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Saturday, October 06, 2012
 
The return of the Infield Fly Rule

Law-and-sport types are having fun this morning (at least those not living in Atlanta) because everyone is suddenly talking about our favorite rule in all of sports--the Infield Fly Rule. Lawyerly fascination with the Rule was captured in William Stevens's famous 1975 "Aside" in the Penn Law Review. It remains the most legalistic of rules in the most legalistic of sports. And if you can explain it to someone, you know baseball.

In last night's Wild Card playoff game between Atlanta and St. Louis, the umpire made a controversial infield fly call on a fly ball into short left that fell when the Cardinals' shortstop  and left-fielder miscommunicated; the shortstop had settled under the ball and looked ready to make the catch, then ran out of the way when he thought the left-fielder had called him off. (Video here). The call took the Braves out of what would have been bases loaded/one-out situation, trailing 6-3; instead, there were two out and the Braves did not score again. The game was delayed for 18 minutes when Atlanta fans began throwing stuff onto the field. The Braves played the game under protest, but MLB denied the protest and upheld the Cardinals 6-3 win.

What we have here is a nice example of statutory interpretation; whether the call was correct depends on how you resolve the conflicts among textualism, history, and purposivism.

The text of the rule requires only that the ball "can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort." Commentary to the rule (call it legislative history or committee notes) points out that the rule's applicability is not subject to "arbitrary limitations" such as the baselines or grass, so the fact that the ball was hit into the outfield does not matter. The rule also can apply even if the ball is handled by an outfielder (as happened here), if the umpire determines that it could have been as easily handled by an infielder. So far, watching the play with the text in mind, the call seems right. But the purpose of the Rule is to prevent an infielder from dropping the ball  on purpose and getting a double play on the base runners who had to stay put on the short fly ball. Given how deep the ball was hit, there was no way the runners would have been doubled off and no way the shortstop would have tried. So the interests served by the rule were not implicated on the play, thus purposivism suggests the call was wrong. Now the question is whether you believe text or purpose controls.

In addition, the play had procedural problems. The Rule requires the umpire to "immediately declare" infield fly "[w]hen it seems apparent" that the rule is catchable by an infielder with ordinary effort. The commentary emphasizes that "the decision should be made immediately." If you watch the replay that begins at the 0:55 mark on the linked video, however, the umpire makes the call really late, probably because it took longer than usual for it to become "apparent" that the ball was easily handled by the infielder. But note that the Rule also states that the obligation to "immediately declare" infield fly is for the benefit of the runners, not the batter; the batter is out on the call, so the goal is just to give runners notice of the play (the ball is live and runners can move at their own risk). Since neither baserunner was disadvantaged by the call, the lateness did not affect them. The only thing the lateness of the call did was heighten the confusion surrounding the play and therefore the fan and player anger over the call.

So my instinct is that the umpire got it right, however odd the play looked. Either way, I'm just glad to be able to write about the rule.





11 Comments:

Howard, how much baseball did you play? A "late" infield fly call defies the purpose of the rule, as you state. The purpose of an immediate call is to advise the runners whether they can stay put or should run "half way". Note in this case, because the ball was in the outfield, the runners were already moving. It was unquestionably a "bad" call for any veteran baseball player who played at any competitive level.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/06/2012 3:46 AM  


Whether the call was impermissibly late says nothing about whether the call itself was correct in that the IFR did apply and the batter should be out.

Plus, the play remains live once the batter is called out and the runners can advance at their own risk. The runners were not disadvantaged by the lateness of the call, since they ended up on second and third. So I'm not sure how the lateness here made the call particularly bad by disadvantaging the runners.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 10/06/2012 4:06 PM  


Though I agree with you, Howard, that this call could technically be correct from the text of the rule and the definition of ordinary effort, what are the ramifications of such a bad call? I say bad call because how many times during a season will an infielder and outfielder chase after the same ball, but to end in a miscommunication like on Friday. Even baseball video games are not programmed to have this strict of an interpretation of the rule (at least the ones I have played). Because a professional infielder should be able to cover a fair section of the outfield with ordinary effort, will other umpires start making similar calls? Hopefully not. Considering the recent backlash at this call and lumping the problems in the NFL, I presume the rule will be amended to restrict the infield fly rule to actual pop-ups in the infield. Or am I wrong with that prediction? Thomas H.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/06/2012 9:52 PM  


Though I agree with you, Howard, that this call could technically be correct from the text of the rule and the definition of ordinary effort, what are the ramifications of such a bad call? I say bad call because how many times during a season will an infielder and outfielder chase after the same ball, but to end in a miscommunication like on Friday. Even baseball video games are not programmed to have this strict of an interpretation of the rule (at least the ones I have played). Because a professional infielder should be able to cover a fair section of the outfield with ordinary effort, will other umpires start making similar calls? Hopefully not. Considering the recent backlash at this call and lumping the problems in the NFL, I presume the rule will be amended to restrict the infield fly rule to actual pop-ups in the infield. Or am I wrong with that prediction? Thomas H.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 10/06/2012 9:53 PM  


It was the wrong call because it was called to late and there was no way to turn a double play on that ball. It was not a routine play for the short stop and he was never under that ball, so that was a bad call and the bases should have been loaded

Anonymous Chris Chiavaroli -- 10/07/2012 12:00 AM  


I agree this is a good test of statutory construction but it was still a terrible call. The point of the immediacy of the call is not prejudice. Once the call is made, play stops and runners have to return to their base. It is because it must be obvious from the outset that the catch is ordinary and certain. In addition, this call was made not by the third base umpire, but by a line umpire inserted for the playoffs.


Anonymous Alan Milstein -- 10/07/2012 12:13 PM  


Thomas: The rule and its commentary clearly anticipated the possibility of IFR applying to balls on the outfield grass and to balls in the vicinity of an outfielder. That's why they wrote the commentary the way they did. I don't see any reason for changing it in response to this one judgment call.

Alan: Few things:

1) The rule says the ump shall "immediately declare" infield fly "[w]hen it seems apparent." That is different than "obvious from the outset" (and I'm not sure when the "outset" of the play would be).

2) The play is not dead on the call. The rule explicitly states that the ball is alive and the runners can advance without tagging and will be safe if the ball is not caught.

3) I'm not sure what difference it makes that the call was made by a line ump rather than the third-base ump. Since the IFR by its terms may apply to a ball in the outfield, it is a proper call for the line ump when there is one in the game. In fact, it may have been easier for the line ump to see whether the SS was under the ball.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 10/07/2012 4:46 PM  


Chris:

Your response captures why I think this is such a great example of textualism v. purposivism. The rule doesn't saying anything about whether they could have turned a DP; so if we rely only on the text, that shouldn't be part of the umpire's analysis on any one play. That only matters if we focus on the underlying purpose of the rule.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 10/07/2012 5:00 PM  


I am not sure what you mean about the runners being free to take the base at their own risk. On the play in question, the runners were sent back to their bases after the call even though the ball was dropped. If they were allowed to be on 2d and 3d both would have scored on the ensuing hit. One other point: the clear intent of the rule is to protect the batting team. Here it terminated their season.

Anonymous Alan Milstein -- 10/09/2012 4:04 PM  


Alan:

The play-by-play for the game is here (http://scores.espn.go.com/mlb/playbyplay?gameId=321005115).

For the play in question, it says "A Simmons popped out to shortstop, D Uggla to third, D Ross to second." So they did advance and that is as it should be, under the clear language of the rule that says the ball is live. Plus, there was no ensuing hit (which probably would have scored at least one run, since someone would have been on second); the next batter walked to load the bases, then the batter after that struck out.

Isn't it a bit much to say this one call terminated their season? It's impossible to play counter-factuals. At best, the subsequent walk scores a run, the strikeout makes it two outs and bases loaded, and then we have absolutely no clue what a hypothetical next batter would have done. There is no guarantee that, but for this call, the Braves would have scored another run, much less won the game.



Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 10/09/2012 9:46 PM  


I stand corrected, Howard. Funny how my distaste for the call made me "misremember," to use the sportslaw term, that the runners were sent back. Truth is I can't forgive the Cardinals for ousting the Phillies last year.

Anonymous alan milstein -- 10/11/2012 12:05 PM  


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