Baseball and softball are not full contact sports. They are designed, through the rules, to minimize contact between players to avoid injury and altercations. Two ways the game rules help keep the contact to a bare minimum are the interference and obstruction calls.
We previously went over the hand signals and vocal cues an umpire will use for both obstruction and interference. Today we’re taking you through the basics of the rules with some visual examples. The most important thing to remember as we look through the rules is that, in both cases, the disruption need not be intentional.
Player Interference v. Obstruction
Let’s start with the difference between obstruction and interference.
Obstruction means a player is in the way. Generally this means they are watching the play and don’t realize someone’s trying to get something done behind them. A batter might be watching the ball on a pop up and not realize they’re standing where the catcher needs to go to make the out. On the base path a fielder might be waiting for the rely and in the way of the runner. Either way their ability to make forward progress is impeded and therefore an obstruction call will be made.
Interference is different. Interference happens when there is a play to be made and the actions of another player interfere with their ability to get it done. For example, a runner is caught in the pickle and after the fielder tosses the ball to a teammate the runner turns and the fielder who completed the throw is still in the baseline. That fielder is interfering with the runner's ability to get to the base safely. If a base runner runs into a player as they are fielding the ball between the bases then the runner is also interfering.
All the plays associated with interference and obstruction fall under Rule 6.00 Improper play, illegal action, and misconduct in the MLB guidelines. There are several versions of both interference and obstruction. Some are self explanatory. Those we've included in the text using a bullet to mark the rule. Others will require further consideration. We've found videos to help you see where and how these situations may arise.
Interference can be called on the batter, runner, coach, catcher, umpire and spectator. It can be also be called for unintentionally interfering with the play.
Batter and runner interference often times go hand-in-hand on the field of play. The following rules apply:
Let’s take a look at an interference call on the batter. In this instance, they are being called for interfering with the catcher’s ability to make the throw to 2nd on a stolen base attempt.
When the ump gets it right, no one disagrees.
Runner Interference is called when any member(s) of the offense stand or gather around a base where a runner is advancing, to confuse, hinder or add difficulty to the fielder’s ability to make the play. When this occurs the runner will be called out.
Here’s a full tutorial on each possible situation that comprises runner interference.
Fielder right of way
If, in the judgment of the umpire, a runner deliberately interferes to help break up a double play, the ball is called dead and the person who might have avoided the second out is now out automatically.
No runs can be scored as a result of the interference.
We talked about coaching interference a few weeks ago when we went over the job of coaching 3rd. Now it’s time to focus on the nuts and bolts of the problem.
Interference will be called on a coach:
Catcher interference is rare but it does happen. If the catcher’s actions interfere with the batter’s ability to make contact, then the call is made. The rules are pretty specific so we’re going to let you get your tutorial on this one via the video below.
The umpire’s will call interference on themselves any time they get in the way of a play on the field. First, let’s take a look at what happens behind the plate.
Here’s how it plays out in live action.
Now, we’ll head over to the field of play to see how an umpire’s actions might affect the play and watch how the call is made.
A fan cannot reach into the field of play. The most famous example of fan interference in baseball history happened in 1996 when a fan interfered with a catch in the outfield and the batter was awarded a homerun.
As you’ll see in the video, sometimes even the most obvious plays rely on a proper angle for the right call to be made.
All we can say looking at that final freeze frame is umpires are human. This play would become the poster child for the argument to bring instant replay into the game. Fast forward 20 years to see how it plays out once the argument is finally won.
Whether a player intends to interfere or not sometimes it happens. When it does, the call goes in favor of the side adversely affected by the circumstance.
The most common version of unintentional interference on the part of a fielder happens in a run down.
In this instance, the runner tried to out-maneuver the throws and one of the guys in the throwing cycle zigged when he should have zagged. It was unintentional but it is still interference.
Different than interference is obstruction. Often times this call is made when the player involved gets in the way while watching the ball. A baseman standing on a path may not realize the runner is coming up behind them, a batter in the box might be looking at the ball to see if they have time to run.
When a fair ball touches a runner in fair territory before touching a fielder the runner is not out. However, if the runner is deemed to have intentionally kicked a batted ball to avoid infielders being able to make the play, then the runner shall be called out for interference. If that happens the runner is out and the ball is called dead. If this happens then all the runners must return to the last legally obtained base before the ball was called dead. If the runner has not yet reached 1st, all runners will return to the base occupied before the last pitch.
Fielder Right of Way
When a runner is in the base path and a fielder steps into their line either without the ball or when the ball does not need to be fielded obstruction will be called. That’s pretty basic. But, as we said sometimes, in fact more often than not, the obstruction is unintentional.
Here you can see the fielder’s feet come up and interfere with the runner’s ability to pass. Had he remained flat, chances are the call would not have been made. You see fielders stay down or low to remain out of the way of the throw all the time. In this case, the 3rd baseman should have remained down to avoid being in the runner’s path. In this particular instance it is especially relevant because the base runner is the person who was on 2nd and no one was on 1st when the play began. That means there was no reason for the 3rd baseman to hop back up into position. A great reminder to players reading this that they always need to be mindful of the situation before that pitch is thrown.
Make The Call
We’re giving you two chances to make the call today. The first is a tough example because the infield fly rule is also live on this play.
Sometimes, no matter which way the call goes, it feels wrong.
Here’s your final shot to make the call. Do you rule it runner interference or obstruction? Why?
Today you’ve seen just how complicated situations can get when rules, literally, collide in a single play. Each rule must be considered taking in the totality of the situation. That’s a tough spot to be in as an umpire. You’ve got just one chance, and a single set of eyes, to evaluate a split-second play in real time.