The Tigers' five-run outburst in the second inning of Game 4 of the ALCS on Wednesday night might have gone on even longer if not for the application of the so-called "neighborhood play." Second base umpire Dan Iassogna was particularly generous in calling Austin Jackson out at second on a forecout when Boston shortstop Stephen Drew did not actually have possession of the ball until long after he stepped on the bag and moved out of the way. All of which raises a very big question: When expanded instant replay goes into effect in 2014, how will such a play be handled in the case of a challenge?
To review, the situation under discussion came with the bases loaded and one out. The Tigers' Jose Iglesias hit a grounder to normally sure-handed Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who flubbed the pick-up long enough that the Sox weren't able to turn an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play, which would have held the score at 1-0. Pedroia did manage to throw to second ahead of Jackson's arrival, but by the time Drew touched down and made the pivot, the shortstop was several feet away from the base. Iassonga ruled Jackson out, even though this appeared to be a far more liberal application of the neighborhood "rule" than is usually seen. Via SB Nation, here's a GIF of the play (the full video is here):
It was the second time this week that the play has caused controversy. In NLCS Game 3, the Cardinals lost a baserunner at second when umpire Ted Barrett ruled Yadier Molina out even though Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez was off the bag when he caught the throw from first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. In both that case and the one from last night, neither manager of the disadvantaged club -- St. Louis' Mike Matheny and Detroit's Jim Leyland -- came out to argue, likely because the call wouldn't have been changed anyway.
However, if the instant replay rules that go into effect next year were already on the books — thereby allowing virtually all calls outside of balls and strikes to be reviewed — and either Matheny or Leyland had issued a challenge by throwing his flag (or whatever), it would have made for an interesting debate: Would the letter of the law (the official rules) have been enforced, or would the spirit of protecting players from bodily harm have prevailed? Those in charge of the new replay system have yet to clarify, but they will need to before it's rolled out.
The problem is that the neighborhood play isn't actually in the rulebook. While Rule 7.08(e) states that a runner is out when "he or the next base is tagged before he touches the next base, after he has been forced to advance by reason of the batter becoming a runner," the examples detailed thereafter make no mention of the fielder being allowed to tag the base before receiving the ball so as to prevent a collision. When a controversy arose about the practice during the 2009 ALCS, Rich Garcia, who spent 25 years as a major league umpire and at that point had served seven more years as a supervisor, said, "There is no such thing as the neighborhood play… You either touch the base or you don’t."
Despite Garcia's denial, the play -- also known as the "phantom tag" -- has persisted as an unwritten rule for decades. In his 2009 book The Unwritten Rules of Baseball, Paul Dickson quoted a 1992 article on the subject:
During an attempted double play, the umpire will call a base runner out if the man covering second or third has his foot near the base, rather than on it, to avoid the incoming slide… The umpire only rules an out when the toss is on target, the ball is caught cleanly, and the fielder's foot is in the vicinity of the bag. This is not what the rulebook says… and the play is never formally acknowledged by the higher-ups in baseball. There is a reason for this unwritten rule that is intensely practical. "Historians say the rough-and-tumble play of the 1930s led to the 'phantom tag call. Following the letter of the law resulted in too many collision, fights and injuries," wrote Kirk Arnoot in an article on the neighborhood play in the Columbus Dispatch…"
As veteran umpire Tom Hallion explained the play to Bruce Weber while the latter researched his book on the craft, As They See ’Em, the neighborhood play is called when "everything stays in an ordinary progression of what's supposed to happen, what should happen, what normally happens... even if he's not right on the bag... if I call the guy safe, here's what they say: "Do you want this guy f------ killed?"
In the eyes of Hallion and other umps, the onset of technology via high-definition television, slow-motion replay, more camera angles and internal video reviews of umpire performance have already curbed the application of the play at least somewhat. From supervisor and former umpire Randy Marsh in 2010:
"It's technology… Years ago there were what, three or four cameras at a game? There are so many more now. These guys are under incredible scrutiny and they do a great job. There's a camera looking over their shoulder on every call. They know it."
As Wednesday night showed, even if it's not as prevalent as in the past, the play still stands despite its lack of codification. It's well intentioned in its desire to protect infielders from hard contact and potential mayhem — broken bones, torn ACLs, spike wounds — by baserunners whose slides often wind up nowhere near second base in an effort to break up the double play. Many of those slides could be called interference via Rule 7.08(b), when a runner "hinders a fielder attempting to make a play on a batted bal." Once upon a time, takeouts like this cross-body block from the 1977 ALCS by the Royals' Hal McRae on the Yankees' Willie Randoph were the norm:
Generally, the neighborhood play amounts to no more than a split-second difference between a fielder grazing the bag with his foot and then removing it as he receives the ball and then unloads it. Via another SB Nation GIF, here's Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria on a routine Marco Scutaro grounder from earlier this year:
That play didn't raise an eyebrow, but the one by Drew did, both because it came on a run-scoring play in the postseason and because he appeared to be outside the Detroit city limits when he made it.
It's possible that under the forthcoming challenge rules, some managers might be loathe to press the issue via replay but others would be aggressive at doing so. Some might keep the possibility of a challenge in their back pocket, waiting for the ideal moment to pounce, as Billy Martin did when it came to the amount of pine tar on George Brett's bat after he homered against the Yankees back in 1983.
The replay rollout would seem like a good opportunity to codify the practice formally, or to banish it. Personally, I'd rather see the step taken in favor of protecting players. From here, it seems reasonable to proscribe a maximum distance from the bag that a player may be if he touches it just prior to receiving the ball in order to avoid the runner. It also seems reasonable to enforce interference rules more closely so as to cut down the potential danger of takeout slides whose target quite obviously isn't the base.
Such a reform could come as part of a larger effort to avoid collisions on the basepaths, as the Rules Committee could address the accepted practice of blocking home plate without receiving the ball, which can lead to some gruesome and dangerous collisions with concussions, broken bones and millions of dollars in player salaries lost to the disabled list. Catchers-turned-managers Bruce Bochy and Mike Matheny are among those on board with such potential changes; the former saw the toll taken when Buster Posey suffered a broken leg in a 2011 collision, while the latter was forced into retirement by repeated concussions. Except when bat meets ball or when the tag is applied with the glove, baseball isn't intended to be a contact sport. It has evolved into one to at least some extent, but with a major change on the horizon, the powers that be have a choice as to how they want to address that. Even if they don't take steps to reduce the number of collisions, they can't avoid addressing whether to clean up the the neighborhood play or allow it to persist.