Now that the 2013 World Series has ended, with all its twists and turns, who can forget Game 3’s dramatic conclusion as the St. Louis Cardinals won on that infamous “obstruction call.” Nobody was satisfied that the game should be decided by a runner obviously tagged out at home plate being awarded the winning run because he got tangled up in the third-baseman’s legs, while trying to break for home, when the catcher’s errant throw to third whizzed by the helpless fielder.
Nobody was satisfied with the way it ended, and yet after reviewing the call, nearly everybody — including the losing manager of the Sox — conceded that the umpire had “gotten it right”: The fielder, whether intentionally or not, had obstructed the runner’s attempt to run the bases. Whether his obstruction was accidental or intentional, under the rule, it made no difference.
But should it?
Commentators suggested that the rule itself was at fault. The “obstructing” fielder’s intent should make all the difference. If it was an accident, then no team should be punished by the loss of a game, much less a World Series game. On the other hand if the obstruction was intentional, the Sox got what they deserved.
Major league baseball itself announced it will revisit the rule in the off season.
Should the result of obstruction hang on the obstructing player’s intent? Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once famously observed that “even a dog knows the difference between being kicked and stumbled over.” Perhaps in the clear case. And to this old dog, the third baseman, twice raising his legs, did intentionally impede the runner from dashing home with the winning run. And therefore the Sox, for whom I’m rooting, got what they deserved by losing the game.
But thinking like this, I would argue, obscures the true nature of the rule and the rightful consequence of enforcing it.
Awarding the obstructed runner the base and therefore the team the game was not a punishment to the losing team. It was a penalty – imposed to compensate the injured party. There’s a world of difference between punishments and penalties, although the same Justice Holmes, a pragmatist, would deny it. He counseled that if you want to know what the law is, and nothing else, look at it from the perspective of a “bad man.” A bad man selfishly wants to know one thing only: What’s going to happen to me? Thus for Holmes and other pragmatists, the law becomes nothing more than “a prediction of what the courts – (umpires) – will do.” To these “realists” – some of us would call them cynics – there’s no difference between a tax or a fine. It’s all a cost of doing business. The cost of obstructing the base runner, whether intentional or not, is to award him the base he would have reached.
Instinctively, however, most of us base punishment largely on the culpable mental state of the actor. Two children die in a fire. If they intentionally set the fire they’ve committed murder. If they accidentally knocked a candle off a table and didn’t even realize it, it’s a tragedy, but not murder. Same harm, very different reaction.
So the point is, if we see the winning run as a punishment inflicted on the Sox, then the fielder’s intent should matter. If however, as the rule reads, we hold the obstructing team strictly liable for the results of the obstruction – not as a punishment but as a penalty to keep the game on its correct course – then the rule as it stands was correct.
As everybody involved in criminal law and everyday life learns, we can only infer culpable mental states from surrounding circumstances. Not always an easy matter. I happen to think this particular obstruction was intentional – at least it sure appeared that way on replay. But whether or not it was intentional, justice was done under the rules.
And when the Committee does revisit the rule – to assess the justice of the rule itself as opposed to the correct call made under it, I hope they keep the rule as is. Penalties are not punishments. Sometimes it’s important to remember the difference.