When the rules let down the Tribe

When the rules let down the Tribe

Updated Mar. 4, 2020 6:24 p.m. ET

Way back when, legendary umpire Bill Klem wrote, “The rules cover anything that might happen.” After what happened Tuesday night in Cleveland, I’m not so sure ...

But it’s a good thing the Reds wound up winning 9-2. This was notable because now both Ohio franchises have the same record: 57 wins, 56 losses. Wednesday night they’re fighting for the Ohio Cup (and also to keep their fading postseason chances alive).

But the game was more notable for a singular occurrence in the bottom of the seventh inning. With runners on first and third and Johnny Cueto pitching, Yan Gomes drove a fastball into the right-field corner, where Jay Bruce collected the baseball. Just as he threw back to the infield ... an errant baseball from the right-field bullpen flew into the fray, closely tracking Bruce’s throw.

This might not have been a problem, except it was. David Murphy had started on first base, and stopped at third ... until he saw an uncollected baseball in the outfield, and started toward home. By the time he realized that another baseball – the game baseball, as it were – was held by a Cincinnati fielder, it was just a bit too late to return to reach a base safely, and Murphy was tagged out at third base. Here, you probably should see all this for yourself …


Was Klem right? Do the rules cover this anything? I don’t think so. We’ve all seen baseballs wind up on the field – especially in the old days when most of the bullpens were actually on the field, in foul ground – and we’ve all seen drunken young men running around on the field for attention. But those things nearly always happen between pitches. The umpires call time-out, and everybody sits tight until order’s restored.

But the rules are designed – they’re well-designed, I would argue – to avoid confusion and foster fairness. This play, on the other hand, was highly confusing and ridiculously unfair. At least to Murphy, one of the few people in the ballpark who simply didn’t have the option of watching the game baseball throughout the play. His third-base coach would have been otherwise occupied, too, at least for a brief moment.

I know, I know ... just their luck, right? I’m not so sure.

From the Official Baseball Rules:

9.01 (c) Each umpire has authority to rule on any point not specifically covered in these rules.

Is there a rule somewhere about extra baseballs bouncing around like a pinball machine during EXTRA BONUS PLAY? I don’t know. But it seems to me that the moment the second baseball escaped, the umpires should have immediately halted play and used their judgment to place the runners on the appropriate bases, because that second ball gave the defense an unfair advantage, just as a fan who leans into the field of play and interferes with a batted ball (or a fielder) might give one team an unfair advantage.

In this case, the Indians should have wound up with runners on second and third, nobody out, still trailing 6-2. Instead they trailed 6-2, but had just one runner aboard and one out. They wouldn’t score again in the inning, and the margin wound up 9-2 thanks to the Reds’ three-run ninth.

Again, maybe there’s something about this in the rules. In fact, there probably is. From MLB.com’s Cleveland gamer:

Francona emerged from the dugout to discuss the bizarre play, but the umpires did not conduct a review and the game continued. Cueto recovered by retiring the next two batters he faced to escape further damage.

"[Third-base umpire] Gerry Davis, his explanation was right on," Francona said. "It wasn't fun to hear. I thought I saw what I saw, but they can't kill the play until the conclusion. I understand the rule. They said, 'We understand your frustration. There's nothing we can do,' which I understand."

Well, I don’t understand it. If the umpires could have fixed this and didn’t, they were wrong. If they just couldn’t fix it, the rules are wrong. But of course the rules can never be completely right. As long as they’re playing baseball, there will be occasions when the rules just don’t work. Even if those occasions come farther and farther apart.

By the way, the most famous two-balls-in-play incident happened in 1959. While the circumstances were quite a bit different – that time, an umpire actually put the second ball in play, not realizing the first was still being handled by the defense – the Cardinals did file a protest after one of the balls was used to tag out Stan Musial. But the Cardinals wound up winning, so withdrew their protest.

This might never happen again, at least in the majors. But the umpires should be required to halt play and use their best professional judgment when there’s more than one baseball caroming about the diamond. Hey, Next Commissioner! First order of business!