The obstruction play provides a glimpse of the essence of baseball


Some people — maybe most people — look at last night’s game-ending obstruction play and feel some level of dissatisfaction. Even if they admit it was correct on the merits, there is some sense that it was wonky and weird.  I totally get that. But for me, the obstruction play and all of its weird wonkiness provided a glimpse at the essence of baseball.

I don’t mean “essence” in terms of drama, dynamics and aesthetics, of course. In those terms nothing beats a walkoff home run, the 27th out of a perfect game, a laser throw to the plate, a runner going first to third at top speed or a 99 m.p.h. fastball that leaves a slugger flummoxed and humbled. I wouldn’t dare suggest that an odd play that ends with Joe Torre waving a rule book during a hastily-assembled press conference is better in any sense of the word than an actually dramatic and exciting baseball play in which one player’s athletic prowess trumps that of another. I simply mean that the obstruction play helped distill what baseball is, by its very naturewhen it comes right down to it.

And what is baseball? A decidedly 19th century construct shaped by all manner of rules and conventions. A construct In which, unlike its 19th century contemporaries such as boxing, weightlifting or horse racing, physical prowess is nowhere as nearly close to everything. Rather, it’s about physical prowess being channeled alongside a set of ground rules and formalities that require the mind and discipline to work hand-in-hand with the body and its fast-twitch muscles. It’s a pursuit in which force being applied via instinct rather than calculation is almost always punished rather than rewarded.

In its effort to reign in nature’s impulses via these formalities, it reflects the time of its creation. A time in which man believed nature could be and should be tamed if only enough work was put into it. Often times — maybe most times — 19th century man totally bollocksed up that impulse. He decided that a raging river can be channeled in thus-and-such a fashion and be used to serve his will. That an impenetrable forest can be tamed and utilized for thus-and-such an industry. It was hubris that the world is still paying for.

But in baseball — at least in my mind — man got the balance right. He found a way to impose his will over something naturally occurring that resulted in an actual improvement: the athletic impulse reigned-in and set against challenges, but not defeated. The perfect blending of man’s primal and enlightened selves. Of might and mind working in tandem to accomplish something that is useful. Enjoyable. At its best uplifting. It’s as close as we get to a distillation of the Renaissance or Enlightenment mind in a sporting context.

The sports which came later all have a heavy dose of this as well. Football, basketball and hockey all have scads of rules, conventions and settings where the impulse to simply flatten the opposition via brute strength is channeled through formality.  Ask Ryan Leaf what a cannon arm does for you if you don’t have a brain and a plan. Ask any opponent of Michael Jordan how his mental game did just as much to defeat them as did his leaping ability. Ask anyone in the NHL why the biggest goons and the fastest skaters all get schooled by those who apply mind and body in equal measure. All modern sports, to some extent, owe their existence and greatness to that 19th century impulse.

source: Getty ImagesBut the other sports also have instances — often critical instances — in which it is agreed, tacitly or otherwise, that the rules should be dispensed with or relaxed and that the raw physicality should take precedence. Where the rules against, say, pass interference or hacking should be relaxed because it’s late in the game and some physical, emotional and dramatic climax should be allowed to the come to the fore. Whistles are swallowed. The call is made to “simply let them play.” In those cases it is understood and expected that the balance should swing back to the primal when the clock’s seconds wane.

Not in baseball. At least not when baseball is administered properly. In baseball the rules are the rules from start to finish and are not dispensed with simply because time is running out. Oh, wait, in baseball time never runs out. As Earl Weaver reminded us, there is no clock in baseball. There is no moment that is truly more critical and thus more demanding that formalities be dispensed with due to an incessant tick-tick-tick. “You’ve got to throw the ball over the damn plate and give the other man his chance,” Weaver said. “That’s why baseball is the greatest game of them all.”

So many people with Boston IP addresses are telling me this morning that, though the call on the Middlebrooks/Craig obstruction play was technically correct, it perhaps should not have been made. The play — with its collision and tripping and stumbling and dashing home — should have been “allowed to proceed” rather than having a rarely-thought-of rule invoked to determine the outcome. It was the ninth inning of a close World Series game, they’re basically arguing. It was too important to allow the imposition of a rule trump the running and throwing of men.

Baloney. That call went to the heart of what baseball truly is. A sport in which there is or at least should be no relaxation of the rules due to the exigency of a critical moment. Baseball does not and should not allow for times in which aesthetics or raw physicality excuse the relaxation of the rules. It’s, by design, a sport in which the beauty and glory of the entire pursuit is a product of the mixing of the two things. Dana DeMuth, whether he realized he was doing it at the time last night, was ensuring that this anachronistic yet eminently satisfying balance was maintained.

Refrain from calling obstruction on that play? To do so would be a betrayal of baseball’s very essence.

Astros exemplify the player-unfriendly bent of analytics

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Even as recently as a decade ago, Sabermetrics was a niche interest among baseball fans. As various concepts began to gain acceptance in the mainstream, players slowly began to accept them as well. Players like Brian Bannister and Zack Greinke were hailed as examples of a new breed of player — one who marries his athleticism with the utilization of analytics. This year, much was made of certain players’ data-driven adjustments, including Daniel Murphy and J.D. Martinez. Both had great seasons as a result of focusing more on hitting more fly balls instead of ground balls and line drives.

Statistics can clearly benefit players. They can also be used against them, and not just by opposing players. The Astros, who are in the World Series for the first time since 2005, are a great example of this. The Astros spent a few years rebuilding after a complete overhaul of the front office, which included bringing in analytically-fluent Jeff Luhnow as GM after the 2011 season. That overhaul instilled so much confidence that, in 2014, Sports Illustrated writer Ben Reiter predicted that the Astros would win the 2017 World Series. He’s only four Astros wins away from being proven correct.

The Astros’ front office, though, took advantage of its players at various times throughout the process. Their success is owed, in part, to exploiting its players. On Twitter, user @chicken__puppet chained a few tweets together exemplifying this:

At its core, analytics is about optimization: getting the most bang for your buck. If you read Moneyball, you know this. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) quickly became synonymous with the field and $/WAR was a natural next step. Sabermetrics defaulted to ownership’s perspective, so highly-paid players who performed poorly were scorned. Cheap players who performed well were lauded.

It is no mere coincidence that once most front offices installed analytics departments, teams stopped handing out so many outrageous contracts to free agent first baseman/DH types. Instead, teams focused on signing their young players to long-term contract extensions to buy out their arbitration years ahead of time, ostensibly saving ownership and the team boatloads of money. Teams began to pay close attention to service time as well. Service time determines when a player becomes eligible for arbitration and free agency, so teams that are able to finagle their players’ service time can potentially delay that player’s free agency by a year. The Cubs tried to do this with third baseman Kris Bryant in 2015, as Craig wrote about.

There is a very real ethical component to covering and being a fan of Major League Baseball, despite the common plea to separate sports from politics. The Astros and Cubs aren’t the only ones exploiting their players; the Angels, for example, made some odd personnel choices earlier this season that happened to allow them to avoid paying some players incentive bonuses. Every front office, in one way or another, games the system because the system is set up to benefit ownership first and players second. And if the likes of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa can be taken advantage of so freely and openly, what hope does anyone else have?

Fans have been conditioned to group players and owners together as one group of rich people. In reality, the player earning $30 million has more in common with the office worker making $35,000 a year than with team owners. When fans hear about Correa making $507,500 instead of $550,000, or about free agent who wants a nine-figure contract, they wonder why he had the nerve to ask for so much money in the first place. We praise players, like Cliff Lee, who “leave money on the table.” Both the player and that fan, by virtue of existing and participating in this system, are locked in an eternal battle with those who cut their paychecks. Regardless of salary differences, the player deserves to benefit from the fruits of his labor as much as the office worker. Part of being a baseball fan should also include rooting for the players’ financial success and not just the owners’.

Praising the Astros for being smart and savvy will only create more incentive for other front offices to mimic these unethical behaviors. The whole theme of the World Series shouldn’t be about smart, analytically-inclined teams reaching the summit; it should in part be about teams getting ahead with a multitude of exploitative practices against their players.