The Spirit of the Rule

A few years ago, when I was a kid reporter in the Rock Hill (S.C.) Bureau of the Charlotte Observer, the biggest story on my innumerable beats was the college recruitment of Jeff Burris. He was a superstar running back at Northwestern High School and was among the most recruited football players in America. Everybody wanted Jeff.

One day, Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz slipped into town to basically wrap up the deal. We caught word of it and tried to chase him down. I’ve told this story before; one of the great reporters I’ve known, Lolo Pendergast, gave me a crash course on the tenacity you need to be, well, one of the great reporters. She called anybody and everybody who might get us connected to Holtz. After digging, she was able to determine that he was a private plane, was able to call the airport where it landed to page him and then, after determining that was not good enough, she was able to somehow get word through air traffic control to Lou Holtz that we very much needed to talk with him. He called a few minutes later.

“Thank you so much for calling,” I told him; I was dizzy from the chase.

“What choice did I have?” Holtz replied.

In any case, he couldn’t say anything about signing Burris or even confirm that he had been in Rock Hill because of NCAA regulations — something I probably should have known but didn’t. But he did give me a quote that I still remember. He said, “I can’t say anything because as you know, here at Notre Dame, we follow not only the letter of the rules but the spirit of the rules.”

Yes, I do get the irony of Lou Holtz saying those words, but the point is I don’t believe I’d ever heard that phrase “spirit of the rule” before. I love that phrase. I love that concept. I think of the “Spirit of the Rules” as an actual thing, a ghostly being, and I imagine she looks down on us like with the same look my wife often gives our teenage daughter and says, “OH STOP IT, YOU KNOW WHAT I MEANT.”

I thought a lot about the spirit of the rules when I saw Washington’s José Lobatón get called out on replay Thursday night. Whew, I’ve written about replay a lot, but I think I had small burst of clarity about what replay does in sports, why we love it and why we’re sometimes frustrated by it. Replay is great at parsing plays to the letter. No, “great” does not quite cover it. Replay is better at getting the calls right to the letter than anything mankind has ever devised.

Alas, though, replay is not just blind but hostile to the spirit of the rules.

* * *

Let’s talk for just a moment about the Lobatón play. It was the eighth inning, what Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” called “The end of a very long day.” The Nationals trailed the Cubs by a run. Every inning of this game was mesmerizing and exhausting and controversial and tense and fun and infuriating; there really has never been another game quite like it. I hear people say that it was an all-time classic, and I hear others say that it was a terrible game, and I somehow agree completely with both of them.

Washington trailed by a run, and there were two outs, and the Nationals had runners on first and second. José Lobatón was the runner on first. He is a somewhat traveled 32-year-old backup catcher who — and this should tell you a bit about the nuttiness of this game — came into pinch-hit and then just stayed like that guy on the couch who doesn’t seem to realize that the party ended a while ago. Lobatón is a career .212 hitter, but that speaks to when he was in his prime. He hit .170 this year. But here he was in the spotlight of Game 5.

Then this was a game of survivors, and Lobatón survived … he even thrived, somehow lining a single off Cubs closer Wade Davis to set up the first and second situation. The crowd in Washington was delirious in the most literal sense — “in an acutely disturbed state of mind resulting from illness or intoxication and characterized by restlessness, illusions, and incoherence of thought and speech.” Nobody even knew what to think or feel anymore after this crazy game of a thousand pitchers, a game both teams had once led by a comfortable margin, a game with everything from catcher interference to an umpire getting hit in the face with a pitch to epic sword fighting to a battle of wits to the death to inconceivable blunders.

Just after the second pitch of Trea Turner’s at-bat, Cubs catcher Willson Contreras jumped to his feet and, with stunning speed, fired a throw to first base in an attempt to pick off Lobatón. Contreras loves to do this and why not? If I had that guy’s arm and athleticism I’’d do it even with nobody on base. Lobatón slid feet first into the bag and beat the throw. The umpire ruled him safe. And then, the madness began.

TBS broadcaster Ron Darling saw it first. “His foot came off the bag for just an instant,” Darling said. It was an impressive observation considering he’d only seen the play live. Replay, when you slowed it down enough and showed it from just the right angle, confirmed what Darling saw. Lobatón’s momentum (and awkward feet-first slide) was such that his toe popped off the bag for what was probably less than a second. The question then was: Did Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo have the tag on Lobatón at that precise second.

The first replay, the one that showed the Lobatón toe coming off the bag, was inconclusive about the tag. But there was a second replay, this one from behind first base that showed — not with 100 percent certainty but beyond reasonable doubt — that Rizzo did seem to keep the tag on Lobatón.

So if you took the evidence from the first replay and synced it with the evidence from the second replay, you had fairly compelling proof that Rizzo had indeed tagged Lobatón out when his foot slipped.

And the replay umpires were so compelled — they called Lobatón out, ending the threat and sending an already frazzled Washington Nationals fan base into shock. The Nationals went down 1-2-3 in the ninth inning and the Cubs now go on to play the Dodgers. The Washington Nationals still have not won a single playoff series.

So you already know: I despise the Lobatón call. It is everything I have railed against here since replay was first instituted. Ultra-technical, frame-by-frame calls like that, in my view, turn baseball from a living, breathing, physical, joyous sport into a boring, pointless legal battle with filings and motions and addendum and enough paperwork to make you go blind. It’s a game meant to be PLAYED not LITIGATED and at no point in the first 100-plus years of baseball did anybody care about the physical realities of sliding that sometime makes the foot or hand lose contact with the base for the blink of an eye.

But, this is probably going to surprise you: After being ticked off about the call for a few seconds, I sort of gave up. See, for a long while, what I’ve wanted to do blend what replay so does well (get the call right) with what replay does not do at all (respect the spirit of these rules).

I have proposed that replay umpires only watch the play at full speed so to reduce the Zapbruder-like breakdown of video to its tiniest parts. That probably would have given us a different call in this situation; I don’t think umpires could have called out Lobatón out if they only saw the play at regular speed. I have proposed being limited in how we use replay, so that the, for example, the only reviewable part of the Lobatón play would be whether or not he got back in time and NOT whether or not his foot squeaked off the bag. I have even proposed putting a common sense replay umpire at every game, and he or she would have wide latitude for how to use replay based on a deep understanding of baseball’s rules and why they exist.

I don’t necessarily think any of these would work ... I have just been throwing stuff at the wall.

But after the Lobatón play, I realized something. It isn’t that replay is a neutral arbiter that simply doesn’t account for the spirit of the rules. Replay is actively DESTROYING the spirit of the rules. Replay, by its very nature, is hhere to say: The only thing that matters is the words of the rule. Any history of the rules, any nuance inside the rules, any wink-wink-nudge-nudge understandings within the rule are wiped out by replay.

There was a time you might remember when baseball had this unwritten “the ball got there first” spirit of the rule. It would happen on stolen base attempts mostly. The thought was if the ball got there first, the batter was out. Sure, if it was OBVIOUS that the tag was missed, the ump would call the runner save. But otherwise, he was out.

It’s funny to think back to it now. Sometimes, on replay, an announcer would say, “Hey, you know what? I don’t think he got the tag down.” But nobody really cared, nobody demanded anything be done about it, because THE BALL GOT THERE FIRST, which means the defensive team did the most important thing right, at least in the view of the time.

Well, replay doesn’t just obliterate THE BALL GOT THERE FIRST, it makes a mockery of such simple-minded thinking. Ball got there first? So what? The rule clearly states you have to tag the runner. The spirit of the rule is made to look ridiculous.* Maybe you think it is ridiculous but that just amplifies the point — a thought that guided the game for many years is instantly gone, unmourned.

_*”And a man in my position can’t afford to be made to look ridiculous!” Surely I’m not the only one who has thought Jack Woltz from The Godfather was basically Harvey Weinstein — this garbage clearly has been going on in Hollywood since the beginning. _

That’s what replay does. My thinking about replay was off. It is not, as I thought, another tool to make sure calls are called right. It is, instead, a trade-off. We get rid of all the egregious calls. In their place, we call technically correct calls that might leave us shaking our heads. We get pinpoint accuracy. In exchange, Jose Lobaton is out.

I’m sure they could write the rule in such a way that replay would not overturn that call. And I’m equally sure that that new version of the rule would lead to something just as frustrating. I think Lobaton is out. It makes me kind of sad. But these are the choices we make.