LOS ANGELES – Here’s what happens when a regrettable rule is interpreted absolutely correctly, when a play that brings tears to the eyes of an old baseball softy like Cubs manager Joe Maddon is undone from an air-conditioned office thousands of miles away, when the player who is out in a pile of dirt and chaos celebrates and the men who executed admirably to the play’s final milliseconds, to the play’s final inches, are left to defeat and a quiet bus ride:
They line the field and turn on the lights and let the people in and they play another baseball game, in this case, Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, Sunday night, back at Dodger Stadium, Dodgers and Cubs.
The game grows up, its stops carrying quite as many players from the field, and a good and pure intention – to ensure everybody has enough players for the next game, because there’s always a next game – feels a bit overprotective, a bit counterproductive, a bit like a different game altogether.
In the seventh inning Saturday night, in a two-run game, an earnest and journeyman infielder named Charlie Culberson raced around third in that low-footed way he runs. We’ll let Maddon take it from here, because this is all that went right for the Cubs over the next few seconds:
“I saw [Kyle] Schwarber come in on a ground ball, use his feet perfectly, make a low great throw to the plate that could have been cut off had we needed it to be, but did not because we chose to have it go to home plate. Perfect skip-hop, great play by [Willson] Contreras. The ball kind of taking Willson toward the line, toward foul territory. He catches the ball, and his technique was absolutely 100 percent perfect.”
Culberson’s left arm, reaching desperately to the muddied plate, his hand flat and his fingers extended, clattered off Willson Contreras’ left shin guard. Plate umpire Lance Barksdale waited. There’d been no tag. There’d been no run. Contreras chased Culberson to where he’d come to a tangled stop. Barksdale raised his arm. Culberson was out.
The on-deck hitter, Cody Bellinger, pointed and shouted, but not because he believed Culberson was safe.
“I was pointing toward [Contreras’] leg,” Bellinger said. “I thought his leg was blocking the plate. I saw Charlie didn’t have a clear lane.”
The rule is 7.13. Goes by the nickname, The Buster Posey Rule, which the man himself probably hates. He’s one of those guys they carried off. Posey lost a baseball season in 2011. By 2014, Major League Baseball and the players’ union agreed catchers could no longer be targets, and in order to accomplish that they’d have to erase catchers’ most basic instincts, which is to be targets. Basically, catchers could not block the plate if they did not have the baseball, unless the incoming throw drew them into the baserunner’s path. And baserunners could not hunt catchers. So, after some awkward early trials, catchers set up away from the plate, and baserunners slid, and catchers swipe-tagged, and everyone played happily ever after, until the seventh inning of Game 1 of the 2017 NLCS, which the Dodgers won, 5-2, but not before Maddon went red and got himself ejected and pointed and swore and made a big scene.
He was right to do all that, of course, because the Cubs had just gone from a bloop-and-a-blast’s chance to something a lot more complicated, and all because of some rule that had nothing to do with 250 feet’s worth of baseball stinkin’ perfection. As for the Dodgers, they had two challenges in their pockets, and when their eyes told them what they told them, and Bellinger hopped around, and something didn’t look quite right, they challenged the call – safe or out – and they challenged the concept – Rule 7.13 or no Rule 7.13.
They won the latter, and Dodger Stadium, 54-thousand-and-some strong, cheered the fifth-run dagger, and the Cubs went quietly from there. Indeed, the final 18 Cubs went quietly, more of the same from an offense that has not been exceptional in October, but that’s another matter.
What lingered, however, was a conversation over not safe or out, not even a run or no run, but where to draw the line between competition and surrender. Between hardball and there’s-too-many-parents-on-the-field. Between a ring and an old manila envelope filled with participation ribbons. Besides, the catchers didn’t have to stand there. They chose to stand there.
Maddon used to be a catcher, back when hardly anybody had ever heard of him, back when the baselines were uphill and they took their assault and battery like men. Crazy, masochistic men. But still.
So, late Saturday night, as these emotional moments often bring us, the conversation went in two directions. One, whether Willson Contreras violated the rule. Two, whether there should be the rule.
The answers, of course, were, yes, probably, and it doesn’t matter because there is the rule.
Nobody was arguing that Kyle Schwarber, a below-average outfielder, hadn’t made a wonderful play, and that Culberson hadn’t run as hard as he could have, and that it wasn’t a perfect send by a third-base coach, and that the Cubs’ infielders weren’t right to let that baseball run its course, and that Contreras hadn’t made the proper play by sticking out his leg while waiting for that baseball to arrive. All perfect. All competent. All very exciting.
The interesting part is whatever is next. There are at least three and as many as six games remaining in the series. And after we’d sort of forgotten about 7.13 for a while, as catchers and baserunners had caught on to their roles in plays at the plate, here it is. It’s in play again. It’s fresh on the minds of both managers, all six umpires, the seventh umpire in New York, and all 50 players, because if Willson Contreras wasn’t allowed to do his job, then what’s that mean for everyone else’s?
“I have to stick up for my boys,” Maddon said. “I’ve got to stick up for everybody that plays this game. I thought it was inappropriate. I don’t want guys trying to hurt anybody deliberately or intentionally either. I agree with that 100 percent.
“He did everything right. There is nothing else he could have done. Nothing. Nothing he could have done differently.”
And on this, Maddon had his finest point.
“Play the game,” he said. “Just play the game.”