A confusing situation produces a moment of clarity for Jim Joyce

Sunday October 27th, 2013

ST. LOUIS -- Will Middlebrooks was wrong. Middlebrooks, the Red Sox third baseman, said repeatedly that he was "five feet inside the baseline" when he was called for obstructing the Cardinals' Allen Craig in the ninth inning Saturday night. The play decided Game 4 of the World Series. Craig was out on Daniel Nava's throw home, but umps ruled obstruction on Middlebrooks and awarded Craig the base.

"I'm not in the baseline," Middlebrooks said. "I'm five feet inside of it, maybe more."

Middebrooks was not five feet inside the line. His foot was almost touching the line. Middlebrooks was classy and patient after the game, even as reporters asked the same questions over and over. But he exaggerated his own innocence. He obstructed Craig. He may not have intended to do it -- that's hard to know -- but he did it.

Jake Peavy was wrong. "I just cannot believe that you make that call from home plate," the Red Sox pitcher said, but he didn't realize the call was not made from home plate. It was made by third-base umpire Jim Joyce.

Allen Craig was wrong. Yeah, sure: He scored the winning run, he is the hero, etc. He was still wrong. Once he got tripped up, he was highly unlikely to beat Nava's throw home. He should have gone back to third base. You can't assume you will get an obstruction call there. He was lucky because ...

Jim Joyce was right.

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There is really not much doubt about that. The question is: Did you want him to be right? Is an umpire's job to be right, or to stay out of the way?

There has never been a moment quite like this in the World Series. A game ending on an obstruction call at third base? Seriously?

How did it happen? Well, you can trace a straight line from Joyce, standing at third base in St. Louis, all the way back to June 2, 2010, when Joyce was standing at first base in Detroit.

You may remember, but in case you don't: Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga should have thrown a perfect game, but on the 27th and final out, Joyce ruled that the Cleveland Indians' Jason Donald was safe. In the umpires' room afterward, a devastated Joyce admitted: "I kicked the (expletive) out of it." He was disgusted with himself.

Joyce had blown calls before, of course -- every ump has. But this was different.

As he said that night: "I took a perfect game away from that kid over there." The next day, when Galarraga brought out the Tigers' lineup card, signaling forgiveness, Joyce was in tears.

The thing about that Donald play was that it was an easy call. And it seemed pretty clear that Joyce had not just blown a perfect game, but he blew the call because it was a perfect game.

The moment got to him. He panicked. And you can be damn sure that Joyce, one of the best umpires in the game, promised himself he would never let the stakes affect his judgment again.

And this brings us to Saturday night, World Series Game 3, ninth inning, Craig trying to score the winning run. Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia caught a Dustin Pedroia throw at home plate and tagged Yadier Molina out. Then Saltalamacchia tried to nail Craig at third base, but his throw was off. Middlebrooks still could have caught it, but it would have been a great catch, and it got past him.

Craig turned, saw the ball in left field and broke for home. Middlebrooks clearly moved, impeding Craig's progress. Joyce made the call.

CORCORAN: Explaining the rule that ended Game 3

The Red Sox were furious, which is understandable -- they are not supposed to be unbiased observers here. But this was telling: Their big complaint was not that the call was wrong (though they may have felt that way), but that it was wrong in this situation. Listen:

Middlebrooks: "It blows your mind to lose a game like that."

Manager John Farrell: "Tough way to have a game end, particularly of this significance ... I guess by the letter of the rule, you can say it's obstruction. That's a tough pill to swallow."

Peavy: "It really should not end like that. It's absolutely awful. I don't know how (the umpire) is going to sleep tonight."

You see this argument a lot in sports: Umpires and referees should not decide a game. Tie basketball game, clock winding down, nobody wants to see a charge. You can't call that! In overtime of NHL playoff games, refs "swallow their whistles" rather than send somebody to the penalty box.

If that's how you feel, then Jim Joyce was wrong. But his job is to enforce the rulebook, not to "let players decide games". Peavy said, "I don't know the rulebook, I don't know what it says exactly about interfering," then proceeded to say how terrible the call was, as though the rulebook did not matter.

Middlebrooks said he thought to call that, the obstruction had to be intentional. But as crew chief John Hirschbeck said: "There does not have to be intent, OK?" He knows the rules.

This has been an amazing World Series, filled with great players and great plays. But in so many ways, baseball is a game of failure. You throw the wrong pitch in the wrong place, swing at ball four, miss the cutoff man, misjudge a popup ... failure defines the game.

The Red Sox failed plenty in Game 4. Peavy was shaky -- he put seven men on base in four innings, and started so slowly that it seemed like Boston relievers warmed up as soon as he did. Farrell inexplicably had his pitcher bat in the ninth inning of a tie game, barely used his closer Koji Uehara, and never used his best bat off the bench, Mike Napoli.

Even on that last play, which started with an amazing play by Pedroia, there was failure: Saltalamacchia made a wild throw and Middlebrooks failed to reach it. It was understandable. It was baseball. The best players in the world will fail, but they also make amazing plays. Umpires do not have to make amazing plays. They just have to get the calls right. Three years after the low point of his professional life, Jim Joyce showed he has learned. This time, he was right.

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