By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — In Game 3 of the ALCS, a controversial call took away two potential runs for the Boston Red Sox. In Game 4, the script was flipped.
This moment came in the bottom of the first inning, with the Red Sox staked to an early 2-0 lead. Jose Altuve stepped to the plate with George Springer on first base, and he clobbered an up-and-away 2-1 fastball, sending it deep to right field.
Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts tracked the ball all the way to the wall, before timing his leap and making an attempt to reach over the wall to steal the home run. He looked like he was about to make an incredible catch, but a fan’s hand closed Betts’ glove just before the ball arrived.
Umpire Joe West, positioned in right field for this game, immediately ruled fan interference. That ruling made Springer return to first and sent Altuve to the dugout as the second out of the inning.
West — who is the crew chief in this series — then initiated a replay review. The review with MLB headquarters in New York was lengthy, but ultimately, the call on the field stood.
The ruling is sure to be controversial. The official ruling on spectator interference is as follows: : “If spectator interference clearly prevents a fielder from catching a fly ball, the umpire shall declare the batter out.”
Simple enough, but there are notes attached to the rule:
There is a difference between a ball which has been thrown or batted into the stands, touching a spectator thereby being out of play even though it rebounds onto the field and a spectator going onto the field or reaching over, under or through a barrier and touching a ball in play or touching or otherwise interfering with a player. In the latter case it is clearly intentional and shall be dealt with as intentional interference as in Rule 6.01(d). Batter and runners shall be placed where in the umpire’s judgment they would have been had the interference not occurred.
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.
The question at play with Betts is whether he reached over the fence, or whether the fans reached over the fence. From a straight-on view, it was hard to tell, and the only available side view was blocked by a Minute Maid Park security employee. One replay shown from a left field angle made it look like Betts did reach over the yellow line, but it was not conclusive.
WBZ-TV’s Dan Roche tweeted a photo from his perspective and said the fans were leaning over the wall.
The ruling on the field stood. It was not confirmed, but it stood, because there was not enough video evidence to overturn it. Had West ruled the ball to be in play, then that ruling likely would have stood as well.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch told TBS sideline reporter Lauren Shehadi, “I’m not sure if Mookie makes that catch. He’s a great athlete, but how it’s an assumed out is unbelievable.”
After the game, Joe West had a very simple explanation for the whole matter:
Hinch, though, clearly disagreed, and he expanded on his thoughts in his press conference.
“I saw fan interference. I’ve had this a couple of times, or we have as a team. And they deemed the fan reached over into the field of play and interfered with Betts. And Jose pays the biggest price because the trajectory of the ball looked like it was going to leave the ballpark. But we assume — and you can assume a lot with Mookie because he’s an incredible athlete — we assume he’s going to make this spectacular catch jumping as high as he can into the crowd,” Hinch said. “Once the fan reaches past that line of the fence, I mean, we’re going to penalize hitters every time. And so changed that whole inning.”
Hinch added: “Joe called it that way. Joe called it that way from the get-go. There’s so many plays in there — I don’t want to spend more time on this play — but Joe saw the play as interference. He called that on the field. When they went to replay, they confirmed it. So there’s nothing more — I can get ejected in the first inning, which is ridiculous in a playoff game. But there’s no mechanism for me to change their mind, change their interpretation, change the fact that I thought the ball was a row or two into the stands. It doesn’t matter what I think. I’m not in New York, and I’m not an umpire.”
Unsurprisingly, Red Sox manager Alex Cora had a different perspective.
“He went after the ball and Joe called it out right away. I saw the replays and I know the boundaries and all that. And I was pretty sure he was going to be called out. He didn’t reach over the fence; he was actually parallel with the wall. That’s the rule and we got the out,” Cora said. “Right away, Joe calls it right away and I saw the replay. And I said, no way they going to overturn this, I was pretty sure.”
Betts spoke about the play as well.
“I was just kind of going back, and I got a good jump on it. And I was pretty positive I was going to be able to catch it. But as I jumped and went over, reached my hand up, I felt like somebody was kind of pushing my glove out of the way or something. And I got to see a little bit of the replay. I guess they were going to catch the ball and pushed my glove out of the way,” Betts said. “I didn’t know it was called an out. That’s why I got it and threw it home. I guess he got the call right.”
As for whether he would have caught the ball if not for the interference, Betts said there is no doubt.
“That was a ball I could catch. I’m 100 percent positive I was going to be able to catch that one,” Betts said. “I definitely felt like somebody pushed my glove out of the way. It may not have been on purpose, but definitely happened. And I was pretty positive that ball was going in my glove.”