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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Banning home plate collisions: An exercise in statutory interpretation

Major League Baseball yesterday announced an experimental rule banning, or at least limiting, home-plate collisions. The rule is intended to protect players, as home-plate collisions are a common cause of concussions and other injuries to catchers. Whether it does or not provides an interesting exercise in statutory interpretation.

New Rule 7.13 provides:

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.

An interpretive comment adds:

The failure by the runner to make an effort to touch the plate, the runner's lowering of the shoulder, or the runner's pushing through with his hands, elbows or arms, would support a determination that the runner deviated from the pathway in order to initiate contact with the catcher in violation of Rule 7.13. If the runner slides into the plate in an appropriate manner, he shall not be adjudged to have violated Rule 7.13. A slide shall be deemed appropriate, in the case of a feet first slide, if the runner's buttocks and legs should hit the ground before contact with the catcher. In the case of a head first slide, a runner shall be deemed to have slid appropriately if his body should hit the ground before contact with the catcher.

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.

The rule reportedly reflects a compromise between MLB, which had wanted a must-slide-can't-block rule that would have eliminated all collisions and thus done the most for player safety, and the MLBPA, which did not want to make such a major change so close to the season, fearing the players would not have time to adjust.

The basic rule prohibits a runner from deviating from the direct path home to initiate contact with the catcher (or whoever is covering the plate)--that is, from going out of his way to make contact rather than running directly for the plate. But the rule does not prohibit collisions where the runner runs directly into the catcher in trying to score. So, reading only the text, it is not clear the new rule eliminates most collisions, since most collisions come when runner, catcher, and ball all converge at the plate and running through the catcher is the most direct route to scoring. It thus is not clear that it provides the safety benefits it is intended to provide.

The solution may come in the interpretive comments and a more purposivist approach. An umpire may find that the runner deviated if the runner fails to make an effort to touch the plate, lowers his shoulder, or pushes with his hands, elbows, or arms. On the other hand, a runner does not violate the rule if he slides into the plate in an "appropriate manner," meaning his body hits the ground before making contact with the catcher. The upshot of the comments is to grant the umpires discretion to judge when the runner has "deviated" from the path, and thereby to apply the rule so as to further its purpose. The comment incentivizes runners to slide in most cases, since a proper slide per se will not violate the rule, while running through the catcher might be deemed deviating, subject to how the umpire exercises his discretion in viewing the play (whether the runner lowered his shoulder or raiseed his arms, etc.).

The rule seems unnecessarily complicated, given the player-safety goals involved. Especially since they simply could have modeled this rule after the rules that apply at the other three bases. But the sense seems to be that this is experimental, designed to be revisited during and after the upcoming seasons and to function as a first step to get players used to this new way of playing. Think of it as the legislature phasing-in new rules so as to also phase-in new, preferred behavior.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on February 25, 2014 at 12:09 AM in Howard Wasserman, Legal Theory, Sports | Permalink

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