May 26, 2018

The Controversial Call That Wasn’t

October 9, 2008 by · 4 Comments 

There was some controversy surrounding the play that all but ended the Angels’ season on Monday night. But, for whatever reason, an elusive rule interpretation doesn’t seem to have received the attention it deserves.

The play, of course, involved the Angels’ botched squeeze play in the top of the 9th of game four of the American League Division Series, a game that the Red Sox eventually won 3-2 to advance to their ALCS matchup with the Tampa Bay Rays. With the scored tied 2-2, Reggie Willits on third base with one out, and Erick Aybar at the plate, the Angels attempted to squeeze home the go-ahead run. But, Aybar whiffed at a Manny Delcarmen offering, and Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek ran Willits back to third base. Just before Willits reached third, Varitek lunged and tagged him, falling to the ground in the process.

With the ball securely and firmly (remember those words) in Varitek’s glove, he tagged Willits while he was clearly off the base. But, in the process of making the tag, Varitek’s momentum caused him to fall to the ground on his left elbow. As soon as said elbow hit the ground, the ball squirted out of his glove, but umpire Tim Welke had already called Willits out. However, Welke had momentarily taken his eyes off the ball, focusing instead on the spot where the tag had occurred, and didn’t actually see the ball come out of Varitek’s glove. He immediately turned his head, though, and, witnessing the ball on the ground, reinforced his call by indicating the runner was out again. Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia came out to argue, but was rebuked by Welke, and surprisingly didn’t seem to put up much of a fight. Welke, despite the fact that he didn’t actually witness Varitek lose control of the ball, inexplicably didn’t ask for help on the play.

The elusive rule interpretation that I’m referring to here is that of voluntary release, a concept that many people, including those in the know, don’t seem to fully understand. In the Official Rules of Major League Baseball, Rule 2.00 covers the definition of terms. That section defines a tag as:

…the action of a fielder in touching a base with his body while holding the ball securely and firmly in his hand or glove; or touching a runner with the ball, or with his hand or glove holding the ball, while holding the ball securely and firmly in his hand or glove.

In the same section of the rules, the definition of a catch has this added stipulation:

In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional.

What voluntary release means in this context is that football analogies don’t apply. There’s no “a ground can’t cause a fumble”, nor does how many feet you get down have any relevance. The only thing that matters is whether or not the fielder is able to release the ball, from his glove or hand, voluntarily and intentionally. Most often, this involves removing the ball from the glove with the throwing hand.

Voluntary release is the reason why, when an infielder loses control of the ball while in the act of removing it from his glove in turning a double play, the out still counts. The act of pulling the ball out of the glove is voluntary release. This example is considered a tag, not a catch, although it could easily be confused with one, and provides an example of why these two concepts are interchangeable. That fact will be reinforced as you read on.

The question here is whether or not voluntary release applies to the tag play. The section of the rule book I just quoted refers to the concept as a requirement of the catch but says nothing about it in the definition of the tag. Since Varitek held the ball securely and firmly in his glove at the time of the tag, this one is pretty cut and dried, right? Not necessarily. In addition to the rule book, there exists a much more detailed manual, titled “Rules of Professional Baseball: A Comprehensive Re-Organization and Clarification”, written by former minor league umpires and Brinkman/Froemming Umpire School instructors Chris Jaksa and Rick Roder, to deal with the countless vagaries in said rule book. This manual is widely used in umpire instruction at the professional and amateur levels.

The manual clarifies the definition of a tag in Rule 2.00 of the Official Rules, which fails to deal with action that occurs after the tag, with the following interpretation (from the 2008 edition):

“Catch” and “tag” are similar concepts. A tag [2.00] occurs when the ball is live and a fielder has the ball in his hand or glove (or both) and:

a.  a base is touched by his person, or
b.  a runner is touched by any part of the glove/ball, hand/ball, or glove/hand/ball combination.

Such fielder must have complete control of the ball during and after the touch. If the fielder bobbles or drops the ball during or after the touch of the base or runner, and the bobble or drop is due to his lack of control of himself or the ball, or due to contact with a runner, it is not a tag. A fielder shows complete control by:

a.  regaining control of his own body after extenuating efforts to make a tag (especially in regard to a fall, dive, or a collision), and
b.  showing that his release of the ball is (or will be) voluntary and intentional.

A fielder need not regain control of his body if he is able to voluntarily release the ball; the voluntary release alone is proof of complete control.

The two conditions of showing complete control are what’s important here. Since Varitek fell and dropped the ball upon the impact of his elbow with the ground, he neither regained control of his own body nor showed voluntarily and intentional release of the ball. Therefore, he failed to satisfy the requirements of a tag. According to the Jaksa/Roder manual, that is.

So, at the very least, this leaves the issue in an extremely gray area. If you accept the interpretation offered by the Jaksa/Roder manual, this clearly indicates that the call was incorrect. Varitek did not show complete control during and after the tag, so Willits should have been ruled safe. But, Steve Palermo, Major League supervisor of umpires, defended the call, although in very unconvincing fashion, choosing instead to refute the “ground can’t cause a fumble” football analogy by saying, “That’s the NFL. We don’t have that in baseball. He had possession of the ball when he made the tag.” Palermo’s statement uses none of the important rule book terminology, so instead of clarifying, it leaves the issue still open to interpretation.

The issue boils down to one specific and easily answerable question. Does the voluntary release requirement apply to a tag play as it does to a catch? If the answer is no, then Tim Welke was correct and the controversy is settled. If the answer is yes, then the call was wrong and that fact needs to be admitted. Major League Baseball has a recent history of coming clean in such situations. But, in this case, MLB officials appear to have dismissed this as a non-controversy when, in fact, there is considerable evidence to the contrary. Obviously, as far as the Angels-Red Sox ALDS matchup is concerned, the answer to this question will have no effect on its outcome. However, it’s important for the rest of us–the fans, players, managers, coaches, and, most importantly, the umpires–to know, so that this particular gray area becomes black or white in the future.


4 Responses to “The Controversial Call That Wasn’t”
  1. Brian Joseph says:

    1. The umpire stopped looking at the play after he saw Varitek touch Willits. He failed to watch the play through to it’s finish which means he should have gotten holp. Whether it was the right call or not, he failed to do his job properly. Watch the reply, his eyes never leave Willits. He didn’t even know the ball was loose until someone pointed it out.

    2. If the play was at home and someone ran over Varitek and he went flying back, the umpire would have waited to see if the impact of Varitek hitting the ground jarred the ball loose. If it did, he would have been called safe. Same concept should apply. Varitek had to dive to tag Willits and he has to hold on to the ball through the impact to the ground.

    3. If this happened to a New York team or the roles were reversed and Boston was on the wrong end of this call, this would have been treated differently. See the instant replay controversy earlier this year. The Phillies were robbed of a game against the Cubs early in the year when a Mark DeRosa foul ball was erroneously called a homer and the Phillies ended up losing in extra innings. It barely hit the radar. It took disputed homers in Yankees and Mets games that raised a “red flag” for MLB to act.

    The controversy should be that umpires consistently are too proud to ask for help when they should and the fact that five other umpires were available to help out on the call makes it an embarrassment that this wasn’t handled better.

    That being said, it didn’t cost the Angels the game. That happened when the Angels allowed the Red Sox to use a three-man rotation through the extra day off and brought in K-Rod in a non-save situation. The bad call surely didn’t help things though.

  2. Matt Sisson says:

    This has happened before in a game between the Red Sox and the Yankees. Chuck Knoblock made a phantom tag on Jose Offerman in game 4 of the 1999 ALCS. see picture:

  3. Brian: Thanks for your comment. Your second point is probably another type of example I should have used in my argument. Thanks for pointing that out.

    Matt: Thanks for reading as well. The Knoblauch phantom tag is a different situation. That clearly was an incorrect judgment call. The Varitek play is about the interpretation of a rule. Varitek clearly touched the runner with his glove, it’s just a question of whether or not it satisfies the requirement of complete control in order to be considered a tag.

  4. Brian Joseph says:

    Agreed with Dan… missing a tag and not understanding a rule are two totally different things.

    However, I think the umpire did miss the call in this case and covered up by misinterpreting the rule. In their case, I guess two wrongs make a right?

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