It's a difficult path when rules collide

Josh Thole of the Toronto Blue Jays shows Josh Thole of the Toronto Blue Jays shows the ball to home plate umpire Dana DeMuth who makes the out call on Francisco Cervelli of the Yankees on Saturday, April 5, 2014. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Tom Szczerbowski

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David Lennon David Lennon has been a staff writer for

David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City ...

TORONTO - A perfect one-hop throw by Blue Jays centerfielder Colby Rasmus with Francisco Cervelli charging hard to the plate. A textbook setup and tag by catcher Josh Thole.

From a pure baseball sense, this was as timeless a play as there is in the game. Been that way for more than 100 years. But now it is open to interpretation, and video review, and further debate.

That's before we even get into whether Cervelli was safe or not.

The new anti-collision guideline, officially known as Rule 7.13, should not be confused with the new expanded replay system. It is an entirely separate issue. But the two do intersect on occasion, as they did Saturday during the third inning of the Yankees' 4-0 loss to the Blue Jays.

And when that happens, not even 12 HD camera angles, with video dialed back to a frame-by-frame crawl, is capable of providing all the answers.

We're not saying the collision rule is wrong or bad. We're all for protecting the players, obviously. It's just complicated.

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Within a blink of plate umpire Dana DeMuth's out call, Joe Girardi rushed out to ask if Thole had been guilty of blocking the plate. Seemed like a fair question. While Thole was in the pose catchers have been taught to take to receive a throw since the game was invented, did he "block the pathway" without the ball, as Rule 7.13 mentions?

"As long as the runner has a path to the plate," DeMuth said. "He had plenty of path to the plate. That's what I saw on the field."

And the definition of that path? "Some way that he can be safe," DeMuth said.

According to Girardi, "straddling the plate'' toward the third-base line, as Thole appeared to be doing, is a no-no and should have resulted in the call being overturned. However, Girardi also maintained that Cervelli was safe by virtue of his left foot reaching the plate before Thole applied the tag to his other leg.

"We believe we have footage that he was safe anyway," Girardi said. "So this is going to be the toughest replay of all of them because it's such a judgment."

Knowing that, both the managers and umpires seem willing to be more tolerant of the other as they work to get a better grasp of this whole collision concept. After Girardi brought it up with DeMuth, the umpire chose to dial up the central office in Manhattan on his own -- without it costing Girardi in the process.

"Right there, I'm going to tell Joe, don't use a challenge," DeMuth said. "I'm going to check it myself since we have that tool. This is new for the umpires, too."

So what we're seeing is umpiring crews relying on the safety net of their colleagues back in New York. That's to be expected as everyone tries to get familiar with the new protocol and its procedures. But there are a few loopholes, too.

When Girardi raised the question with DeMuth, he set in motion a system that granted him two replay reviews for the price of none. When DeMuth got on the headphones with New York, the only thing he specifically asked about was if Thole had been in violation of the rule. But in examining the play, the central replay umpire also can overrule the safe/out call without being asked to do so, if necessary.

In this case, the voice at the other end said, "Confirmed," which told DeMuth that not only was Thole in accordance with the rule but that Cervelli indeed was out, as DeMuth had called.

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So managers apparently can exploit the collision rule to check on every play at the plate, and that sounds problematic.

"That's why it's smart for every manager to come out and do that," DeMuth said. "You're getting a two-for-one."

We're not sure that's a good idea. The pace-of-game issue is extremely important to the powers that be in Major League Baseball, and getting freebie challenges would slow things down. But we're still in the beta phase of Bud Selig's two new wrinkles, and everyone doesn't appear to be on the same page yet.

In the end, the Yankees didn't lose Saturday's game, 1-0. David Phelps took care of the controversy by firebombing the late innings, so that helped turn down the volume of a discussion that we'll definitely be hearing more of this season.

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