Verbal and Visual obstruction

The college rule book states that there does not need to be physical conduct for an obstruction call. Visual obstruction is specifically cited in three rules. The rule book is not as clear with respect to verbal obstruction, as there is no specific rule which specifically lists this as a form of obstruction. There is one interference rule and one Case Book play which covers verbal interference and gives examples for a runner verbally distracting a fielder and a coach screaming “foul ball” louder than anyone else.

Umpires are obliged to conduct the game under conditions conducive to the highest standards of good sportsmanship. When you combine this with the obstruction rule, which prohibits the defense from impeding a runner, then you can make a case for verbal obstruction. Similar to the interference rule mentioned above, what would be the correct call if an infielder without the ball ran toward an advancing runner and screamed at her, causing the runner to slow down or stop? This certainly satisfies the intent of the obstruction rule.

For both visual and verbal obstruction, the umpire must judge whether the fielder’s action was intentional or not, and whether the action impeded the runner. One additional note, to clear up some confusion which happens once in a while – there is no umpire obstruction. If an umpire contacts a runner, put it down as an unfortunate incident then reflect on what could have been done better to reduce the chances of this happening again.

Verbal obstruction

Verbal obstruction can be called on any member of the defensive team. If an umpire judges the catcher hinders or prevents the batter from attempting to hit a pitch by yelling loudly as the pitch nears the plate (e.g. “swing”, calling the batter’s name) there is rule support to call this catcher’s obstruction. Likewise, a fielder may not act in an unsporting manner to verbally distract or hinder a runner. This would have to be something blatant, as college players are expected to be able to distinguish the verbals coming from the opponent as opposed to verbals coming from their team.

Another example needing judgment – the pitcher loudly grunts/verbalizes/yelps after she releases the pitch. This situation requires the umpire to use good judgement. Is the pitcher simply delayed in her normal mechanism of exhaling at the time of exertion, or is she intentionally attempting to distract or hinder the batter’s attention as the pitch approaches the plate area? If we believe this is an attempt to distract or hinder the batter’s attempt to hit the pitch, this would be verbal obstruction.

Other examples of defensive team verbal obstruction
• Runner on first is stealing 2nd; as she approaches 2b, F4 shouts “foul ball, foul ball”. The runner hears that and slows down. Second baseman takes the throw from the catcher and tags the runner out.
• Defensive dugout personnel loudly shouting offensive instructions to imitate the base coach, with the obvious intent to confuse the runner.
• It is not legal for a defensive player to yell “back, back” in an attempt to drive the runner back. For example – R1 attempts to steal second. F2, upon receiving the pitch, throws a pop-up to F6. F5 yells “get back, get back.” R1 thinks B2 has hit a popup and starts back to first where she is tagged out.

Visual obstruction

The rules for visual obstruction are more clearly stated. Visual obstruction can take a few forms but are rare occurrences; some umpires may never experience them.

Blocking batter’s line of vision
A fielder may not position herself in the batter’s line of vision or act in a manner to distract the batter. This obstruction will usually happen as the pitcher is winding up and releasing the pitch. Unlike the situation whereby a defensive player is blocking a runner from seeing the release of the pitch (and for which the umpire must take the runner’s word), the plate umpire should have a good view of a fielder trying to distract the batter.

Blocking runner’s vision when tagging up
The fielder may not position herself in the runner’s line of vision to obviously prohibit her from seeing the first touch of a fly ball. Again, the umpire observing the tag-up should have a good view if there is a violation. Look for the fielder continually looking back-and-forth to the base and the fielder catching the fly ball, and moving accordingly in an apparent effort to block the runner from seeing the initial touch.

Fielder blocking runner’s view of release of the pitch
A fielder may not position herself in the runner’s line of vision to obviously distract her or intentionally prohibit her from seeing the release of the pitch. Although this type of obstruction is rare, this is the visual obstruction which has happened the most in the past.

This rule has created a lot of discussion.
• Who is responsible for telling the umpire that the fielder is blocking the runner’s vision?
• What should the umpire do when it is brought to his/her attention?
• Should the umpire tell a defensive player where to stand in preparation for a pitch, or not?
• If the umpire tells the defensive player that they are violating this rule, what should the umpire expect the player to do?

From the SRE
Some comments from Dee Abrahamson, who was the NCAA Softball Rules Editor (SRE) at the time this rule became a topic of discussion.
• The word “intentionally” has been removed in most places in the NCAA softball rule book, but it remains as part of this rule. It remains a part of the rule to prevent a base runner from “drawing the violation” by positioning herself behind an unsuspecting fielder and then innocently claiming not to be able to see.
• First basemen are adept at being in the way without ever looking over their shoulders, hence appearing non-intentional, but this is still prohibiting the base runner from seeing the release of the pitch.

Dee’s words: “We put the burden on the runner to either ask the fielder to move or alert the umpire. The runner could ask the player or the umpire so she may choose the option that best suits her situation. Saying, ‘excuse me but I cannot see the pitcher, can you move a bit to your left or forward?’ to a first baseman who you have played against ten or twelve times over the years might be easier or harder than someone you have never met.”

“The option is there for the runner to be informal and take care of it herself or be formal and bring the umpire into it. The runner is not required to ask the defender to move. She can tough it out and let the defender stay or she can go through the umpire.” (End of Dee’s quote.)

Sometimes the base coach may complain about the fielder blocking the runner’s view. The umpire should not take action based on the base coach’s complaint. Tell the base coach that the runner will need to bring this to the umpire’s attention. Why? Again, Dee’s comment – seems like bringing the first base coach into the conversation is just an unnecessary middleman. So, the first base coach tells the umpire the runner cannot see the pitcher, and this is probably the resulting sequence if we react to the coach’s request:
• the umpire tells the defender
• the defender asks the umpire “which way does she need me to move”,
• the umpire passes the question on to the coach who asks the runner.
• the runner tells the coach “to her left”
• the coach tells the umpire and the umpire tells the defender.
• The defender says “ok” which the umpire passes along to the coach who tells the runner.

This scenario is too convoluted, confusing, and lengthy. This is why the umpire should talk to the runners directly and not have the base coach part of this discussion.

Correct steps to adjudicate this rule
• If the base runner is having difficulty seeing the release of the pitch, the runner should ask the defensive player or the umpire to accommodate her ability to see.
• Umpires must wait for this and not try to move the fielder because the umpire thinks the runner’s vision may be blocked, even if the runner is straining with head or body movement to indicate this.
• If the runner involves the umpire, the umpire should take a look to determine its validity.
• If it is a legitimate complaint, call time and ask the runner which way the fielder can move to not block her – left, right, up, back?
• Ask the fielder to move slightly per the runner’s request (#12, can you please move just a little to your right so you are not blocking the runner’s view of the release of the pitch)
• If the fielder does not comply, or moves but then moves back as the pitcher starts her windup, apply the rule (delayed dead ball, warning, one-base award on subsequent violation for the same fielder)
• Continue to watch the fielder for repeat violations.

What about the defense’s rights?
The actions above may result in a discussion with the fielder or the defensive coach. Yes, the defensive player has a right to establish her defensive position anywhere on the field, unless in doing so she is violating a rule (another example – all fielders except the catcher must be in fair ground until the release of the pitch). Use this previous sentence as a good reply to the defensive coach if that coach argues that the umpire should not be telling his players where to stand.

Initially the fielder may look back to the base to know where to position herself. The umpire should notice this (preventive umpiring) – is it a quick glance to locate the base, or a longer look to ascertain where the runner is leaning? If it is the latter, she may be moving intentionally to block the runner’s vision. Also, if the fielder, after initially positioning herself, looks back at the runner one or two times, there is a good chance she is intentionally positioning herself in that spot to block the runner’s view

Other visual obstruction possibilities
Although not specifically stated in the rule book, there are other fielders’ actions which could be considered visual obstruction: While pretending to field a batted ball, the fielder may not alter her motion to get extremely close to the runner then moving out of the way at the last moment. If an umpire judges this distracted the runner, an obstruction call should be made.