Three summers ago, Jim Joyce made the worst call of his life. Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga was one out from a perfect game when Cleveland Indians shortstop Jason Donald hit a weak grounder to first base. Galarraga raced to cover the bag and caught the ball in plenty of time, but Joyce, who’s been umpiring Major League Baseball games since 1987, missed the call.
In retrospect, “missed” isn’t the right word.
“I kicked the s— out of it,” Joyce said later that night. “I had a great angle on it. I had great positioning on it. I just missed the damn call. I missed from here to the wall.”
The Boston Red Sox and their fans might have hoped for a similar explanation early Sunday morning, after Joyce made a call that ended Game 3 of the World Series and handed the Sox a dramatic loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. In the bottom of the ninth inning and in the middle of a wild play, Joyce called obstruction on Red Sox shortstop Will Middlebrooks, who tripped St. Louis’ Allen Craig as Craig attempted to score from third base after a wild throw from Boston catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia skipped past Middlebrooks and into the outfield.
The Red Sox and their fans were incensed, and that’s understandable. It is an odd and terrible way to lose a baseball game, especially one in the World Series. But it doesn’t matter, because Joyce made the call “immediately and instinctually,” and unlike the call that defines his career, he got this one right.
Obstruction is a rare play, so rare that according to Baseball Reference it’s happened only twice in the postseason. But let’s clear up a few of the major complaints I’ve seen from Boston fans. One, it doesn’t matter if Middlebrooks couldn’t have done anything else to get out of the way. Intent doesn’t and shouldn’t matter when it comes to obstruction (think of a fielder inadvertently bumping a runner rounding a base — he didn’t mean to get in the way, but he still did). Two, it doesn’t matter that Craig wasn’t perfectly in the chalk-drawn baseline. Craig’s entitled baseline was the one he established after the collision. He had a clear path to home plate and Middlebrooks blocked it. Pointing out that he wasn’t perfectly between third and home is irrelevant — the actual baseline is nothing more than a distractor in this situation. Three, Middlebrooks is entitled to make a play on the baseball. The problem is that he no longer was in the act of making a play when Craig tripped over him. The rule, in fact, describes almost the exact situation that happened last night:
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.
Rule 2.00 (Obstruction) Comment: If a fielder is about to receive a thrown ball and if the ball is in flight directly toward and near enough to the fielder so he must occupy his position to receive the ball he may be considered in the act of fielding a ball. It is entirely up to the judgment of the umpire as to whether a fielder is in the act of fielding a ball. After a fielder has made an attempt to field a ball and missed, he can no longer be in the act of fielding the ball. For example: If 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.
Joyce, of course, knew all of that. What happened in front of him was literally a “by the book” scenario, and he called it the way the book said he should have.
Umpiring isn’t an easy job, especially on a World Series stage. Baseball fans have spent a lot of time clamoring for instant replay, and plenty of us have decried the fact that the “human element” (read: blown calls) is a charming part of the game. We notice and yell when Dana DeMuth botches an easy call at second base in the World Series, when an infield fly ruling ruins a one-game playoff, when an obvious umpiring screw-up costs a kid a perfect game.
None of that yelling is wrong. Umpires deserve all the scrutiny they get. But if we’re going to hammer them for calls like the one Joyce blew in 2010, we have to give them credit when they get big calls right. And that’s exactly what Jim Joyce, who once made one of the worst calls in baseball history, did last night.