The obstruction call can be one of the most controversial calls in a game and requires college umpires to have a thorough knowledge of the rules related to this call. An obstruction call can change the complexity and even the outcome of a game, as it has the potential to award bases which may result in game-winning runs to score. See the Case Play at the end of this article for examples.
Obstruction is an act of a defensive player which impedes a batter’s attempt to contact a pitch or impedes the progress of any runner who is legally running bases on a live ball. The three forms of obstruction, per the NCAA Rule Book, are:
• Catcher obstruction
• Fielder obstruction
• Equipment obstruction
These actions will be discussed in this article. There are companion articles in this same section which give further rule clarifications of the obstruction rule: Obstruction between bases, Verbal and Visual Obstruction; and Obstruction – Warnings, Awards, and Ejections. The article Obstruction Call Mechanics is also helpful to get a complete understanding of all the aspects involved with an accurate obstruction ruling.
Additional tenets of obstruction
• It is NOT obstruction if the fielder is in possession of the ball or is fielding a batted ball which has not been touched by any other fielder.
• The act may be intentional or unintentional and physical contact is not a requirement for obstruction.
• Obstruction may be committed by a fielder before the actual play on the runner at a base.
• If the runner over-slides a base/plate she cannot be called out as the over-sliding is viewed as part of the runner’s action to attain the base.
• If multiple fielders are attempting to field a batted ball, the umpire can protect only the fielder who has the most likely opportunity to field the ball. If the other fielder impedes the runner, even if it is a legitimate effort to field the ball, obstruction must be called on this second fielder.
• Once in possession of the ball, the defensive player can be positioned between the runner and the base/plate.
• Obstruction can occur on a force or a tag play.
The Catcher Obstruction rule applies only when the catcher is in position to receive a pitch. When the catcher is making a play on a runner at third base or the plate she is considered a fielder, and all the rules for fielder obstruction apply. One big difference between catcher obstruction and fielder obstruction is that catcher obstruction can be canceled or result in the offensive team being given an option of the result of the play or the Effect. The only fielder obstruction rule which has this Effect is one of the rules for visual obstruction (interestingly, it does not apply to the other one; see below and the article Visual and Verbal obstruction).
Catcher obstruction will not be as obvious as the obstruction committed by fielders. Often the plate umpire will hear or see something “unusual” and it might take a second or two to judge and mentally confirm that the swinging bat touched the catcher’s glove. Hesitate while you replay the action in your head and take into consideration any unusual reaction by the batter as well. The Catcher Obstruction rule is relatively short and straight-forward. Read the rule and its accompanying Notes for a complete understanding of this rule.
Most of the key points for ruling on fielder obstruction have been covered in the Obstruction defined section, inclusive of the Additional tenets bullets.
The Effect for most of the fielder obstruction violations are 1) a delayed dead ball, and 2) if the obstructed runner:
• Safely reaches the base she should have reached, the play stands
• Is put out at a base beyond the base she should have reached, the play stands
• Is not put out and does not reach the base she should have, at the end of playing action she is awarded the appropriate base(s)
• Is put out before reaching the base she should have reached, a dead ball is called at the time of the apparent putout and the obstructed runner, and each other runner affected, will be awarded the appropriate bases
Appropriate warnings and further effects may be issued after the play. See the companion article in this Rules Corner (Obstruction – Warnings, Additional Awards and Ejection) for the appropriate warnings, base awards, or ejections which may result from the obstruction.
The only fielder obstruction rule which offers the offensive coach an option is when a fielder positions herself in the batter’s line of vision or acts in a manner to distract the batter. The best way to remember this – it is similar to catcher obstruction as the batter is the one being obstructed.
Many obstructions happen near or at a base or the plate. But it can also happen between bases. See the companion article in this Rules Corner, Obstruction between bases, for the situations and special rules which apply when it occurs there.
The unusual types of fielder obstruction not covered above are when the fielder:
• Alters her motion while in the act of fielding a batted ball as she realizes she may not get to the batted ball. Be extra alert for this one as it seems to be happening more often and is probably being taught by coaches in an attempt to circumvent the intent of the obstruction rule.
• Intentionally alters the course of a fair ball with the intent to make it go into foul ground
• Intentionally commits visual or verbal obstruction (see the separate article in this Rules Corner section)
• Fakes a tag – it must cause the runner to slow down or stop, unlike other codes
All umpires should pre-pitch the possibility of obstruction. It can be an obvious call as when the runner is knocked down; or it may be a play on which the umpire is the only person who sees it. See the companion article in the Mechanics section – Obstruction Call Mechanics.
Notes, Interpretations and Clarifications
Clearly beaten by the throw
A new element was introduced in the obstruction rule when it was revised for the 2018-2019 Rule Book – “The runner may still be called out if she was clearly beaten by the throw.” As stated by the NCAA Softball Rules Editor, Vickie Van Kleeck, this should be an infrequent call. However, we need to be prepared for this situation and enforce it, but ONLY if one of these scenarios take place:
• At the time the fielder catches the ball, it could not be reasonably expected for the runner to begin her slide
• The runner is out by such a significant margin that the fielder must wait for her to arrive to apply the tag
• The runner gives herself up
It is important to note that this situation applies only to obstruction for blocking the whole base/plate or base path. It does NOT apply to obstruction ruled for impeding the progress of a runner while the fielder is not in possession of the ball or in the act of fielding a batted ball.
Straddling the base/plate
• Depending on the situation, straddling the base/plate is permissible for defensive players (See the companion article in the Mechanics section – Obstruction Call Mechanics).
• The defensive player is not allowed to block the whole base/plate; the fielder can block some of the base/plate as long as the fielder has left a clear path for the runner to touch a part of the base/plate.
• The umpire will be responsible for determining if the defensive player’s positioning is obstruction.
Also clarified by the NCAA Softball Rules Editor, Vickie Van Kleeck, and Craig Hyde, SUP National Coordinator – blocking the base/plate without the ball is obstruction but we will not call or signal obstruction until the ball and/or runner are both in the action zone (defined as the area near the base/plate where the runner is running, and the fielder will catch the throw and tag the runner).
Please read the companion articles in this Rules Corner section which give more perspective on the obstruction rule, as mentioned previously. Since an obstruction call can lead to an option play, you should read the article in the Game Management Corner – Administering Option Plays.
Rules for obstruction/interference/collision on same play (NCAA Update on 4/2/2018)
Crash, great force, flagrant
If an obstructed runner crashes into a defensive player holding the ball, the crash takes precedence over the obstruction. The runner cannot simply run into the defensive player and not make an attempt to slide or go around the player. To prevent a deliberate crash ruling, the runner can slide, jump over the top of the defender holding the ball, go around the defender or return to the previous base touched.
A runner may not remain on her feet and deliberately, with great force, crash into a defensive player who is holding the ball and waiting to apply a tag.
• If an obstructed runner deliberately crashes into a fielder holding the ball, the ball is dead, the obstruction call will be ignored, and the runner will be called out.
• If the act is determined to be flagrant, the offender will be ejected without warning.
• In addition, since a crash ruling is considered a form of interference, other runners must return to the base they occupied at the time of the crash (interference).
If you judge that this contact is incidental or unavoidable, the runner is ruled safe on the obstruction and she is not ejected. Should an act of interference occur after any obstruction, enforcement of the interference effect takes precedence provided both violations involve the same runner. For example, a runner is obstructed by the first baseman on a batted ball, but the batted ball strikes the runner in front of the second baseman who has a reasonable opportunity to make a play, or a runner is obstructed during a rundown but she deliberately interferes with a thrown ball.
If a runner is obstructed by a fielder without the ball (e.g. when the fielder is blocking the whole base/plate or base path) but the runner collides flagrantly with that fielder, the runner is ruled safe on the obstruction but she is ejected.
Do not confuse this rule with the incidental or unavoidable contact on obstruction as noted above. If a defensive player is blocking the whole base/plate or base path without the ball, but incidental contact occurs while she is attempting to catch a thrown ball, this would still be obstruction, not interference.
Equipment obstruction actually includes both equipment and the uniform. A fielder shall not intentionally contact or catch a fair batted, thrown, or pitched ball with any equipment or any part of her uniform that is detached from its proper place on her person. If the item becomes detached unintentionally and contacts the ball, it would be considered loose equipment and be governed by the blocked ball rule.
Per Rule 3, this equipment includes gloves, mitts, catcher’s helmet, and although unlikely, the catcher’s other protective equipment or any fielder’ shoes detached from their proper place. The uniform items include headgear, wristbands, and signal armbands. Again, it would be very unlikely for any of these uniform parts to be intentionally detached, except perhaps the headgear.
As in all obstruction calls, this action results in a delayed dead ball. Read the Effect in the rule book, as there are multiple situations and different Effects for each.
Case Book Plays
At last count, there are in excess of 20 Obstruction Case Book plays in the NCAA Softball 2020 and 2021 Case Book. Do not attempt to read all of them in one sitting. Suggestion – break them into smaller sections. Look for the rule cited in each – catcher (9.5.2), fielder (9.5.1 and 9.5.3), equipment (9.5.4). There is even one play for umpire interference (126.96.36.199). Review the plays involving fielders, as there are more than 15.
Here is one which is not in the Case Book.
Play: The home team is down by one run in the bottom of the 7th inning with 1 out and the bases loaded. The batter hits the ball past F6, who has no chance to make a play. F6 obstructs R2. U3 calls obstruction, and judges it has caused a hindrance of at least five or six steps. R3 scores and R2 is thrown out at the plate on a close play. The catcher then throws the ball to 3b where R1 is tagged out for the third out on another close play.
Ruling: As soon as R2 is out or appears to be out, U3 should move into the infield area while calling and signaling “DEAD BALL!!” The play is declared dead at the time of the play at the plate and all further action is nullified. R3 run counts and R2 is declared safe as the winning run. If this was not the winning run, and since it was a close play at 3b, the umpires would place R1 at 3b as she was more than halfway between 2b and 3b at the time of the dead ball.