Is the neighborhood play gone for good?

USA TODAY Sports

It's been a part of baseball for decades, but increased supervision and better television cameras threaten the traditional (and technically incorrect) "neighborhood play."

The neighborhood play. It's what we call it when a middle infielder, in making the turn at second base during a double-play, gets the call from the umpire despite never actually touching the bag while in possession of the ball.

Ask any of the older men in blue, however, and they'll tell you it doesn't exist; umpires can (and will) call a runner out only if the fielder touches the bag after cleanly receiving the ball.

But we all know they're lying. The neighborhood play was an accepted part of baseball for decades, no different than a hit-batsman taking first despite no effort to get out of the way or a pitcher running his hand through his greased-up hair before every pitch.

In the 2009 American League Championship Series, when Angels' shortstop Erick Aybar never came close to touching the bag on a double-play in the tenth inning of Game 2, the complaint wasn't that second-base umpire Jerry Layne got the call wrong when he signaled "safe" -- it was that he got it right.

You can hear Joe Buck and Tim McCarver defending Aybar in the original television broadcast: "They will give -- as odd as that may seem to viewers or a casual baseball fan -- they will give that play at second base always." "Always." "Always."

Elsewhere, the Orange County Register excoriated the call. MLB.com spent 600 words explaining how the call -- the correct call, remember -- was a departure from the norm. The New York Times, meanwhile, felt it was important enough to explain to its readers that these unwritten rules don't actually exist, including this quote from a particularly unbiased source.

"There is no such thing as the neighborhood play," said Rich Garcia, a Major League Baseball umpire supervisor for seven years after spending 25 years in blue. "You either touch the base or you don’t."

Umpire says umpires make the correct calls and The Times is ON IT!

Players on the field saw things a bit differently. In 2010, J.J. Hardy admitted that there were "some shortstops and second basemen" who use the neighborhood play. "I might have done it a couple times. Not on purpose. I always try to be on the bag, but maybe there's a time I might be a little bit quick." Not that he was complaining. The play keeps middle-infielders safe, the argument goes, by taking them out of the line of the hard slide quicker. With umpires calling the neighborhood play less and less frequently, as Hardy and a number of other players and managers (including Michael Cuddyer, Mark Grudzielanek, and Manny Acta) attested, the danger goes up.

That's not to say that the play has been completely eradicated from the game. Here is an example, from July 2011, of the White Sox getting the benefit of a neighborhood call over the Cubs. The call enraged then-manager Mike Quade enough that he got himself ejected from the game in only the second inning.

But how about today? Since neighborhood plays aren't exactly tagged in the MLB.com database, it's very difficult to track them over time. What if, instead, we took it into our own hands and watched every double-play for signs of the neighborhood call ourselves? If this unwritten rule is even a third as common as it was, surely it wouldn't be too hard to find one in a large sampling, right?

To test this theory, I watched every GiDP from last weekend (Saturday & Sunday, to be exact). That's 53 double-plays across 30 games. Of these, seven had no turn at second base. In the remaining 46, there were a few chances where it seemed like maybe, if I just squinted my eyes and believed really hard, the second baseman or shortstop might have pulled his foot off a tiny bit early. But that was it. Nothing to get too upset over, and certainly nothing obvious.

Well, except this one.

Scutaro-dp-big_medium

That was Saturday afternoon in the third inning of the Marlins/Giants tilt. Marco Scutaro grounded the ball directly at Miami second baseman Ed Lucas, who tossed it to shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, who made the throw to first. It was a simple enough double-play that San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy barely reacted in the dugout. But watch that turn again. Hechavarria clearly catches the toss from Lucas with his feet straddling the bag. As he fires to first, you can see Hechavarria shift his feet, but enough to tag the base and secure the out? Second-base umpire Laz Diaz thought so, but it's a bit hard to believe. This could very well be the neighborhood play that we're looking for!

Now watch it again.

Scutaro-dp-zoom_medium

As Hechavarria lifts up his right foot to make the jump, a bit of infield dirt comes up with it, covering the side of the base for the briefest of moments. When the foot lands on the opposite side of the bag, the dirt falls to the ground. It's from these two pieces of evidence that I feel confident in saying that this was not a neighborhood play.

This proves nothing, of course. The only way to say for sure that the neighborhood play isn't called any more is to watch all 2,000 double-plays in a given year. Even I'm not that crazy! Still, this exercise does provide one data point. Over two days, thirty games, 550 innings, and 50+ double plays, there was not a single neighborhood play. Maybe J.J. Hardy and his pals were right. If this unwritten rule is not yet dead, it's certainly on life support.

That's a win for those of us who hate to see a game decided by a bad call from the umpires, but what about those middle-infielders who feel endangered by wild takeout slides? Is the tradeoff worth it? Well, we don't have much of a choice.

Five or six years ago while working on his outstanding book about umpiring, As They See 'Em, Bruce Weber asked major-league umpire Tom Hallion about the neighborhood play. Hallion acknowledged the existence of the play, called that way if "everything stays in an ordinary progression of what's supposed to happen, what should happen, what normally happens ... even if he's not right on the bag." Why?

Because if I call the guy safe, here's what they say: "Do you want this guy fucking killed?"

But nowadays you can't give them as much, you can't give them a foot off the bag. Your life's on the line to get it right because they have sixteen freakin' cameras on you.

Again, this was five or six years ago. Today there are more cameras, more Web watchdogs, more people watching the games on iPads in the stands.

Video killed the neighborhood play. And nobody's going to miss it, except maybe a few scaredy-cat infielders.

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