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Biertempfel: Blocking-the-plate rule proving to be maddening

| Saturday, June 21, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

CHICAGO

Joe Torre probably didn't even need to look at his caller ID to know Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was on the other end of the line.

Hurdle phoned Torre, MLB's overseer of baseball operations, Wednesday night after Hurdle was ejected from the game against the Cincinnati Reds. Hurdle didn't want to grumble about being tossed. His complaint was about the absurd rule interpretation that put the process in motion.

You've seen the replay. The Reds had the bases loaded with one out. Alfredo Simon hit a tapper a few feet in front of the plate, pitcher Stolmy Pimentel fielded it and threw to catcher Russell Martin for an apparent force out.

Umpire crew chief Jerry Layne called for a review. The play was looked at for three minutes at MLB headquarters, and Layne was told to reverse the call. Martin violated Experimental Rule 7.13, which forbids the catcher from blocking the plate before he has possession of the ball.

“Initially, I felt there was no way they were going to call him safe — no way,” Martin said. “It's another one of those things that make me realize I don't know much at all.”

The play gave the Reds a 6-0 lead. They went on score three more runs in the inning and won 11-4.

“We got a huge advantage from that play,” Reds manager Bryan Price said. “I believe the call was right, even though I don't necessarily agree with the rule itself.”

Banished to the clubhouse, Hurdle used some of his suddenly free time to speed dial Torre. Hurdle didn't disclose everything that was said, but he clearly got the sense Torre understood his concern. It is likely Rule 7.13, put in place shortly before the start of the season, will be tweaked over the winter.

“We are still trying to find ways to figure out what is and what isn't (obstruction),” Hurdle said. “The definition of rules, interpretation of rules and common sense all need to play a part in it.”

The next day, Torre released a statement that “this play was not the type that should have resulted in a violation of Rule 7.13.”

In other words, “Oops, our bad.” What makes the situation really maddening is the seemingly inconsistent way it's applied.

In an earlier game this season against the Reds, Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez appeared to block the plate for an out, but Rule 7.13 was not invoked. A couple of weeks later, the New York Mets were awarded a run when Martin obstructed a runner.

In the fifth inning Wednesday, Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco appeared to block the plate as Pedro Alvarez slid in. The play was reviewed, and the initial out call was overturned — not due to obstruction but because Alvarez beat the tag.

“You want to know what the rule is. You want to know what you can and can't do,” Mesoraco said. “At this point, I don't think any of the catchers know.”

You might expect Martin wants Rule 7.13 to be erased forever. He doesn't.

“I think (the rule) is better for the game,” he said. “It's going to protect guys and reduce a lot of unnecessary blows to the head. But you don't know everything that's going to happen until you go through it. We're at the beginning stage, and there are adjustments that have to be made.”

MLB already has indicated it will not revise the rule during the season. So for now, in addition to catching throws and making acrobatic tags, Martin and other catchers will have to worry about keeping their left foot in and their right foot out — baseball's bizarre version of the hokeypokey.

“This makes every play at the plate like heart surgery,” MLB Network Radio host Jim Memolo said. “Every play has to be to-the-centimeter perfect.”

Baseball shouldn't be like heart surgery. It's a game, with lightning-quick plays that require fast decisions and instinctual moves.

When MLB overregulates its product, it only makes the game more frustrating and, thus, less interesting to watch.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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