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Wednesday, November 01, 2017

A Rule 60 Mechanism for Baseball Playoffs?

As the baseball world turns to the greatest single game in any season -- World Series Game 7 -- Washington Nationals fans are still lamenting what might have been. The Nationals lost to the Chicago Cubs in the decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series in a game that included a truly bizarre 5th inning that may have ultimately dictated the outcome. 

The powers-that-be at MLB have admitted that the umpires in that 5th inning made a crucial mistake, which surely changed the results of that 5th inning and could have changed the outcome of the game itself. Not only did that error potentially affect who won the game and thus which team moved on to the next round of the playoffs, it also may have inadvertently led the Nationals to essentially fire their manager, Dusty Baker, and hire someone else.

So here's my question: should there be a recourse for something like this occurring, similar to Rule 60 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure? Should the Nationals be able to ask MLB for "relief" from that "final judgment," especially in an extraordinary case such as this?

Let's first examine what happened in that crucial 5th inning. The Cubs had already scored two runs that inning, making the score 5-4 in Chicago's favor. With two outs, and a runner on second, Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer struck out Cubs batter Javier Baez. However, the ball went past Nationals catcher Matt Wieters for a dropped third strike, allowing Baez to go to first and the runner on second to score. Here's the problem: on Baez's swing-and-miss, his bat hit the catcher Wieters. Under MLB Rule 6.03, the umpires should have ruled that action to cause a "dead ball" on the spot, meaning that Baez would have been out and no runners would be allowed to advance. The inning should have been over. Here is the text of the rule:

If a batter strikes at a ball and misses and swings so hard he carries the bat all the way around and, in the umpire’s judgment, unintentionally hits the catcher or the ball in back of him on the backswing, it shall be called a strike only (not interference). The ball will be dead, however, and no runner shall advance on the play.

The umpires conferred after the play but ruled that Baez could advance to first and allowed the runner from second to score. They ruled that the ball was not dead. But as Joe Torre, MLB's Chief Baseball Officer, admitted

“You know, the whole rule interpretation — there’s rules, and then there’s instructions to the umpires. There’s separate books. And what Jerry’s feeling was, that the interference didn’t take precedent over the fact that the ball was already past [Wieters] when the contact took place.

“However, the rule states — and you probably have read the rule — that when contact is made — in other words, when the bat came around and hit the catcher’s mask — it’s a dead ball. It’s a dead ball. And that’s the one thing that should have taken precedence.”

Instead of that inning ending with Nationals down 5-4, one run scored on that missed call, and the Cubs scored another run that inning as well to go up 7-4. The Cubs eventually won the game 9-8.

Of course, we will never know how the game would have played out had the umpires made the correct call. But there's at least a plausible argument that the Nationals would have come back and won the game. The Cubs went on to the National League Championship Series (where they lost to the Dodgers). The Nationals had lost their second NLDS Game 5 in two years. And their manager, Dusty Baker, was told not to come back for next season -- mostly because he had not won in the playoffs.

Thinking, now, of the parallel in civil litigation, it seems like this situation would call for a Rule 60-type remedy. Rule 60(b) provides

On motion and just terms, the court may relieve a party or its legal representative from a final judgment, order, or proceeding for the following reasons: (1) mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect; ... (6) any other reason that justifies relief.

To be sure, courts are typically quite reluctant to grant a Rule 60(b) motion, but it happens at times, particularly when an error is obvious and egregious. 

What would a Rule 60(b)-type remedy for this baseball game look like? I suppose that MLB could restart the game from the end of the 5th inning, when the mistake occurred. For instance, in the famous 1983 Pine Tar game, the teams resumed play 25 days later from the spot in the game when the mistake happened. 

One crucial difference between the Pine Tar game and the Nationals playoff game is that the Royals in that 1983 incident put the game under protest right then, while the Nationals did not. But why should that make a difference? Rule 60(b) does not require an immediate objection to preserve the ability to bring the motion (Rule 59 has stricter timing requirements for challenging a final judgment). The whole point is to relieve an aggrieved party from the effects of a judgment that essentially was wrong or is otherwise inequitable.

Of course, resuming the Pine Tar game was easier given that the incident happened during the regular season. It would be virtually impossible to restart a playoff game, especially once the subsequent series has begun. Among other things, that would be wholly unfair to the next round opponent (in this case, the Dodgers). So maybe the practical difficulties counsel more strongly in favor of finality in the baseball context, even when the Federal Rules keep the door open just a sliver for mistakes in litigation.

In any event, I highly doubt the Nationals would have beaten the Dodgers in the next round, so none of this really matters. But the admission of a mistake that very well could have changed the outcome, and very likely led to the nonrenewal of the Nationals manager, raises interesting questions relating to the litigation-as-baseball metaphor.

OK, time to sleep -- tomorrow is Game 7!

(By the way, I attribute any errors in this post to my late-night Halloween candy and baseball induced stupor. I'll gladly grant a Rule 60 motion to revise it if there are any egregious mistakes.)

Posted by Josh Douglas on November 1, 2017 at 01:32 AM in Civil Procedure | Permalink


Howard K. -- really? For the NBA playoffs? Wow. Had the next series started yet?

(And I'm surprised/saddened that Howard W. didn't comment -- this post was right up his alley! I think he's a Cubs fan, though, so...)

Posted by: Josh Douglas | Nov 2, 2017 3:28:34 PM

The NBA has such a rule. Last invoked in 2008 as best as I can tell, and before that in 1983. Apparently harder to get than a Rule 60(b) remedy.

Posted by: Howard E Katz | Nov 1, 2017 11:29:22 PM

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