The concept of obstruction in baseball has been part of the game since near its inception. For umpires to truly understand obstruction, we need to first define it and then look at how obstruction has been viewed over the history of the game of baseball. Remember that there is more than one rule source we need to look at - high school, college and professional. They all have a little different take on what obstruction is and how to enforce the rule.
As early as 1857, the Knickerbocker Rules recognized and penalized the act of obstruction. Rule 23 stated, "If the player is prevented from making a base by intentional obstruction of an adversary, he shall be entitled to that base and not be put out." This rule was adopted for the 1st Official Rules of 1876. No significant change in wording occurred until 1897 when "obstruction" was clarified by explaining that if the fielder had the ball in his hand ready to meet the base runner, no obstruction should be called. That criterion for defining obstruction is also part of the definition found in today's rules.
Through the first half of the 20th century, these original guidelines prevailed. The runner had the right of way unless the fielder was in the act of fielding the ball or had possession of the ball and was ready to touch the base runner. In 1950, a new obstruction rule was written and established two types of obstruction: (1) The batter becomes a runner and is impeded as he advances around the base; and (2) A runner who is caught in a rundown is impeded as he attempts to reach a base.
In the first type of obstruction, the ball remained live and the umpire awarded bases as he saw fit after all play had stopped. In the rundown situation, the umpire stopped play and awarded the runner the base he was attempting to reach. If the base he was attempting to reach was occupied by a succeeding runner, that runner was permitted to return to the base he last legally held.
The obstruction rule was completely revamped in 1962. This revision produced the exact wording of today's professional baseball rule. That same year, the Casebook Note was added which established that the catcher had no right to block the pathway of the runner attempting to score unless he had the ball in his possession or was in the act of fielding it. Clarification Notes were added in 1976 and helped explain three situations: (1) the proper procedure for calling obstruction when a play is being made on the obstructed runner; (2) the proper enforcement and award when the ball is thrown into dead territory; and (3) the liability an obstructed runner assumes as he advances around the bases after the obstruction. These notes were incorporated in 1978 and remain to this day.
In high school (National Federation of High School or NFHS) rules, obstruction is defined as any act, physical or verbal (8-3-2) that hinders a runner (2-22-1; 2.22.1c).
In college (NCAA) rules, obstruction is defined as the act of any fielder who, clearly without possession of the ball, blocks the base (plate) or baseline and impedes the progress of any runner (2 - Obstruction AR; 8-7b).
In professional baseball (Official Baseball Rules or OBR), obstruction is the act of any fielder who, not in possession of the ball nor in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner.
Let's look at the following play to determine how to rule on obstruction in all three of the above definitions and rule codes.
With a runner on second base and a single to right field, the runner tries to score. The catcher sets up in the base path a full step toward third from home, readying himself for the throw. The runner (not maliciously) slides into the catcher and is tagged out. At the time of the contact, the throw from the outfield has reached the cutout in front of the plate.
Ruling: In high school and college play, since the catcher was not in possession of the ball, the ruling is obstruction. In professional baseball, there is no obstruction and the runner is out because the catcher was in the process of fielding the ball.
How do you umpire this play?
In high school, you would put out the left arm to the left side of your body with a closed fist (delayed-dead ball signal) and announce, "That's obstruction!" and let the action come to a close. Then call "Time!" and award the runner home and allow the batter-runner to keep what he has earned. He could have been thrown out trying to advance to second or trying to get back to first base. All of what happens after the obstruction would be allowed to take place. You would point at the runner and say, "You, home!"
In college, you would point at the play with your right hand and say, "That's obstruction!" and let all action come to a close and then call "Time!" and award the runner home and allow the batter-runner to do as above.
In pro ball, you would call the runner out if the catcher made the tag properly and again allow all play to come to a halt. There would be no need to call time because there was no obstruction.
In summary, the obstruction rule is not a difficult concept to understand but is not an easy task as an umpire to manage because there are a number of facets to keep in mind. You must recognize obstruction when you see it. There doesn't always have to be physical contact - obstruction can occur when a player forces a runner to go around them (don't forget that a runner can be called out for going too far out of the way when a fielder is attempting to tag him with the ball). In NFHS rules there is malicious contact to consider while in the NCAA there is flagrant contact to consider. In professional baseball there are no worries about malicious or flagrant contact, but most amateur umpires must deal with both.
This is just a beginning look at obstruction. There are more differences than highlighted in the simple play above and understanding them is key to learning the more complex nature of this rule.
Today, we will cover obstruction and interference and the difference between them. Let me start with some very basic definitions to avoid confusion as you read the rest of the article: interference usually refers to an act by the offensive team that impacts the defense making a play. Obstruction refers to a fielder who hinders a runner. In the simplest of terms, interference is a ‘penalty’ against the offense, and obstruction is a penalty against the defense. If you don’t learn anything else from this article, please remember this. A lot of times I hear coaches of the batting team yelling “Hey – that’s interference!” when there’s a play involving a runner and a fielder, and the last thing they want is for me to call interference, or one of their runners is going to be out! What they should be saying is “Hey – that’s obstruction!”
Let’s start by covering the obstruction rules. There are 2 types of obstruction: type “A” is when a play is being made on a runner, and type “B” is when no play is being made on the impeded runner. (See rules 7.06(a) and 7.06(b) below).
With type “A”, the play is dead and the umpire will award the bases that he thinks the runner would have reached without obstruction. It is always at least 1 base past the last base that he acquired. For example, in a rundown between 2nd and 3rd base, if the runner collides with a fielder in the base path without the ball as he is heading back to 2nd base, obstruction is called, and the runner will be awarded 3rd base (even though without the obstruction, at best he would have made it safely back to 2nd). If he is obstructed on the way to 3rd base, he will typically be awarded 3rd base (but may be given home depending on the situation).
With type “B”, the play continues, and at the end of the play, the umpire will award any bases that he thinks the runner would have safely reached without the obstruction. The big thing to note, is that an out made on a runner may still stand even though he was obstructed. The obstruction only protects the runner for the amount of time/distance that he is deemed to have lost due to the obstruction.
For example: If a runner makes slight contact with the 2nd baseman as he’s going from 1st to 3rd, and is thrown out on a bang-bang play at 3rd base, the umpire may award him 3rd base safely, deeming that he would have made it safely without the obstruction. But if in a similar example, the left fielder throws the ball to the shortstop, just as the runner gets to 3rd base, and the runner decides to try and score and gets thrown out by 30 feet, the out will stand.
Key learning points:
- Continue to run full speed, and don’t take anything for granted (unless the umpire has clearly called “Time!” indicating this is a Type (A) call). With obstruction, you can STILL be called out. Do not try to take an extra base if you don’t think you can make it. Also, if you feel you have been obstructed, don’t stop between the bases and yell at the umpire. Even if he saw/calls obstruction, you can be called out if you’re standing off a base.
- Continue the play and try to get an out. If you get a runner thrown out, the ump may award the runner the base anyways, but the more you get him out by, the more likely the umpire will deem that the out would have occurred even without the obstruction and let it stand.
For more examples and coaching tips to give players on handling obstruction, check out the obstruction page on the Rulebook Edge website: https://sites.google.com/site/rulebookedge/get-the-edge/obstruction
There are many different types of interference, including umpire, spectator, catcher’s and offensive. I’m not going to cover umpire and spectator interference here, and catcher’s interference (which is really a misnamed form of obstruction) is covered fully here http://sites.google.com/site/rulebookedge/get-the-edge/ci—option-play. I want to talk specifically about offensive interference.
The most common is when a runner interferes with a fielder attempting to field a batted ball. This usually occurs when a runner is running with his head down (maybe on a hit and run) and bumps an infielder as he is in position to field a ground ball. This is interference on the runner even if he is running on the baseline (see rule 7.08 (b) below). The onus is on the runner to run around the fielder so as not to interfere with him. If a runner and infielder collide, while the infielder is attempting to make a play on a batted ball, the runner is out. The difference between this and obstruction, is that the fielder is making a play. If a ball is hit towards 1st base and the runner at 2nd base runs into the shortstop, that is obstruction. But it that ball was hit towards the shortstop, it is now interference. The baserunner not only is allowed to run outside the baseline to avoid the fielder, he MUST run outside the baseline to do so if the fielder is on it. Another type of runner interference is when a runner is hit with a batted ball (rule 7.08 (f)). To be deemed to be interference, the ball must hit the runner before the ball has been touched by or passed an infielder. In both cases the runner’s intention is irrelevant, and the penalty is that the runner is out, the batter is awarded first base, and runners cannot advance other than if forced. (e.g., with bases loaded, if the runner on 2nd base is guilty of interference, the runner on 1st will be forced to 2nd to make room for the batter, but the runner on 3rd will stay put).
Interference can also be called when a batter is running outside the 3 foot line on the 2nd half of the way to 1st base, (rule 6.05 (k)) and is judged to interfere with the fielder taking the throw at first base. This typically happens on a bunt or dropped third strike when the throw is coming from the vicinity of home plate.
The other type of interference that is sometimes called is when a runner deliberately interferes either with the ball or a fielder to break up a double play. (rules 7.09 (f), (g)). If done by the batter, both he and the runner closes to home plate are called out. If done by a baserunner, both he and the batter are called out.
Key learning points:
- Remember that you have to let the fielder field the ball. If you make contact with him (or even if you run in front of him and ‘screen’ him from making the play), you can be called out for interference.
- If you see a ground ball in front of you that is going to be an easy double play ball, don’t try to be smart and kick it, thinking that you’ll be giving yourself up but protecting the batter, as you will both be called out. Your best bet is don’t interfere, and hope the defense boots the play.
- Try to avoid being hit by a batted ball. This one sounds obvious, but there are a couple of things you can do to prevent this: When leading off on 3rd base, always lead off on the foul side of the baseline. If a batted ball hits you, it will then just be a foul ball. Also, when stealing bases, glance towards the batter to see where the ball is going if it’s hit.
- If you are trying to field a ball and a runner is barreling towards you, only worry about making the play. If you move up to avoid the runner, you may boot the play, and if you hold your ground and the runner interferes with you, he is out.
- When fielding a ball near home plate, if you can’t make a clean throw to 1st base because the runner is in the way, and not inside the running lane, go ahead and throw the ball towards 1st anyways. If the first baseman doesn’t cleanly catch the ball, interference may be called on the batter-runner.
OBR rulebook references:
7.06 When obstruction occurs, the umpire shall call or signal “Obstruction.”
(a) If a play is being made on the obstructed runner, or if the batter-runner is obstructed before he touches first base, the ball is dead and all runners shall advance, without liability to be put out, to the bases they would have reached, in the umpire’s judgment, if there had been no obstruction. The obstructed runner shall be awarded at least one base beyond the base he had last legally touched before the obstruction. Any preceding runners, forced to advance by the award of bases as the penalty for obstruction, shall advance without liability to be put out.
Rule 7.06(a) Comment: When a play is being made on an obstructed runner, the umpire shall signal obstruction in the same manner that he calls “Time,” with both hands overhead. The ball is immediately dead when this signal is given; however, should a thrown ball be in flight before the obstruction is called by the umpire, the runners are to be awarded such bases on wild throws as they would have been awarded had not obstruction occurred. On a play where a runner was trapped between second and third and obstructed by the third baseman going into third base while the throw is in flight from the shortstop, if such throw goes into the dugout the obstructed runner is to be awarded home base. Any other runners on base in this situation would also be awarded two bases from the base they last legally touched before obstruction was called.
(b) If no play is being made on the obstructed runner, the play shall proceed until no further action is possible. The umpire shall then call “Time” and impose such penalties, if any, as in his judgment will nullify the act of obstruction.
Rule 7.06(b) Comment: Under 7.06(b) when the ball is not dead on obstruction and an obstructed runner advances beyond the base which, in the umpire’s judgment, he would have been awarded because of being obstructed, he does so at his own peril and may be tagged out. This is a judgment call.
7.08 Any runner is out when—
b) He intentionally interferes with a thrown ball; or hinders a fielder attempting to make a play on a batted ball;
Rule 7.08(b) Comment: A runner who is adjudged to have hindered a fielder who is attempting to make a play on a batted ball is out whether it was intentional or not. If, however, the runner has contact with a legally occupied base when he hinders the fielder, he shall not be called out unless, in the umpire’s judgment, such hindrance, whether it occurs on fair or foul territory, is intentional. If the umpire declares the hindrance intentional, the following penalty shall apply: With less than two out, the umpire shall declare both the runner and batter out. With two out, the umpire shall declare the batter out. If, in a run-down between third base and home plate, the succeeding runner has advanced and is standing on third base when the runner in a run-down is called out for offensive interference, the umpire shall send the runner standing on third base back to second base. This same principle applies if there is a run-down between second and third base and succeeding runner has reached second (the reasoning is that no runner shall advance on an interference play and a runner is considered to occupy a base until he legally has reached the next succeeding base).
(f) He is touched by a fair ball in fair territory before the ball has touched or passed an infielder. The ball is dead and no runner may score, nor runners advance, except runners forced to advance. EXCEPTION: If a runner is touching his base when touched by an Infield Fly, he is not out, although the batter is out;
Rule 7.08(f) Comment: If two runners are touched by the same fair ball, only the first one is out because the ball is instantly dead.
If runner is touched by an Infield Fly when he is not touching his base, both runner and batter are out.
6.05 A batter is out when—
(k) In running the last half of the distance from home base to first base, while the ball is being fielded to first base, he runs outside (to the right of) the three-foot line, or inside (to the left of) the foul line, and in the umpire’s judgment in so doing interferes with the fielder taking the throw at first base, in which case the ball is dead; except that he may run outside (to the right of) the three-foot line or inside (to the left of) the foul line to avoid a fielder attempting to field a batted ball;
Rule 6.05(k) Comment: The lines marking the three-foot lane are a part of that lane and a batter-runner is required to have both feet within the three-foot lane or on the lines marking the lane. The batter-runner is permitted to exit the three-foot lane by means of a step, stride, reach or slide in the immediate vicinity of first base for the sole purpose of touching first base.
7.09 It is interference by a batter or a runner when—
(f) If, in the judgment of the umpire, a base runner willfully and deliberately interferes with a batted ball or a fielder in the act of fielding a batted ball with the obvious intent to break up a double play, the ball is dead. The umpire shall call the runner out for interference and also call out the batter-runner because of the action of his teammate. In no event may bases be run or runs scored because of such action by a runner.
(g) If, in the judgment of the umpire, a batter-runner willfully and deliberately interferes with a batted ball or a fielder in the act of fielding a batted ball, with the obvious intent to break up a double play, the ball is dead; the umpire shall call the batter-runner out for interference and shall also call out the runner who had advanced closest to the home plate regardless where the double play might have been possible. In no event shall bases be run because of such interference.
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