Let’s just get this out of the way now: That sucked. I mean, the game between the Astros and Red Sox was great, and it couldn’t have ended in a more dramatic fashion, but ultimately, the Red Sox won by two runs. And, in the bottom of the first inning, a controversial call and replay review might well have cost the Astros two runs. Yes, you’re right, the game would’ve played out differently had that call been made differently. We have no idea what that alternate game would’ve looked like. But the Astros have been pushed to the brink now, and a two-run homer would’ve been a pretty big deal. No one ever wants to think a game and season were damaged by umpires. It’s a very unsatisfying kind of disappointment, when the outcomes aren’t solely determined by the players themselves.
I don’t think we’re ever going to know for sure whether the right call was made. As such, it’s the sort of thing that’s going to linger, at least if the Astros fail to advance. Immediately, this has turned into a great What If?, and a target of Astros fan rage. Yet having reviewed all the evidence, I’ve come to the conclusion the call was good. And by that I mean, I think it was more good than bad. In the absence of anything conclusive, some amount of mystery is everlasting. But if you are to render judgment, you go whichever way you’re leaning. I’m leaning toward fan interference.
Let’s bring everybody up to the same place. In the bottom of the first inning, with a runner on base, Jose Altuve lifted a fly ball deep to right field. Mookie Betts gave chase, and as he got to the track, he leaped in an effort to bring the ball down. The ball, though, didn’t end up within Betts’ glove. Here’s the whole thing happening at full speed:
Clearly, the ball was going to be a home run. It had the height, and it had the distance. But it was a potentially robbable home run. Betts came close, but he couldn’t make the grab, crashing into a swarm of outstretched arms and hands. It looked as if Altuve had gone yard, but Joe West immediately signaled fan interference. West had to signal something, and from where he stood, it looked as if Betts had a really good shot. And he couldn’t tell whether arms were in front of the fence or behind it. He made his decision, knowing it was going to be reviewed anyway.
It was reviewed, and the review took a few minutes. The call on the field was upheld — there wasn’t enough to confirm or overturn. Had West initially ruled it a homer, it probably would’ve stayed a homer, for the same reason. But you can understand why he thought what he did at first. He leaned toward interference. It stayed as interference.
This is the part where I show you all the slow-motion angles. Here’s one of them:
Here’s another one of them:
Here’s still another one of them:
You can see why there’s so much disagreement. You can understand why Red Sox fans see one thing, while Astros fans see another. Those replays don’t give you the angle you’d want, and although there was an available replay from a better angle along the wall, that camera just happened to have a security guard in front of it:
Because of the security guard, the preferred camera feed was worthless. Interpretation had and has to be based on the other angles. Screenshots hardly seem very helpful.
You can see almost whatever you want to in there. It took me a while to settle on meaningful clues. Here’s the core of the whole thing. Here’s a section of the comment from the spectator-interference section of the rule book. We’re talking about Rule 6.01(e).
No interference shall be allowed when a fielder reaches over a fence, railing, rope or into a stand to catch a ball. He does so at his own risk. However, should a spectator reach out on the playing field side of such fence, railing or rope, and plainly prevent the fielder from catching the ball, then the batsman should be called out for the spectator’s interference.
Based on the replays, it’s plainly evident that the fans prevented Betts from making a clean catch attempt. The question is where the fans were. Or, where Betts was. If Betts was somewhere beyond the wall, then there couldn’t be interference. Not according to the rule. But if the fans were reaching over the wall, then interference would be correct. Somewhat importantly, the rule doesn’t address the area directly above the wall, but I assume that counts as in-play territory, since a ball that hits the top of the wall and comes back is in play, and isn’t a homer. It’s a small area, but in a case such as this one, inches matter.
So are we looking at interference behind the wall, or not behind the wall? I’ll remind you, nothing can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. But I want to show you a couple more clips. Each clip is just a pair of alternating screenshots.
The camera shifts a little between the two pictures, but something that barely changes is the location of Betts’ left wrist. In the second photo, it looks like Betts is reaching almost straight up, and his body hasn’t yet impacted the wall. If his body hasn’t impacted the wall, and if his arm is almost straight up, then it sure doesn’t seem like the glove is on the other side. Here’s the other pair of screenshots, showing the same general thing.
Betts’ left wrist barely moves. But while the wrist is temporarily stable and steady, Betts’ body keeps moving underneath. Again, in the second photo, it looks like Betts’ arm is almost straight up, and he still hasn’t impacted the wall. He’s some number of inches away from the wall, and the front of the wall is some number of inches away from the back. Based on these images, it seems more likely that Betts’ glove was still somewhere in or over the field of play upon colliding with the spectators. One more screenshot to focus on:
The point of reference here is the guy in white in the front row. This was taken moments after the ball first came down, but Betts’ left hand has barely moved. Betts’ left arm is almost straight up. He hasn’t yet crashed into the wall. The guy in white is holding the wall with his own left hand. And he’s leaning forward with his upper body, such that his shoulders are over the wall’s top. And now look at the guy’s right arm, outstretched. Even though the wall itself fades away to the left, because of the angle, the guy in white’s arm is reaching toward the camera. It’s reaching to the front and the side of his right shoulder. His hips are almost against the wall. His shoulders appear to be above the wall. His right hand appears to be in front of his shoulder. It’s nothing easy, it’s nothing obvious, and it’s nothing conclusive, but it’s enough for me to lean. It’s enough for me to think the chances Betts was still in play are greater than 50%.
By the way the rule is written, that’s enough. But as long as we’re here, we might as well also consider the spirit of the rule itself. I don’t think baseball has ever wanted to encourage fans to try to prevent players from making defensive plays. Fans aren’t supposed to be direct actors in a game, and I imagine the idea is that players should be given a reasonable chance to make catches. If those fans in Houston weren’t there in right field, or if there were a seatless buffer between the fans and the wall, Mookie Betts presumably makes that catch. Not only is he the best defensive right fielder in the game — he’d already done all the hard work. He got himself into position, and he timed his jump right. His glove was where it was supposed to be. Even if that had been ruled a home run, it would feel a little like a home run by technicality. I can’t think of a compelling reason why baseball would want fans to get in the way. The fans are there to watch. The players are there to play.
If you think about what baseball has probably intended, Betts should’ve been able to make that catch. And if you just go by the letter of the law, it seems to be more likely that, when Betts’ glove collided with arms, it was either in front of the wall or above it. I can’t say that with 100% certainty. There will never be any 100% certainty, unless some fan nearby just happened to have a camera out. More important to me is just getting past 50%. I’ve gotten past 50%. I think the interference call was more right than wrong. That’s all you can ask for in a situation like this, and I’m glad it’s not a complete and utter coin flip. Then no one would be able to make peace.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.