been put out. The runner gets up and starts trotting back to the dugout, whereupon the defense tags him out. That's obstruction. Nullify teh out and return the runner to the base he would have achieved.
The penalty for Type 2 obstruction
Applying the penalty for Type 2 obstruction requires umpire judgment. In fact there is no prescribed penalty other than, once action has stopped (remember, this is a delayed dead ball infraction), the umpire shall call "Time" and shall "... impose such penalites, if any, as in his judgment will nullify the act of obstruction."
The emphasis on "if any" is important. It reinforces that in some cases (when, in your judgment, the obstruction is incidental and does not affect the progress of the runner) no penalty is necessary. On the other hand, you can, in your judgment, determine that the base award should be one base, two bases, or (theoretically) three bases. It's hard to imagine circumstances for a three-base award, but ... well, it's entirely in the hands of the umpire.
Mechanic for calling Type 2 obstruction
Unlike Type 1 obstruction, Type 2 obstruction is a delayed dead ball. This is important. When you see Type 2 obstruction, you verbalize it ("That's obstruction") and you point in the direction of the infraction, and as you do this you make a fist on your left hand, holding that arm out straight. But you let play continue.
When action on the play concludes, you act on the obstruction call by doing one of the following:
- If the result of the play is such that, in your judgment, the obstruction caused the runner to be put out or to not reach the base that he would have reached had the obstruction not occurred, then you call "Time" announce the infraction, then place the runner where, in your judgement, he belongs.
- If, on the other hand, the obstruction did not affect the play by causing the runner to be put out or to fail to reach base, then simply ignore the obstruction, say nothing, and move on. Often a base coach or player will have heard you verbalize "that's obstruction" and will ask you, then, why you're not enforcing a penalty. Call "Time" and explain (in three seconds or less) why you're not doing so.
|Type 1 Obstruction||Type 2 Obstruction|
|Occurs when||Play is being made on obstructed runner||Play is not being made on obstructed runner|
|Action||Immediate dead ball||Delayed dead ball|
|Penalty||At least one base beyond the last base touched||Umpire judgment: place runner to nullify effect of the obstruction; this could be no award at all|