ST. LOUIS — The response to the wild sequence of events that ended Game 3 of the 2013 World Series and gave the Cardinals a 5-4 win wasn’t one of jubilation on the winning side, or really, for the most part, anger on the losing side. It was about interpretation.
Everyone seemed to be reflecting on the fact that they saw something they’d never seen before. It’s a baseball truism, but this time, a World Series game, and perhaps a World Series, turned on the outcome.
I asked John Hirschbeck, veteran of 29 seasons as a major league umpire, Jim Joyce, with 26 seasons of his own and Joe Torre, who signed with the Milwaukee Braves in 1960, if any of them had seen a play like this decide a game.
“Never,” Hirschbeck said.
“Never,” Joyce said.
Torre shook his head.
So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that as I raced from the auxiliary press box to the interview room below the entrance level of Busch Stadium, red-clad fans weren’t high-fiving each other, celebrating the fact that their Cardinals stood just two wins away from another World Series title.
Instead, crowds were massed around every available television, trying to process what had just happened.
Arguments raged about whether Will Middlebrooks tried to trip Allen Craig after the two were tangled — never mind that, as Hirschbeck explained after the game, “Obstruction is the act of a fielder obstructing a runner when not in the act of fielding a ball. It does not have to be intent. There does not have to be intent, OK? Once he has the opportunity to field the ball, he can no longer in any way obstruct the runner. That’s basically the rule.”
But should Craig score automatically, simply because Middlebrooks happened to fall into his path? Should Craig be forced to remain at third base, even though Middlebrooks’s presence clearly altered his way to home plate?
Reasonable people could see the justice in both these outcomes. Yet only one could be chosen.
It was fun, really, to see Joyce, Hirschbeck, Torre and home plate umpire Dana DeMuth go over the letter and the spirit of the law. Torre, wearing his glasses and actually opening and reading from the official MLB Rulebook, looked less like a veteran of 17 major league seasons, and more like a Talmudic scholar.
“And let me read,” Reb Torre intoned from the postgame podium, surrounded by umpires, holding open the rulebook, “it gives the example on Rule 2, ‘An infielder dives at a ground ball and the ball passes him, and he continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner, he very likely has obstructed the runner.’”
Then Torre interpreted, “Intentional or not intentional. He just has to clear the path. I know sometimes it’s unfair because he’s laying on the ground, but that’s the way the rule is.”
And really, this call was like something out of the Talmud: a study of a moral quandary, come incredibly to life. This call simply isn’t made in ways that decide a game, or even typically, lead to a run scoring.
“Normally this play happens at second base on a steal play or something, where the ball goes into center field and the shortstop or second baseman obstructs the runner or stays there too long trying to hold the tag down or making believe he fell down or whatever,” Hirschbeck pointed out. “Not at third base.”
And so it was left for the wise men of the Rulebook to determine who should profit and who should lose from the collision.
“I think the umpires defined it,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said, of course satisfied with the outcome. “It was obviously going to be a conversation, one way or the other. We saw the tangle there, and then it was just a matter of how they interpreted it.”
Or as Red Sox manager John Farrell saw it, “Well, he was awarded home plate after the obstruction call at third base. Tough way to have a game end, particularly this significance, when Will’s trying to dive inside to stop the throw. I don’t know how he gets out of the way when he’s lying on the ground. And when Craig trips over him, I guess by the letter of the rule, you could say it’s obstruction, but, like you said, that’s a tough pill to swallow.”
When it was over, the Cardinals had won, Craig had to be helped off the field, and you got the feeling that the reverberations from this play would be felt for the remainder of this already fascinating World Series.
But the play itself, that will be talked about and debated for generations to come, just like any good Talmudic event.
“Baseball’s a crazy game,” Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal said. “Anything can happen. Right there, I don’t know. It’s hard to say.”