A highly controversial baseball play in Game 6 of the World Series between the hometown Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros is actually a perfect example of why it is important to let prior court cases impact and dictate later personal injury cases in Maryland – as well as in other fields of law in other states in the U.S.
In the baseball game, Nationals’ shortstop Trea Turner hit a swinging bunt. The Astros pitcher rushed to pick it up and throw Turner out at first. That throw, however, veered too far to the right for the first baseman to catch it – when he reached for it, his glove hit Turner running past him and the ball got away.
The play was a pivotal one – Turner reached second base and the runner on first moved all the way to third, with no one out. The Nationals seemed bound to score and put a close game out of reach.
The home plate umpire, though, intervened. He called Turner out for interfering with the play by running outside of the baseline. According to the umpire, Turner’s running path was too far into the field of play – so far that it blocked the path of the throw and unfairly prevented the first baseman from catching it.
Thankfully, the next batter hit a home run and the Nationals went on to win the game. However, criticism of the call has been loud and emphatic, especially in light of a similar play in Game 2 of the 1998 American League Championship Series.
The runner in that play from 1998 was Travis Fryman, and he was much further outside of the baseline than Trea Turner had been in this year’s World Series. While only Turner’s left foot was on the infield grass, both of Fryman’s feet were, with room to spare. Turner also hit the outside of first base with his left foot, while Fryman hit the center of the bag with his right foot – meaning Fryman’s body was much more of an obstacle than Turner’s was.
Nevertheless, Turner was called out for obstructing the throw while Fryman was not. In fact, the announcers in the 1998 game said, “there’s nothing wrong with where Fryman is” on his way to first.
In the legal world, the outcome of the play from 1998 could have been used as a precedent to determine the outcome of the play from 2019. Using precedent like this is how the common law system works. It lets judges fashion rules for resolving cases that are then used by later judges to resolve similar cases.
Those earlier cases create a potent force in the resolution of later ones, a force known as stare decisis, which is Latin for “to stand by things decided.” Stare decisis is important because adhering to it allows people to alter their conduct around it – if there was stare decisis in baseball, baserunners would have been able to look at the 1998 play and know that they could run where Travis Fryman was running on a similar play and not be called out for interference.
However, stare decisis is a legal doctrine and is not used in baseball. Instead, baseball umpires are allowed to make judgment calls about when a player’s conduct interfered with the play happening around them. The huge discretion this gives to umpires can lead to widely different results on nearly identical plays, as each umpire has their own idea of what it means to “interfere” with the play.
Hence, the confusion and continued controversy over calling Trea Turner out in Game 6.