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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Not just balls and strikes, redux

I have returned to writing about the infield fly rule, a more scholarly expansion of the short defense of the rule that I wrote in October. Thinking about particular examples of infield fly situations (or non-examples) in the context of the full baseball rulebook brought me back to the judge/umpire/calling balls-and-strikes analogy. In particular, I come back to the argument (which I have made before) that one problem with the analogy is that it understates the complexity of the decisions that umpires actually have to make. And I have in mind one historic play that illustrates this complexity quite well.

(I apologize in advance for a post that may be tilted fairly heavily towards the sports and away from the law--feel free not to follow the jump).

The Situation: (sorry not to have video to embed--it's really hard to find baseball footage online): Game 4 of the 1978 World Series between the Dodgers and Yankees; Dodgers leading 2 games to 1 and 3-1 with the Yankees batting in the bottom of the sixth. Reggie Jackson on first, Thurman Munson on second, one out; Lou Piniella batting. Piniella hits a low (ankle-high) line drive up the middle, to the left of Dodgers shortstop Bill Russell. Russell moves to his left, catches the ball at his shoe tops, drops it, picks it up as his body is continuing to move left, steps on second for the force out, then throws to first. Jackson had stopped running when he saw Russell initially catch the line drive and he is standing between first and second. As Russell's relay is coming, Jackson (imperceptibly) sticks out his right hip; the ball hits his hip and caroms into right field. Munson scores, Piniella is safe at first.

Several separate columns labeled this one of the five worst (or at least most controversial) calls in World Series or postseason history. Maybe. But look at the rules and facts the umpires had to determine on the fly:

1) Infield Fly: This is a potential infield fly situation (runners on first and second, less than two out). So the second-base umpire first had to determine that the ball hit was a line drive, to which the IFR does not apply, rather than a fly ball. Easy enough decision to make here--the ball clearly is a line drive and not easily playable--but the umpire at least must consider the rule in passing.

2) Intentionally Dropped Ball: Rule 6.05(l) provides that a batter is out and the ball is dead if an infielder intentionally drops a fair fly ball, including a line drive, where any force out is in effect. So the second base umpire had to determine whether Russell had intentionally dropped the ball to get a double play. He concluded it was not deliberate, presumably by reading where the ball was hit, how quickly and far Russell had to move to his left, and Russell's body language suggesting he was scrambling to pick the ball back up rather than being in control.

3) Interference: This is the one for which this play is remembered. Rule 7.09(f) provides that both the base runner and the batter are out and the ball is dead if a base runner "willfully and deliberately interferes" with a fielder in the act of fielding a batted ball with the "obvious intent to break up a double play." So the question is whether Jackson "willfully and deliberately" interfered with Russell's relay throw. The first base umpire decided he was not, presumably because Jackson was genuinely hung-up on the play. The runner need not move all the way out of the baseline as the throw is coming (they usually do as a matter of self-preservation).  It appears on slow-motion that Jackson did stick his right hip out as the ball approached, but the umpires did not have that luxury of breaking the play down that much.

Whether you think the call was right or wrong probably depends on your rooting interests--I was 10 years old and living in northern New Jersey at the time. My point is that the umpires actually had a huge amount to watch, process, and interpret. And it is far from a simple or robotic task.

Update: Thanks to commenter Jack, here is the video:


Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 19, 2012 at 10:40 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


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Isn't it Rule 7.08(b)? (Jackson interfered with a thrown ball, not a batted one.)

Posted by: David | Dec 19, 2012 1:05:12 PM


Posted by: Jack | Dec 19, 2012 4:03:25 PM

I think it's neat. The rule is *nearly* unique in fixing an otherwise obvious error in the rules of the game.

Posted by: Anon | Dec 19, 2012 7:58:12 PM

Commenter David is right, no? It's 7.08(b) at issue here, not 7.09(f).

7.08(b): "Any runner is out when . . . [h]e intentionally interferes *with a thrown ball*; or hinders a fielder attempting to make a play on a batted ball."

7.09(f): "If, in the judgment of the umpire, a batter-runner willfully and deliberately interferes with a batted ball or a fielder in the act of *fielding a batted ball*, with the obvious intent to break up a double play, the ball is dead; the umpire shall call the batter-runner out for interference and shall also call out the runner who had advanced closest to the home plate regardless where the double play might have been possible."

These two rules alone would be more than enough for teaching the scienter portion of one's statutory interpretation course:

1. Note the difference in adverbs: In 7.08(b) it's enough that the interference is "intentional." But for 7.09(f) to kick in, it must be not only "deliberate" but also "willful." Distinguishing those is two class lectures right there.

2. Deliberate *and* willful?! Whoa. What does "willful" add? Can it really be that, as in some areas of federal law, such as tax, "willful" means not only intentional or deliberate, but also with knowledge of illegality? What are the odds of that? And, if so, why include it in 7.09(f) but not in 7.08(b)?

But there's more . . . much more!

7.09(i) also uses "intentionally"; 7.09(e) uses "willfully and deliberately"; 7.05(b)-(e) and (j) use "deliberately" standing alone; and of course most of the prohibitions are malum in se crimes, requiring no scienter at all!

Best of all might be 7.09(k), which deals with those ever-so-confounding cases where a fair ball goes "through, or by, an infielder," and then touches a runner immediately back of him, or touches the runner after having been deflected by a fielder. General rule? "The umpire shall not declare the runner out for being touched by a batted ball" -- but only if the ump is "convinced that the ball passed through, or by, the fielder, and that no other infielder had the chance to make a play on the ball." However -- this is priceless -- even in such a case, where the ball has already gone "through, or by" an infielder (and btw, woe to the infielder when the ball goes "through" him!), "if in the judgment of the umpire, the runner deliberately and intentionally *kicks* such a batted ball," then the runner shall be called out for interference.

"deliberately" *and* "intentionally"!

I can see the irate hitter now: "You must be blind, ump! Sure, I intentionally kicked that ball -- who wouldn't? But deliberately?! Come on! That requires much more, uh . . . deliberation; and you know as well as I there was barely time to react, let alone to deliberate . . . "

Endless fascination, to use when your cocktail party banter is lagging . . .

Posted by: Marty Lederman | Dec 20, 2012 10:10:20 AM

Here is a link to the famous student note "Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule. 123 U. Pa L. Rev. 1474:


Posted by: Supremecourtjester | Dec 20, 2012 11:49:48 AM

See also: 82 Wash. U. L. Q. 453 (2004)
Taking Pop-ups Seriously: The Jurisprudence of the Infield Fly Rule; Cohen, Neil B.; Waller, Spencer Weber

Posted by: Supremecourtjester | Dec 20, 2012 11:54:09 AM

I think you all may be right that I was wrong about 7.09(f) controlling. But the controlling rule can't be R. 7.08(b), which tells us when the *runner* is out for interference. Jackson already was out--he had been forced at second. The issue, and what Lasorda was so vigorously arguing about, is whether Jackson's interference requires *Piniella* to be out, thus completing the double play.

Perhaps the right answer is R. 7.09(e), which states "Any batter or runner who has just been put out, . . . hinders or impedes any following play being made on a runner. Such runner shall be declared out for the interference of his teammate." If so, note that there is no intent requirement, meaning Jackson should have been out simply because the ball hit him when he was standing in the baseline, whether or not he threw his hip out.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Dec 20, 2012 4:31:02 PM

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