Baseball Special—Ode to the Infield Fly Rule

Unlike most rules in the game of baseball: three strikes, you’re out, over the fence, home run, tag the base for an out only on a force play, otherwise must apply a tag on the runner, etc., the Infield Fly Rule is not nearly as straightforward.  It is Rule # 20.0 in the rule book and it has three component parts.  Many fans do not fully understand it until they see it for themselves in a controversial manner.  Last night’s NL Wild Card Playoff Game between the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves at Atlanta’s Turner Field (game won by St. Louis 6 – 3) was the quintessential opportunity for all fans of all ages.

I knew an Infield Fly could be caught (handled) by an outfielder if in the umpire’s judgment; it was practical that an infielder could have also made the catch.  I once thought once the umpire invoked the infield fly rule, it could not be voided, even if the ball migrated into foul territory.  Two years ago, I saw a Mets-Brewers game on SNY-TV played in Milwaukee where the ball went into foul territory, was dropped by the Mets leftfielder who’s name escapes me, and it was ruled a typical foul ball so now I know a foul ball does void the infield fly rule.  But it was last night’s game in Atlanta where I saw with respect to the infield fly rule, No Way Jose—until I actually read 20.0 along with three former ball players now employed by MLB Network.

Ralph Kiner explained to me many moon’s ago back in his Mets play-by-play day in the era of Stawberry-Gooden-Carter-Hernandez era which includes the 1986 World Championship team.  The reason the Infield Fly rule exists is so that a fielder who is confronted with a fly ball or pop up that he can undoubtedly catch is not intentionally dropped or intentionally allowed to hit the ground so that the fielder can make a double play.  In other words, it is an integrity check for infielders, sometimes applied to outfielders.  The rule states runner on 1B or 1B and 2B with less than two out, such a fly ball or pop up is hit such that a double play is possible if the ball is not caught on the fly, the batter is automatically out and the runner or runners can run at their own risk.  Fair.  Even though the batter is out even if the ball is not caught, it is adventitious for the fielder to catch it on the fly anyway because if the ball has to be picked up from the ground, the runners have a greater chance to advance a base.  Last night’s eight inning infield/outfield fly was clearly in leftfield, and although depth is not the deciding factor, I clearly saw no chance of any double play taking place from that point in leftfield.  I always believed that if in the umpire’s judgment, a double play were impossible, the infield fly rule cannot and would not be called.  Until I actually read 20.0.

Part I: the criteria for outs and occupied bases mentioned above are met.  Part II: in the judgment of any umpire (post season games use six instead of the traditional four, the left field line umpire made the call); an infielder could practically make the catch.  If an outfielder makes the catch, it is still deemed an infield fly if and only if the possibility of an infielder making the catch in lieu of the outfielder were deemed possible.  The fact that the ball landed in leftfield caught by neither the third baseman nor the left fielder was not relevant because the ball caught by the third baseman was in the realm of possibilities in the judgment of this leftfield umpire.  There is nothing written in the rule that states the umpire’s judgment as to whether or not a double play is in the realm of possibilities if the fly ball hits the grass has anything to do with the call.  Hmmm, I thought that was why the infield fly rule existed in the first place.  Part III: the call must be made immediately by the respective umpire.  This was the seed of controversy.  The call was not made immediately in accord with conventional Miriam-Webster definition of the word immediately.  As the good folks at MLB network pointed out, making an infield fly rule call immediately entails as soon as the baseball has completed its upward flight, reaches its peak height before it begins its decent.  Why?  Because until that point it flight is reached, it is impossible to judge where actually the ball will land if allowed to hit ground by all fielders.  Until this judgment can be made there is no basis to make the call.  The leftfield umpire deemed catchable by the third baseman (an infielder) at that point.  The call is 100% compliant with rule 20.0 as stated.  The issue is regular season vs. post season, i.e., four umpires vs. six umpires.

In a regular season game, either the 2B or 3B umpire would be making the call.  Standing closer to their respective bases in the infield, quite a distance from that hot spot in leftfield, I am not so sure either of them would have seen the third baseman in control of the ball at any point to make an infield fly signal.  This translates to different results in a game with four umpires and a game with six.  I understand the two extra umpires in postseason games are to ensure settlement of controversial plays so postseason games move smoothly with a lot more at stake.  But this is a big radical difference.  I think the infield fly rule need to be re-written.

The change in the semantics of the infield fly rule I endorse would be to append the rule with Part IV which would go something like this: in the umpire’s judgment, there must be a practical possibility of the fielder making a double play if the fly ball were allowed to hit the ground.  This is not a radical rule change because this is why the rule exists in the first place.

After Andy Hawkins in 1991 pitched a no hitter for the Yankees at old Comiskey Park in Chicago vs. White Sox, but lost 2-0 with unearned runs scoring on a walk, error, and wild pitch, the standards were tightened for qualifying as a no hitter.  It may have gone unchecked if the game were pitched at Yankee Stadium, but the bone of contention was both runs were yielded in the third inning and with the White Sox in the lead after eight and a half innings, there was no bottom of the ninth.  It has happened before, no hitters blown in the ninth.  Ironically, if the Yankees held the lead and there were a bottom of the ninth, the odds of a no hitter would be less than in this losing effort.  So from that day forward, a pitcher who does not yield a base hit must pitch all nine innings and any extra innings (complete game) and must be the winning pitcher.  It is time now to invoke a similar standard for what constitutes an automatic out on an infield fly.




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