Sunday, September 4, 2011

Law at the old ballgame

Jen, Lily, and I went to Sunday's game between the Phillies and Marlins, which turned into a game that shows why lawyers love baseball so much. In the top of the sixth and a man on first, the Phillies' Hunter Spence hit a drive to deep right that Marlins rightfielder Bryan Petersen could not pull in against the wall; Spence ended up on second with a double. The Marlins claimed fan interference (a Phillies fan reached his red Phillies hat over the fence and it looks like the hat hit Petersen's glove as he was leaping to make the catch). The umps went to replay, deciding that the fan had interfered and calling Pence out. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel argued the call and was ejected (watching the video, it almost looks as if he asked the crew chief to run him). The Phillies played the game under protest (the link has the does not allow blogs to embed video), which the Marlins won on a bases-loaded walk in the fourteenth inning (we didn't last that long).

MLB allows replay in three situations: Fair/foul on a home run; home run or in play; and fan interference. The Phillies objection appears to be that fan interference can be reviewed only on a home-run play; in other words, replay can be used to determine whether a ball should have been a home run or should have been an out for fan interference--basically, the Jeffrey Maier play). But it was not clear whether the Phillies argues that this was a home run or seek review; it appeared that only the Marlins sought review for interference; it was either a double (the call on the field) or it was fan interference. Thus, the argument goes, it was not reviewable.

Three thoughts.

First, the adoption of limited replay demands vigorous policing of the boundaries of reviewability. The decision as to what is reviewable grows from a balance among the flow of the game and the need to keep reviewable plays to a minimum, administrative workability (related to flow, as well as to the means for handling overturned plays), and the desire for correctness and accuracy. MLB determined that home run calls should be the focus of replay--homers are inherently important plays on which we know with absolute certainty runs would score and because it is easy to administer, since a home run is such a final play (batter and all runners score, bases empty). But that means a play that is not claimed to be a home run should not be subject to the five-minute break in the action (ten if you count the subsequent argument) associated with review.

Second, I actually was surprised at the fan-interference ruling because it went against the visiting team. My assumption had been that fan interference could only go against the home team, that the rule is designed to prevent the home team's fans from helping their team. I was wrong on that; the rule is written to require that any batter be called out for any interference by any fan with any team. But that actually creates incentives for home fans to interfere on this precise play--rather than taking a chance that the home team's fielder will make a tough catch against the wall, the fan can interfere and assure an out. That can't be right. Of course, this being Miami, the stadium was probably 2/3 Phillies fans, so maybe the umps acted as if the Phillies were the home team. And the guy who interfered was wearing a Phillies hat and jersey, so perhaps the umps determined that the fan was, in fact, trying to aid the Phillies batter.

Third, my guess is that MLB will reject the protest. At least one game story states that both managers protested the call--Manuel wanted it called a home run and the Marlins manager wanted interference. Thus, both issues (home run/in play and home run/interference) were under review.  The umpires were looking to see both if the ball went over the yellow line at the top of the fence and might have been a home run, thus bringing it within the scope of replay review. Moreover, to overturn the rule would create a real administrative (remedial, if you will) headache--does MLB order the game replayed at that point in the top of the sixth, nullifying eight more innings of play? As I argued in my post on the anniversary of the pine tar game (one of the rare times a protest was upheld), the difficulties that follow from accepting a protest may affect the decision whether to accept it in the first place.

By the way, this was not the only law-related stuff at this game. A kid was injured by a hard foul ball into the stands and a woman was injured when the barrel of a cracked bat struck her in the head--so you have the age-old issue of liability over fan injuries from things flying into the stands. And we sat in front of one of the more obnoxious fans I've met, so we got a very heavy dose of (mostly whining) cheering speech.

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