Watching the implementation of NPB’s new collision rule for a couple of months has been pretty painful. We’ve seen gun-shy catchers setting up for throws 10 feet from home plate to protect themselves from trigger-happy umpires and then be unable to reach the runner and make a tag.
Another scene that has played out twice in the past week was when a player not obstructing the baseline in any sense of the word was found to have violated the rule about fielders being in the baseline unless a throw takes them there. It looks stupid as all get out in both cases, since the runner had clear access to home base in each case, was tagged easily, and called out by the home plate ump — only to have crew chief Masanobu Sugiyama overturn the calls on video review.
The majors, which would like to get rid of all collisions but can’t seem to say so, have resorted to trying to define the scope under which “hard-nosed, old-time baseball crashes” can still occur and is struggling. In Japan, however, the mandate was to eliminate collisions at home plate, so the rules went beyond MLB’s. Unlike MLB, a fielder has no right to stand between a runner and home plate — even when he has the ball in his possession. The catcher can NEVER block home plate and the runner cannot initiate contact with a player covering home.
The only exception is when the umpire rules that the act of catching a ball puts the fielder in the baseline.
Osamu Ino, the gentleman who chairs NPB’s umpiring technical committee, and by the way also sits on Japan’s Rules Committee — NPB’s rules can’t be changed unless the amateurs sign off on it — tried to explain the process to me two days after the first out at home was overturned on video review by Suginaga.
“We wanted to get rid of collisions, the players union wanted that, too,” Ino said. “We thought about just adopting MLB’s rules, but we were concerned that if there was a way to block the plate or obstruct the base path with the ball, Japanese players would do it and collisions would still occur. I think it is something to do with our national character.”
What he was saying was not that Japanese players would cheat, but that a crystal clear definition of what was legal and what wasn’t was needed.
Then a wonderful quote came today from Japan rugby international Kensuke Hatakeyama and I suddenly understood Ino’s dilemma. After playing overseas the past few months, Hatakeyama made a number of observations, including this priceless one to my colleagues from Kyodo News in England a few days ago. He’s talking about the importance of teaching Japanese the right way to do something. (I’ll post the original Japanese at the end so anyone who has a better take on the quote can chip in.)
“If you go in the wrong direction, the Japanese will collectively go that way and that’s that. If a coach says (to Japanese) to cross on a red light, Japanese will mistakenly walk into the street and ‘Wham’ get run over.”
The plays at Seibu Prince Dome a week ago Friday and at Koshien Stadium on Wednesday, caused numerous heads to turn. But it seems that after decades of being instructed to ignore the obstruction rule at home plate, the umpires have been instructed clearly to interpret the rule as follows:
Neither the third base line including home plate can be occupied by a fielder. Because of this, fielders cannot prepare to make tags as they would at any other base. They not only have to give the runner a clear path to the base, but it has to be the prescribed path.
In the case of Wednesday’s game. Hanshin Tigers catcher Fumihito Haraguchi was straddling the plate. The base line was open, home plate was open. He gave the runner a lane to the plate, unfortunately the lane he provided was between his legs — and thus according to NPB’s narrow interpretation, he was risking a collision — which is of course nonsense. But Hatakeyama’s thoughts helped me understand how Japanese umpires could pretend obstruction wasn’t in the rule book last year, while now pointing to the rule book and enforcing the new rule to the 10th decimal place.
On Thursday, Yakult Swallows manager Mitsuru Manaka engaged the media with a 20-minute discussion about the rule and its interpretation.
“It’s very ambiguous,” he said — meaning there is a gap between the wording 0f giving the runner a clear lane — and the unwritten prescription that the lane is the third base line and all the air space above it.
“This implementation is Japanese. We tend to be anal retentive in these things.”
Next year, NPB will outlaw interference by runners on fielders attempting to make throws, which is the way the game is going, more toward speed and athleticism and less toward collisions in the name of “playing the game the right way.”
In MLB, ostensibly a runner has free reign to wreck havoc on middle infielders’ bodies PROVIDED he makes a bona fide slide into second base and never gives up the bag. Eventually, that sort of language will be replaced by what they’re trying to do in Japan, which is make a rule that states clearly that the purpose is to avoid injury and interference at the bag.
Ino said it will take a few iterations to get the home plate collision rule right, but at least the goal of Japan’s rule is clearly stated.