Inside the rules: coach’s interferenceby David Wade
January 10, 2011
There are a few ways the batter-runner can be called out on interference. All of those are listed under rule 7.09. Two of them involve the base coach, and those are the two examined in this segment of ruminating about baseball's rules.
7.09 It is interference by a batter or a runner when:
(h) In the judgment of the umpire, the base coach at third base, or first base, by touching or holding the runner, physically assists him in returning to or leaving third base or first base.
(i) With a runner on third base, the base coach leaves his box and acts in any manner to draw a throw by a fielder;
Rule (i) is easy to understand. In 1914, St. Louis Cardinals manager Miller Huggins told a naïve Brooklyn Dodger pitcher to toss him the ball during an inning so he could take a look at it. When the youngster complied, Huggins moved out of the way and let it go bouncing by while his base runner on third ran home. Umpires had to allow the run since they hadn't called time. It's probably not coincidence that baseball started establishing rules concerning coach's interference right around the time a young pitcher was trying to get over Huggins' trickery.
At first glance, rule (h) appears clear cut on the surface. However, it turns out there may be some wiggle room in the wording. As regular readers know by now, 'the judgment of the umpire' again leaves each individual umpire's interpretation as binding. It also opens the doors for controversy.
While the words 'touching' and 'holding' will set just about anyone with a daughter on edge, they prove to be problematic to umpires as well. There is no set amount or type of touching that's forbidden, so many umpires seem to adopt a stance of complete abstinence as a rule. However, that doesn't mesh with the call for intent to determine interference. That wording should limit interference calls and see them enforced only where the coach actually does influence the runner.
Obviously some instances would be clear violations. Any coach that grabs his player to keep him from trying to score, or one that helps his player get back up after falling would be an easy call. But, a light touch—even though not enough to physically stop a runner—could be enough to get the player's attention when verbal cues are failing. That would clearly fall under intent to stop the runner, even though not as clear a violation on the surface.
Somewhere along the lines, knowing that the slightest nudge of the shoulder could signal an base coach's intent to stop or send a runner, umpires began to call any contact with a runner a violation.
There are a few examples of this ruling in games that can show the range of contact that umpires deal with.
Jim Leyland helped Dave Stegman get up as Stegman slipped rounding third on May 8, 1984 while both were with the Chicago White Sox. It's hard to blame Leyland for pulling out all the stops on this play since the matchup with the Milwaukee Brewers that night remains the longest game in MLB history. Leyland committed interference in the 23rd inning of a game that seemingly wouldn't end, yet finally did when Harold Baines hit the 753rd pitch of the game over the fence for a walk-off homer in the 25th inning. Leyland's infraction, helping the runner get back to his feet, was clear.
On a similar play, St. Louis Cardinal Andy Van Slyke hit a drive September 12, 1983 that plated teammate George Hendrick. While Hendrick was scoring, Van Slyke was going for an extra base and slid into third as the ball bounced away from Pittsburgh third baseman Jim Morrison. Morrison fell on top of Van Slyke on the play and Andy's third base coach, Chuck Hiller, helped the runner to his feet, resulting in an out call. Van Slyke's RBI stood since the run scored before the interference.
While those two examples show a proper call, the following cases were not so cut and dry.
On May 13, 1988, Yankee coach Clete Boyer made contact with Willie Randolph while the latter was trying to score in the first inning against the California Angels. There's no replay available on this one, but some reports indicate that the contact was insignificant. After a brief debate, second base umpire Al Clark called Randolph out. Yankee manager Billy Martin ran out of the dugout to protest and argued that:
"The rule says a coach can't aid or grab a runner."
While that's not a verbatim quote of the rulebook, it is exact as far as the spirit of the rule goes. Nonetheless, Martin protested to no avail and the call stood.
On August 3, 2001, Baltimore third base coach Tom Trebelhorn was trying to hold Brady Anderson at third on a single from Chris Richard. But, Anderson was watching the ball and not his coach. Anderson ran through the stop sign and into Trebelhorn. The contact wasn't slight, and the Orioles argued that Trebelhorn had not assisted Anderson back to third. In their view, Anderson ran into Trebelhorn instead of Trebelhorn purposely trying to stop the runner. John Hirschbeck, the home plate umpire during this game, denied Baltimore manager Mike Hargrove's appeal. After the game, Hargrove insinuated that Hirschbeck said the runner was out if any contact was made.
"I told him (Hirschbeck) I've seen runners run into third base coaches a lot and not be called out. He said they should have been."
Yes, they should have been out if the coach intended to stop the runner, but not if the runner ran into the coach.
On Sept. 5 of this past season, a Texas Ranger rally was cut short by a coach's interference call. Ranger third base coach Dave Anderson was holding the Rangers' Michael Young at third when Young accidentally hit Anderson's hand. Alfonso Marquez called interference and the game ended right there.
The Twins benefited from the call, and manager Ron Gardenhire said it was the right one. However, Gardenhire also took the stance that any contact results in an out-
"They made contact at third base," Gardenhire said. "That's automatic. The umpire has to make a call. If there is contact, he's got to make a call. That's what he did. And they made contact. Unfortunate, yes. It probably didn't help him stop or get back, but contact is contact. And that's what Alfonso called."
This video shows that any contact was incidental. It also shows that the runner was already trying to stop and that Gardenhire was right about one thing- the contact didn't help him stop or get back.
But Gardenhire, as well as some umpires, are wrong about these calls if they think all instances of contact should result in outs. An umpire has a tough job when the rules call for him to determine a player's intent. He deals with that on several calls, from checked swings to balks. However, that difficulty does not mean he can turn a subjective opinion call into a hard and fast ban on any and all contact.
Just think if an umpire that believed all contact with base coaches should result in outs had worked the Cardinals-Cub matchup when Mark McGwire hit his 62nd home run in 1998. After McGwire hit a liner over the left field fence, Cardinals First base coach Dave McKay met him with a modified hug as he reached first base. They clearly made contact with each other. Many will remember that in his excitement, McGwire hopped over the bag and with McKay pointing and shouting, went back to make sure he touched first. McKay touched McGwire at one point, but did not touch him as he was urging him back to the bag. An umpire using 'any' contact as his guide could have called Big Mac out.
Just think if that had been the most controversial thing to come from the 1998 home run race.
References and Resources
Baseball Digest, The Washington Times, York Daily Record, Contra Costa Times, The Official Rules of Baseball Illustrated
David welcomes comments below. You can reach him via email at david DOT wade AT insightbb DOT com.