One of the more complicated rules in softball is when Obstruction is called.
At a high level view, it probably sounds like an easy rule to call for an umpire. However, it can turn to be quite controversial in some cases especially when it factors into who wins or who loses a game. The rule can also be inconsistent as some umpires may call it while others may let it go.
In an attempt to simplify things, we’ve provided an explanation of the obstruction rule in softball, compared it to another similar rule, and outlined how it can be avoided.
What is the Obstruction Rule in Softball? An obstruction in softball is when a fielder gets in the way of a runner. By definition, it is “an act of a fielder who, while not in possession of the ball and not in the act of fielding the ball, impedes the progress of any runner”. The rule is designed to keep the game fair.
When Defenders Can Make the Play
In baseball and softball, it is ok to be in the runner’s path if you have the ball and are making a play. However if you do not have the ball, you cannot block them. This rule is designed to keep the game not only fair, but safe. Softball is not meant to be a contact sport, and this rule reminds players to keep the game safe and respectful.
The Penalty for Obstruction
An obstruction slows down the runner and hinders – or obstructs – their ability to get to the next base. Since they were obstructed, now it is unknown whether they would’ve made it to the base or not if they weren’t obstructed. Moreover, they were not given a fair shot to get there.
Therefore, the impeded runner is awarded the next base. In some of the worst cases where it looks like a fielder meant to hurt the runner, fielders can be issued a warning or even kicked out of the game.
Frequent Obstruction Locations
While obstructions can occur anywhere along the base paths, one of the most common obstructions is when runners are approaching or sliding into the next base, and the fielder is blocking that base without the ball.
The most common place that this happens is at home plate because catchers are commonly taught to block the running lane before the ball gets there. Obstructions here aren’t taken lightly and usually end up in debate among the teams, coaches, and spectators because almost always it is the difference between one team making an out, and the opposing team scoring a run.
Obstruction vs Interference
Often times people think that obstruction and interference are the same (or at least very similar).
However that is not the case. Obstruction is the fielder getting in the way of the runner, while interference is the opposite – when the runner or anything else gets in the way of a fielder making a play. Simply put – it interference is called when a runner gets in the way of a fielder making a player.
An obstruction is a very broad term that can be called in many different situations. Moreover, obstructions can be called and the play will continue. Umpires will put their arm out to the side of their body while making a fist, which grants a runner immunity because they were unfairly impeded.
Interferences, on the other hand, will always result in an immediate dead ball (that is, the play has stopped and whoever has the ball cannot make any plays) is made.
Both obstructions and interferences are some of the most controversial calls in softball, and each call happens for a unique reason. Common interferences happen on double plays, ground balls, and pop flies. It’s also important to note that interferences don’t just happen between players, but can involve coaches, spectators, and equipment as well.
The Double-Play Interference Call
First, a common interference happens in double plays. When turning two, the runner in the first out may get in the way of the fielders after she has already been out. This way, she can stop the fielders from getting her teammate out as well. This is a risky decision that she can get away with if the umpires don’t find out, but if they do both her and her teammate are automatically out. This can happen from both force outs and tag outs, and interferences are more likely to be called if the runner does not slide.
When runners don’t slide during close plays it looks more suspicious and foul-minded to the umpires, compared to when players slide it’s faster for the runner, safer, and cleaner, more sportsmanlike softball.
Fielding Flies and Ground Balls
Another common interference is when fielders are fielding a ground ball or a pop fly and a runner gets in their way or makes contact with them. When this happens, a dead ball is immediately called and runners are called out appropriately. If malice seems to be involved, umpires can issue a warning or throw those responsible from the game to keep the game fair and respectful, just like with obstructions.
Coaches Getting in the Way
However, it’s not just player-on-player interferences and obstructions that can cause trouble. Equipment, coaches, and players not currently in a play can cause an interference or obstruction call.
For one, the batter in the on-deck circle must get out of the way of the fielders if there is a foul ball coming to them or their teammate who hit it will certainly be called out. Just as runners have to be given a fair shot to make it safely to the base, fielders need their opportunity to make their plays.
If a coach touches their runners or gets in the way of fielders as well, players will be called out accordingly.
Finally, if players such as the catcher or if runners trip on equipment such as the bat on the ground, an obstruction or an interference may be called, depending on who was affected.
Are there Obstruction differences between ASA and USSSA?
ASA and USSSA are two organizations that run tournaments for youth and adult softball leagues.
While they both have similar goals of giving players opportunities to organize and enjoy softball, they do have different rules and regulations for play. Most of the differences involve how many players can be on a team and what types of bats they allow in various age-group tournaments.
The Rules are the Rules
Where they do not differ is on the basic rules of softball – like on the designated and flex player rule we covered earlier. When it comes to obstruction calls in ASA and USSSA, both organizations follow the rules adopted by schools, Little Leagues, and collegiate organizations. Where they do differ is in the way the rules are written.
Coaches who bring their teams to ASA and USSSA tournaments should understand the rules. If something goes wrong, they should be prepared to address the issues with the umpires and the tournament managers. Of course, teams want to win, but they also need to follow the rules so they win fairly.
When addressing issues about rules, coaches, players, and parents should always be respectful. The umpire and the tournament director have the final say in any call. Coaches and parents should consider the ages and experience levels of the players before making a scene with an umpire.
ASA and Obstruction
The ASA goes into more detail about when to award the next base to an obstructed runner, or if she can only return to the base that she made it to. This decision is made by the umpires, which is another reason why obstruction calls are so controversial.
Typically, if the runner would not be able to make it to the next base without an obstruction, or had no intent to go to the next base, they are awarded the base that they were at or heading back to. However, if a runner is trying to get to the next base and they are obstructed, they are granted that base and cannot be called out.
USSSA Obstruction Rules
Meanwhile, the USSSA has a more broad ruling, but mentions fake tags and catcher obstructions. In a fake tag, the fielder simulates a tag play but does not have the ball. This is meant to confuse the runner in order to slow them down or get them to get themselves in a real play. The USSSA always considers this an obstruction. Furthermore, a catcher obstruction is when the catcher prevents the hitter from swinging at a pitch.
Can you block a base in softball?
Plays at the plate are exhilarating, dramatic, and can greatly change the pace of the game. However, this makes them very controversial and dangerous. For this reason, plate collisions are taken very seriously.
Updating Collegiate Rules
In 2018 the NCAA updated its rulebook for topics like the batter’s box, runner’s lane, and pace of the game. Time limits were added in between innings, as well as time spent for player gatherings.
Details and conditions on obstructions were also updated in this re-write. The NCAA declared that defenders cannot block the running lane before they have possession of the ball. Should a fielder block the base without possession of the ball, the runner will be called safe for obstruction.
When to Block the Plate
However, if defensive players have possession of the ball, they can block the plate. In fact, they can stand wherever they want. However, the runner does not have to avoid the fielder with the ball. Contact is allowed, as long as a slide is attempted as long as the player is making a legitimate attempt to get to the plate.
The NCAA specified this rule to make less gray area and less room for debate and arguing during a game. Nonetheless, there is always speculation in tags where there is a collision. They are very dangerous at every base. Runners are sprinting at full speed with helmets on; catchers are wearing full protective gear.
While this is meant to protect players, they can hurt if the other player runs into them. Moreover, the most protection infielders wear is a face mask, which becomes less common at older age groups.
Questions about Collisions and Intent
With this danger involved, teams, umpires, and spectators always suspect foul play if there is a rough collision. Were either player intentionally trying to hurt the other? These plays are not taken lightly, and while the rules state that if the fielder has the ball then collisions are approved, if mal intentions are suspected the ruling the umpires decide can change.
Teach Players How to Slide Safely
So, to avoid injury and a fight to ensure a call, what many coaches are teaching runner’s to slide around the bases, and infielders — especially catchers — to not to block it. This way we can all play clean, respectful softball. We’ve outlined this more in our sliding into first base article as well.
Swipe tags are becoming more popular because it avoids the fielder’s body getting in the way, and base runner’s slides are becoming more advanced at avoiding tags. It’s important to stay healthy and avoid a rough collision, even if the rules allow it in softball.
Unfortunately, the obstruction rule in softball is not as easy to understand as it should be. It is often left to an umpire to make the decision which can lead to controversy depending on the team who commits the violation.
As we all know, softball players are smart and sports involve a lot of grey area especially when it comes to interfering in double plays or other tag situations. Because there is so much grey area in this sport and rule, some obstructions may go unpenalized if it doesn’t result in a catastrophic event such as players running into each other. The same can be said in the opposite direction where some obstruction calls may take place just because the impact that occurred on the field.
We hope this article helped you understand the obstruction rules a bit more. Is it a perfect rule? Far from. But it is absolutely necessary in the game.