The "neighborhood play" is one of those things that makes sense only in baseball's vacuum of illogic. The rationale behind it goes something like this: Because runners slide hard into second base and can hurt fielders trying to turn the double play, the fielders are allowed to catch a throw in the neighborhood of the second-base bag without tagging it and still draw a force out. Never mind the attempted catcher decapitations at home plate continuing unabated. Safety for middle infielders' legs is sacrosanct.
One of the more egregious neighborhood plays occurred in Game 4 of the ALCS on Wednesday, when Boston's Stephen Drew caught a Dustin Pedroia throw a full foot off the bag. If Drew was in the neighborhood of the base, Detroit is in the neighborhood of Los Angeles. It was that obvious, and it prompted a fair question from the masses.
Will instant replay fix it?
The answer is maybe. The officials on Major League Baseball's committee to determine replay rules have spent dozens of hours locked in a room arguing over the sort of minutiae replay advocates cannot fathom. The general sense coming out of those meetings is that while replay is in theory a great salve, there is genuine concern that it will fundamentally change baseball's pace to its detriment. Much of the caterwauling over replay comes from fans who savor long, clinical games. To add more time runs the risk of turning off those who already consider the game plodding.
If MLB wants to call the play correctly – it would be odd to have replay for bad calls and accept that umpires let force plays stand with a foot off the base at second while they would never do that at first, third or home – there is a solution. It would necessitate a rule change in addition to the adoption of replay, one used in almost all lower levels of baseball.
In college, it is called the "Force-Play-Slide Rule," and in the NCAA baseball rulebook, it reads as such:
The intent of the force-play-slide rule is to ensure the safety of all players. This is a safety and an interference rule. Whether the defense could have completed the double play has no bearing on the applicability of this rule. This rule pertains to a force-play situation at any base, regardless of the number of outs.
The rule draws a direct path between the baseline and the second-base bag, leaving middle infielders either side of the base on which to plant their feet. If the runner at all interferes with him, the umpire must call the runner out. Interference includes a number of possibilities, from a cross-body takeout slide to a slide with a leg high in the air to a rolling slide. Should a runner interfere, both he and the batter would be out.
By giving a direct mandate to runners and discretion to umpires to call interference, MLB would make it clear that it expects middle infielders to have their feet on the second-base bag when turning double plays, thus opening the window for them to be replayable.
Of course, this would necessitate the approval of players, which may be the toughest part were it to get the committee's stamp. The takeout slide at second base is a staple of baseball, evident in almost every game, and the force-play-slide rule, if not outlawing it, would at least endanger it.
As the committee meets and hammers out what Instant Replay 1.0 will look like, the neighborhood play will come up – and, if they're smart, they'll look at the force-play-slide rule. Replay's goal should be simple: Get right everything it can get right. And when a player a full foot off the bag in a vital postseason game records an out, that is something worth righting.