ST. LOUIS — Will Middlebrooks, the obstructor, moved into the annals of Red Sox horror and lore shortly after 11 p.m. here Saturday, his floundering around the third base bag after being unable to handle a Jarrod Saltalamacchia throw ultimately handing the Cardinals a walkoff victory, 5-4, in Game 3 of the World Series.
Slightly more than 38 years earlier at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, also in Game 3 of the World Series, in the home half of the 10th, Sox catcher Carlton Fisk was in the center of a similar, equally controversial play. With the score tied, 5-5, the Reds’ Cesar Geronimo opened with a single, prompting manager Sparky Anderson to order utility outfielder Ed Armbrister to attempt a sacrifice bunt.
Armbrister followed orders, the ball taking an uncharacteristically high chop off the the ground. Fisk flung off his mask as he bounded out to field it. Thus ignited the controversy. The rigththanded-hitting Armbister, after initially breaking a step toward first, moved slightly back toward the batter’s box, initiating a collision with the bigger, hard-charging Fisk.
“I just stood there for a moment, watching it,’’ Armbrister explained in the moments after the mayhem. “Then [Fisk] came up from behind me and bumped me as he took the ball. I just stood there because he hit me in the back and I couldn’t move.’’
The two finally disentangled, Fisk collected the ball and pegged it toward second in hopes of cutting down Geronimo. The wild throw eluded shortstop Rick Burleson as it sailed into center field. Geronimo scooted around to third, Armbrister wheeled all the way to second, and the stage was set for impending disaster. Lost in the moment: Dwight Evans’s two-run homer in the top of the ninth that pulled the Sox even.
With first base open, Sox manager Darrell Johnson ordered an intentional pass to Pete Rose to load the bases. And with the outfielders shading toward the infield, Joe Morgan smacked a ball over Fred Lynn in center for the game-winning single that scored Geronimo. The 6-5 win handed the Reds a 2-1 lead in the Series.
Unlike Saturday in St. Louis, veteran American League umpire Larry Barnett, working home plate, made no call on the Fisk-Armbrister collision. Irate, both Fisk and Johnson argued vehemently that Armbrister interfered with Fisk’s ability to handle the ball, that he therefore should be ruled out and Geronimo ordered back to first.
But arbiter Barnett bought none of it. “Simply a collision,’’ Barnett said after the game. “Each man has an equal right.’’ Fisk had the right, in Barnett’s opinion, to attempt to field the ball, Armbrister the right to proceed toward first as he was able.
Fisk, then 27 years old and in the early stages of his Hall of Fame career, most of it spent with the White Sox, bought none of Barnett’s ruling. Armbrister, he felt, impeded his path.
“He may have tried to get out of the way,’’ Fisk would say later, as reported by the Associated Press. “But it was still interfence. I couldn’t play the ball the way I normally would.’’
Saturday night, it was an umpire’s ruling that forever will link Middlebrooks’s name with profound Red Sox disappointment and the Cards’ walkoff win.
In the view of third base ump Jim Joyce, Middlebrooks, upon dropping belly-first to the ground after failing to handle Saltalamacchia’s hard throw, impeded the running path of Allen Craig. Joyce promptly flashed the “obstruction’’ call, making Daniel Nava’s throw from left field to cut down Allen at the plate a moot point. Homeplate ump Dan DeMuth pointed emphatically toward Joyce at third, acknowledging the “obstruction’’ call, thus awarding home to Allen and the win to the Cards.
‘’It does not have to be intent,’’ noted crew chief John Hirschbeck, explaining the root of the obstruction call. ‘’Once [Middlebrooks had] the opportunity to field the ball, he can no longer in any way obstruct the runner.’’
The key issue, which led to Joyce’s immediate call, was Middlebrooks, who remained prostrate on the ground. The Sox third baseman had an obligation, once the ball passed him, to get out of the way. Middlebrooks, while belly-down, also lifted both legs.
“He tripped over Middlebrooks right there,’’ said Joyce, “and immediately and instinctually I called obstruction.’’ The ump went on to explain, “The feet didn’t play too much into that because he was still in the area where the baserunner needs to go to advance to home plate. And the baserunner has every right to go unobstructed to home plate, and unfortunately for Middlebrooks, he was right there.”
Esteemed baseball author Roger Angell was among the many who felt Barnett erred in ’75. The New York Daily News was among many journals to note that it was interference, in accordance with the game’s rulebook.
In his book, “Five Seasons’’, Angell wrote that Barnett’s “mystifying ruling’’ was a product, in part, of the umpires that season operating under a supplemental interpretation of the rule — one that neither MLB nor the umpires themselves ever made public. Angell made it sound like so much doubletalk and excuse-making, Barnett’s ruling depicted by Angell as “mind-calcifying.’’
“Of course he interfered with me,’’ said Fisk that night, a belief he has never wavered from over the decades. “You all saw it. [Armbrister] stood right under the ball.’’
In December 1975, when Major League Baseball released its official cinematic account of the Series, Fisk was among a number of his teammates to take in a debut viewing. There remained such a buzz and aura about the classic matchup, won in Game 7 by the Reds, that many passionate Sox fans talked for weeks as if their team won.
“However,’’ lamented Fisk on the day of the movie’s debut, “it still winds up Them 4, Us 3.’’
The controversial play was Armbrister’s only at-bat in the Series. Born in the Bahamas, he was out of the game at age 29, albeit with two World Series rings, and soon was working at a Nassau casino.
Fisk, who will be 66 in December, played nearly 25 years and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2000. He fills ambassadors roles these days with both the Red Sox and White Sox, splitting time between residences in Illinois and Florida.
Barnett, who will be 69 in January, umped in the AL from 1969 to 1999 and soon became an MLB supervisor of umpires. “You’re looking at someone who has never had a job,’’ he told a college crowd years after he left the playing field behind. “I had an adventure.’’