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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

History of the Infield Fly Rule Part III

by Anthony D'Amato (Law, Northwestern)

Plato was the first to address the issue of an ideal baseball. Such a ball, he reasoned, would be a perfect spheroid. If struck by a bat, the ball would travel outward in a smooth parabolic arc. An ideal baseball could not travel straight up. Although Plato was aware of empirical reports that pop flies occasionally went straight up, he held that if such behavior occurred it was due to manufacturing imperfections in the internal constitution of the ball. In an ideal game of baseball played with a perfect ball, Plato argued, there would be no pop flies and hence there would be no Infield Fly Rule. Therefore the Rule was merely an illusion, one of many fostered by watching too many cave movies.

Plato's student Aristotle held a somewhat higher tolerance for reality. Although he allowed in deference to his teacher that a baseball game might be an illusion, it nevertheless had a solid ring to it, especially when combined with peanuts, popcorn, and beer. He suggested that baseball occupied a privileged existence in the golden mean between the ideal world and the real world.

Aristotle is best known today for his explanation of the Infield Fly Rule. He took up the matter at length in his Metaphysics. He reasoned that Plato was on to something in spotting the discrepancy between baseballian perfectionism and the apparently ad hoc, if not illusory, character of the Infield Fly Rule. The more Aristotle thought about it, the more he concluded that the Infield Fly Rule presented the greatest logico-empirico puzzle of his era.

He began his analysis by wondering why an unsupported baseball, save perhaps for the special case described by Zeno, always fell to earth. Aristotle hypothesized that the ball was seeking to return to its origins. A baseball, after all, is made up of four elements: cork, gum Arabic, horsehide, and yarn. (And not earth, wind, fire, and water, as at least one student every year says on the final exam.) Since each of the material ingredients has a natural yearning to return to the place from whence it came, when all of them are tightly packed into one spheroid their aggregated yen to rejoin the ground is well-nigh insatiable.

Now the necessary propositions were in place for Aristotle to begin his attack upon the main question: whence the Infield Fly Rule? The answer must lie in the nature of the game. Since a baseball strives to fulfill its own teleology by constantly attempting to return to the earth, the "game" of baseball must consist of an artificial effort by the fielders to thwart the ball's downward proclivity. Thus, the fielders try to keep the ball in the air by having the pitcher throw it, the catcher receive it, and the others intercept it in mid-flight by the deft employment of grotesque gloves. If all nine players in the field succeed in their joint enterprise of preventing the ball from ever hitting the turf, they will achieve shut-out.

One of Aristotle's students asked him why pitchers reach down, grab some dirt from the mound, and assiduously rub it on the baseball. Aristotle's reply is given in Book Twelve of the Metaphysics. The experienced pitcher is aware that the longer the baseball is kept from reaching the earth, the more frustrated it becomes. By rubbing dirt on the baseball, the pitcher attempts to temporarily placate the ball's desire to hit the ground.

The intellectual stage had now been set for Aristotle's brilliant explication of the Infield Fly Rule. We begin by assuming the opposite of that which we wish to prove, namely, that there is no Infield Fly Rule. We recall that the fielding team must do everything in its power to prevent the ball from hitting the ground. But if there are baserunners and fewer than two outs, an infielder might feign to catch the ball and yet let it drop, thus commencing a double play. In that event the baseball would have reached the ground through the deliberate and intentional efforts of the fielder in violation of his immanent obligation to keep the ball in the air. In short, we have arrived at a teleological hoistus petardis.

To rescue the game of baseball from the perilous abyss of self-contradiction, the Infield Fly Rule that we so recently snubbed is now yanked back into the picture. The logic of the rule is impeccable, as seen even today in its extensive employment in the finest legal reasoning. Our Aristotelian sorites stacks up as follows: since the fielder can catch the infield fly, it follows that he should catch it. But if he should catch it, then he ought to have caught it. Since he ought to have caught it, then he is deemed to have caught it. But if he is deemed to have caught it, he might as well catch it. Since he might as well catch it, he catches it. Thus the ball has been prevented from hitting the ground after all. Quod erat demonstrandum (“thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen”).

Posted by Administrators on March 27, 2007 at 01:02 PM in Legal Theory | Permalink


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