David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Major League Baseball's new anti-collision edict, officially known as Rule 7.13, might be headed on a crash course for change as soon as this week and almost certainly at the end of this season, according to sources familiar with the discussions.
With plenty of room for interpretation on what should be considered blocking home plate, the vague language of the rule has created some confusion during this first month. And though MLB intends to press for more clarity for teams and umpires, specific written alterations to Rule 7.13 itself might have to wait until the offseason.
Why has the rule been the source of early controversy? Look at it this way. Instead of having a speed limit, what if we were told that it was against the law to drive fast. Well, how fast? And under which kind of conditions -- highway, city, school zones?
In this case, the umpires -- aided by expanded replay -- serve as both judge and jury. MLB officials took the initiative in trying to make the game safer, but they did not promise to make playing it any less complicated, and Rule 7.13 has made the area around home plate a minefield.
After the Yankees butted heads with plate umpire Dana DeMuth in Toronto, Joe Girardi called his former manager, Joe Torre -- now MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations -- for help in clarifying the new rule. According to Girardi, even Torre couldn't give him a more specific guideline to follow, other than to let the umpires sort things out.
"There is no clear-cut answer on what is considered blocking the plate right now," said Girardi, a former catcher himself. "It's up to the umpires. It's kind of difficult on what to tell your catchers. But we all know that it's a rule in its beginning stages, and it's probably going to have to go through some things before we actually have [a definition]. And it's going to take some time."
Despite the confusion, 7.13 hasn't altered the course of games as much as it might have. Through Thursday's games, there had been only eight plays reviewed because of blocking complaints, and not one of the out calls was overturned.
According to the rule, if a catcher is guilty of blocking the plate without the ball, the runner will be called safe, regardless of the play's outcome.
After closer inspection of those plays by Newsday, however, one appeared to be a violation and a second was very close.
The first occurred Wednesday in Cincinnati, where Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez was practically sitting on the plate waiting for the throw from shortstop with the infield pulled in. The play happened so fast that Sanchez didn't wait very long for the ball, and the Reds' Roger Bernadina had no route to the plate.
"That play right there," Sanchez told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "when he called him out, I was like, well, I was blocking the plate and they're going to call him safe."
It was reviewed, but after a 74-second delay, the out call was confirmed by the central replay office in Manhattan.
The other play, April 13 in Philadelphia, took even less time. On that one, Marlins catcher Jeff Mathis was down on his right knee with his left leg stretched across the batter's box -- minus the ball -- as Tony Gwynn Jr. closed in. Gwynn slid directly into Mathis' outstretched leg as the tag was applied.
That also was reviewed, and in less than a minute -- 55 seconds -- the umpires determined that Mathis was not blocking the plate.
The Phillies disagreed. Or at least felt as though there was some inconsistency in the way the rule is being enforced. And a few hours later, according to the Philadelphia Daily News, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. received a call from Torre saying the call should have been overturned because Gwynn did not have a clear path to the plate.
Knowing the rule's potential for disaster on the field -- and the headaches it would create for them -- maybe the umpires are leaning more toward the status quo in these instances. Until the language for 7.13 becomes more detailed, it doesn't appear that the game will be played all that differently by catchers.
"I will continue to teach them, don't block the plate without the ball," Girardi said. "I know it's an instinct. I know it's going to happen from time to time with our catchers. It's just, the rule in and of itself is a good idea. It's just going to take some time for people to adapt to it."
From a catcher's standpoint, they seem to be operating within the guidelines. In five of the other six reviewed plays at the plate -- one involved Braves pitcher Jordan Walden applying a tag after a wild pitch -- each catcher received the throw in almost identical fashion: left foot planted on the upper right corner of the batter's box with the back side of the plate open in what could be described as a clear avenue.
Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, who serves as chairman of the rules committee, made a point in spring training of showing his catchers what they should do to comply. In waiting for a throw, it's OK to have a foot partially in front of the plate -- as catchers usually set up -- because plenty of the plate is left for the runner. Aside from a few stray instances, Alderson hasn't seen a major issue with it so far.
The problem seems to stem from how the rule has been presented to teams. After an April 5 incident in Toronto, Girardi said he was told that "straddling" the plate, as Blue Jays catcher Josh Thole appeared to be doing, is not permitted. But DeMuth stressed that Francisco Cervelli still had a "path" to the plate, which prevented Thole from being in violation.
There may be more alterations on the way. In the original 7.13 version, the rules committee submitted a "must-slide" provision, which was rejected by the Players Association. The approved version now says a runner may not "deviate" from the path to the plate. That has been more ambiguous, with players unclear on how or where to slide.
After this year, the original language for 7.13 can be implemented for 2015 without needing MLBPA approval.
The hope is that everyone will have a clear understanding of the anti-collision concept long before then -- or at least fewer mental obstacles on the way to the plate.
OFFICIAL BASEBALL RULE 7.13
COLLISIONS AT HOME PLATE
A runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate). If, in the judgment of the umpire, a runner attempting to score initiates contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate) in such a manner, the umpire shall declare the runner out (even if the player covering home plate loses possession of the ball). In such circumstances, the umpire shall call the ball dead, and all other baserunners shall return to the last base touched at the time of the collision.
Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score. If, in the judgment of the umpire, the catcher without possession of the ball blocks the pathway of the runner, the umpire shall call or signal the runner safe. Notwithstanding the above, it shall not be considered a violation of this Rule 7.13 if the catcher blocks the pathway of the runner in order to field a throw, and the umpire determines that the catcher could not have fielded the ball without blocking the pathway of the runner and that contact with the runner was unavoidable.[/WEBBOX]