Saturday, December 20, 2014

The abstract art of baselines

Before we begin the debate of Rule 7.08, let's acknowledge this: Ryan Howard tagged Michael Bourn. Howard was adamant after the game that he had "nicked" Bourn.

The abstract art of baselines

Charlie Manuel shows umpire Greg Gibson where he thought Michael Bourn ran out of the baseline. (AP Photo / Matt Rourke)
Charlie Manuel shows umpire Greg Gibson where he thought Michael Bourn ran out of the baseline. (AP Photo / Matt Rourke)

Before we begin the debate of Rule 7.08, let's acknowledge this: Ryan Howard tagged Michael Bourn. Howard was adamant after the game that he had "nicked" Bourn.

After watching the replays, it's clear Howard got a piece of Bourn -- around his left buttocks. If you watch the replay and focus solely on Bourn's belt, you see it move after Howard's glove touches it.

So Rule 7.08 notwithstanding, Bourn was out.

But it was impossible for first-base umpire Greg Gibson to see Howard barely tag Bourn. He could not see it.

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Here's the problem. Charlie Manuel was arguing the wrong part of the call. Granted, Gibson's interpretation of Rule 7.08 might have been wrong, but it wasn't Manuel's best argument for having the call overturned.

Manuel's main contention was the runner was out of the baseline. After the game, the manager was asked if he had requested Gibson ask for help in making the call, perhaps to home plate umpire Scott Barry.

"He does not have to get help," Manuel said. "That's his call."

Manuel said he did not think Howard tagged Bourn. Howard said he did not ask for an explanation on the play. He apparently didn't tell Manuel he tagged Bourn either.

"It didn't look to me like he tagged him," Manuel said.

So Manuel didn't ask for help?

"I didn't request help because that's his call," Manuel said. "He's standing right there at it."

But maybe Barry, who had a clear view of Bourn's backside and the tag being applied, would have ruled differently had he been asked.

Unfortunately, we don't know that now. Following the game, a pool reporter requested comment from Gibson. Crew chief Sam Holbrook said Gibson was not available and said only this: "Per MLB policy, we're not allowed to talk."

It is common practice for umpires to explain a disputed call to reporters following games. Take, for example, Jim Joyce after the imperfect game. Or Bob Davidson from earlier this season in Miami when he ruled a potential game-winning hit for the Marlins foul. The Phillies won that game.

Now, to Rule 7.08. Most would say it shouldn't matter that Manuel argued the wrong part of the call -- both aspects were ruled incorrectly by the umpiring crew.

"It was so faint I wouldn't have expected him to see it," Howard said of the tag. "As far as being out of the baseline, I think that was pretty much no contest."

Well, that's depending on the interpretation of the rule. As I wrote in the game story, Rule 7.08(a)(1) is ambiguous. It says, in part: "Any runner is out when - He runs more than three feet away from his baseline to avoid being tagged unless his action is to avoid interference with a fielder fielding a batted ball. A runner's baseline is established when the tag attempt occurs and is a straight line from the runner to the base he is attempting to reach safely. . . ."

Basically, it is the umpire's judgment as to where the tag attempt occurs, thus establishing the baseline. Gibson told Manuel that relative to where Howard's tag attempt was, Bourn had not exceeded three feet beyond the baseline.

"My version of the play was the umpires made the call that they thought was right," Bourn said. "Me, too. I agreed with them."

It's impossible to say Gibson was right or wrong simply because we do not know where the tag attempt "officially" begins. That is under Gibson's discretion. Because he did not explain after the game, we do not know -- yet.

The biggest gripe Manuel had was Gibson told him something differently June 24 against Cleveland. In that game, Manuel was tossed in the second inning after disputing a call at first base.

Indians pitcher Fausto Carmona was in front of Shane Victorino, who was trying to leg out the infield hit. Victorino avoided Carmona's tag and reached out to safely touch first. But he was called out by Gibson.

On Monday, Victorino stopped to talk to Gibson on his way into the dugout. He reminded Gibson of that play and asked how this was any different. Gibson told him Carmona had established the tag attempt and Victorino was more than three feet away from it.

This time, Gibson told Victorino, Howard was behind Bourn when the tag attempt occurred. When Howard went to tag Bourn, he established his baseline there.

Confused yet?

Howard said Rule 7.08 is one constantly discussed in spring training, when a representative from Major League Baseball typically visits each club to go over the rules.

"It's one of the rules that's always brought up because there's so much gray area," Howard said. "Nobody is sure."

Hopefully, Holbrook or Gibson will comment before Tuesday's game.

Now beyond the call, there was more to the game. I tweeted that I could have written 3,000 words but had to settle for 700 in the newspaper.

The e-mails are already pouring in, complaining about Jayson Werth being picked off second base following an intentional walk to Carlos Ruiz. A Phillies official noted this comedy: The chicken dance song played (because Ruiz was walked) as the Astros left the field.

Manuel would not discuss the play.

"That speaks for itself," he said. "I don't have to say a word. That play right there is sitting in front of you. I don't have to answer that."

He was asked if thought about benching Werth.

"No," Manuel said, "I did not."

Wilson Valdez would have been up with two runners on and two outs. Would something have happened? Impossible to say. But Werth has these mental mistakes and Monday was the most glaring yet.

Werth was gone Monday by the time reporters entered the Phillies clubhouse.

After the disputed call, Angel Sanchez sacrificed the two runners over. Hunter Pence struck out and Carlos Lee came up with first base empty. Manuel, who had been ejected but was still standing in the dugout tunnel, said he did not consider walking Lee.

Behind him was Chris Johnson, the rookie who is hitting .370 since the all-star break. Lee was 4 for 14 lifetime against Ryan Madson.

"Madson knows Lee," Manuel said. "We felt like we could get in on Lee. Even if he walks him, it's OK. I haven't seen it yet, but I guarantee you, he was trying to bust him inside."

He did. Lee broke his bat, still enough to drive in two runs.

"I didn't see it," Manuel said. "I was down there, still upset at the call."

And that's Game 124 in a nutshell.

Matt Gelb Inquirer Staff Writer
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