//  11/4/19  //  Commentary

“Judges are like umpires,” Chief Justice John Roberts famously told the Senate Judiciary Committee in his confirmation hearings.  On Chief Justice Roberts’ view, an umpire’s job is “to call balls and strikes, and not to pitch or bat” — and to the Chief, judges should do the same.  Five years later, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan challenged the implications of the Chief Justice’s metaphor.  Justice Kagan accepted that umpires “just sort of stand there, and [they] go ‘ball’ and ‘strike,’ and everything is clear cut, and there’s no judgment in the process.”  But she argued that judges do something quite different: to her, judging lacks the “automatic quality” that makes calling balls and strikes “easy.”  Beneath differing judicial philosophies, then, both Justices framed umpires as mechanically applying precise rules to discernable conduct.  A call from this World Series perhaps adds texture to that framing.  Recently, during Game Six of the World Series, home plate umpire Sam Holbrook made one of the most controversial calls of the modern era when he called Nationals shortstop Trea Turner out for interference under Major League Baseball Rule 5.09(a)(11).  The call has its defenders (few), and its challengers (many).  But regardless of its merits, the call raises fascinating questions of legal interpretation and the role of the Article III judge.

On October 29, 2019, the Washington Nationals faced off against the Houston Astros in Game Six of the 2019 World Series.  Down three games to two, the Nationals led the Astros 3-2 at the top of the seventh inning.  With catcher Yan Gomes on first and no outs, Trea Turner hit a soft ground ball that dribbled out in front of home plate.  Astros pitcher Brad Peacock scooped it up and rushed a throw to Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel.  The throw was a touch wild, and as Gurriel stretched down the line to catch it, a still-sprinting Turner — who by this point had his foot on the base — collided with Gurriel’s glove.  The ball rolled away, allowing Turner and Gomes to advance to second and third.  Runners on, with no outs: things were looking good for the Nats.

Not so, according to home plate umpire Sam Holbrook.  Holbrook ruled that Turner had interfered with the play under Rule 5.09(a)(11), which provides that if:

in running the last half of the distance from home base to first base, while the ball is being fielded to first base, he runs . . . inside (to the left of) the foul line, and in the umpire’s judgment in so doing interferes with the fielder taking the throw at first base . . . the ball is dead [with an unrelated exception].

The official comment to the rule adds a clarification in the nature of an exception: “The batter-runner is permitted to exit the three-foot lane [outside of the foul line] by means of a step, stride, reach, or slide in the immediate vicinity of first base for the sole purpose of touching first base.”  Collectively, the rule and comment offer two requirements for calling interference, and one point of safe harbor.  To be out, the runner must (1) run inside the foul line during the last half of the run, and (2) in so doing, in the umpire’s judgment, interfere with the fielder’s attempted catch.  But as the comment clarifies, because first base is located in fair territory, the runner may exit the lane for the sole purpose of reaching first.

Turner had without question run just inside the foul line, but many questioned whether “in so doing” he had interfered with the fielder taking the throw.  (A video clip of the play can be found here.)  Turner appeared to be safe even before the alleged interference; Gurriel had to reach into Turner because of a wild throw.  And moreover, though Turner’s stride did not originate in the lane (as the comment allows), it was the exact same stride, with the exact same effect on Gurriel, as it would have had if Turner’s prior steps had been in foul territory.  Thus, two textual ambiguities: whether Turner had actually “interfere[d]” with the fielder taking the throw if he was already safe at the time, and whether the rule’s comment can be read to give him safe harbor since the incident occurred during Turner’s final step towards the bag “for the sole purpose of touching first base.”  

But what particularly angered fans was the rarity of such a call.  Text aside, runner interference is simply never called when a player runs an inch or two inside the foul line (as all right-handed batters do).  Consistent practice has been to reserve that call for flagrant attempts to interfere, as when Alex Rodriguez slapped the ball out of Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo’s glove in Game Six of the 2004 American League Championship Series.  That was interference, goes the argument; this was not.

Over the next ten minutes, officials spoke on their headsets with the review booth in New York.  That delay engendered some confusion: the call on the field had been a discretionary judgment call, and was thus unreviewable.  When it was affirmed, the Nationals sought to file a challenge the validity of the game — also rejected, as the rules prohibit teams from challenging games on the basis of discretionary calls.  At that point, Nationals manager Davey Martinez erupted at the umpire team, and was ejected.  But soon after, Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon hit a two-run homer to lift the Nationals to a 5-2 lead (they eventually won 7-2) and prove the old adage: ball don’t lie.

The Trea Turner interference call is rich with legal lessons.  This post raises five, progressing from narrowest to broadest.  In so doing, it seeks to highlight thematic interplay between America’s pastime and its judiciary.

First, the call raises important standard of review questions.  In the context of appellate review, higher-court judges defer to trial judges on findings of fact.  They do so on the theory that trial judges are closer to the facts: they have heard the testimony, seen the witnesses, and are generally better positioned to make factual determinations than an appellate court reading a paper record.  Chevron deference rests on a similar assessment that agencies’ expertise leaves them comparatively better equipped to interpret their organic statutes.  Yet in baseball, the situation is flipped.  Reviewing officials have a staggering volume of recorded footage that can be played back millisecond to millisecond, while the umpire on the field has only a fleeting glance at the play.  The rationales for deference at the trial level and in the agency context — vesting judgment in those with the most facts and greatest comparative expertise — thus in baseball might seem to point towards using de novo review and allowing challenges to all on-field calls.

Second, the call raises a debate parallel to that of a “major questions exception” in administrative law.  Courts often refuse to give Chevron deference to agencies in particularly high-profile cases, which implicate particularly economically or politically salient issues.  This practice has been alternately praised and criticized, but reflects an intuition that as the stakes change, so might a court’s analysis.  So too here.  One might question whether a series-altering call in Game Six of the World Series is the place to fixate on obscure points of baseball trivia; another might retort that such a high-stakes situation is precisely where umpires should be most meticulous about enforcing each and every rule.  In both cases, our feelings about whether to take a different approach in high-stakes cases turn on underlying methodological commitments that merit forthright discussion.

Third, the call illustrates the challenges of navigating the role of technology in judging.  In the legal world, big data has come to statutory interpretation through a controversial new interpretive tool called corpus linguistics.  The tool seeks to derive ordinary meaning by querying massive databases of language usage.  Its proponents argue it can offer judges useful data; its critics fear it seeks to turn judges into automatons.  Like the corpus linguistics debate, the debate over replay technology in baseball challenges us to interrogate the relationship between man and machine in making judgment calls.  Do replays offer useful additional data umpires can use to make better calls, or do they debase the exercise of judgment that defines successful refereeing?  We might approach these questions differently in law and baseball, but the same cross-currents underlie both.

Fourth, the call highlights the role of history and practice in interpretive decisionmaking.  Judges debate the proper role of precedent and practice in legal analysis: some give it great weight, while others feel less bound by it.  In baseball, too, no refereeing decision occurs in a vacuum.  Every call sits against a backdrop of years, decades, even centuries of practice that informs players and coaches of how that text will be applied.  So what to do when that practice comes into tension with the text?  As with legal analysis, some referees may feel more small-c conservative about applying the rules, preferring to conform with widely accepted practice and not rock the boat by calling an infraction that’s never called.  Others may place text above all: rules are rules, history and practice be damned.  But these two strands underlie our intuitive reaction to the fairness of the call, much as they do our legal approaches.

Fifth and finally, the call highlights a certain irreducible judgment inherent in refereeing baseball.  Some referees might follow the strict text of the rule wherever it leads; others may be disinclined to contravene its clear purpose.  Some may accept a form of absurdity doctrine, proceeding with an eye towards how a rational drafter would expect the rule to apply; others might reject that approach.  Some might question the merits of the rule and argue it ought be changed, but maintain that umpires must nonetheless apply it; still others challenge the propriety of the remedy (pulling Gomes back to first).  These debates are vibrant and their isuses contestable, regardless of which side one lands on.   To be sure, refereeing likely admits of more easy calls than judging.  But at the margin, as the Game Six interference call illustrates, it also perhaps proves susceptible of legitimately contestable judgment calls — with implications for the metaphor of judge as umpire. 

This post passes no judgment on any of the doctrinal puzzles surveyed above.  It endorses no particular methodological approach, in either law or baseball.  It simply observes the Trea Turner interference call implicates broader jurisprudential debates and illustrates the complex beauty of America’s pastime.  And above all, it celebrates that, no matter the call, the Nationals are the greatest baseball team on earth.


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