Last night's obstruction call against Boston third-baseman Will Middlebrooks gave the Cardinals a dramatic 5-4 Game 3 win. To many Yankee fans and some still-angry Dodgers' fans, that play recalled the non-interference call that helped the Yankees win the 1978 World Series. Somewhere, Reggie Jackson is smirking.
The year 1978 was known for Yankee comebacks. During the regular season, the Yankees trailed the first-place Red Sox by 14 games but came back to tie them for first place. The Yankees trailed the one-game playoff game 2-0 but came back to win 5-4. In the World Series, they lost the first two games, but got back into the Series by winning Game 3, as an exhausted Ron Guidry pitched a complete game on guts and guile.
In Game 4, the Yankees were down 3-0 in the sixth. With Dodger pitcher Tommy John at the top of his game, things didn't look good, but the Yankees rallied. In the bottom of the sixth, Jackson drove in a run with a single. With Thurman Munson on second, Jackson on first and one out, Lou Piniella hit a soft liner to shortstop Bill Russell. Russell got cute. Instead of catching the liner, he intentionally dropped it so he could make the double play. He stepped on second to force Jackson and then threw to first. Russell's throw came close to Jackson, who appeared to intentionally move his right hip to deflect the ball, which caromed into foul territory and enabled Munson to score. The Dodgers, especially manager Tommy Lasorda, went apoplectic but to no avail. The Yankees won the game 4-3 to even the Series and then won Games 5 and 6 to take the Series.
The difference last night's play and Jackson's is a difference between rules.
Jackson's play hinged on intent. Rule 709(j) provides that it is interference if the runner "intentionally interferes with a thrown ball." The umpires did not believe that Jackson had intentionally interfered with Russell's throw, so interference wasn't called. Reasonable minds might disagree.
Last night's play did not involve intent. Obstruction is "the act of a fielder who, while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner." Rule 2.00. Once a fielder has tried and failed to catch the ball but "continues to lie on the ground and delays the progress of the runner, he very likely has obstructed the runner." Thus, once Middlebrooks missed the catcher's throw and tripped the baserunner while Middlebrooks was still on the ground, he obstructed that runner whether he acted intentionally or not.
Taking the '78 World Series was especially pleasing because the Yankee players did not like the Dodgers. As Yankee reliever Sparky Lyle later wrote:
...the Dodgers really pissed us all off. In those first couple of games in L.A., the only games they won, Lopes was hitting home runs and circling the bases with his finger pointing in the air, as if to say, "We're number one." How bush is that? Our guys kept saying, "We don't want to just beat them. We want to really kick their ass." And we did.