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Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Pre-Socratics (Part II of Tony D'Amato's Concise History of Baseball's Infield Fly Rule)

by Tony D’Amato

Although the proximate cause of the Peloponnesian War was a disputed umpire's call in a game between the Spartans and Athenians, this incident got lost in the numerous retellings of that celebrated conflict. As proof, we find no mention of it in The Iliad. Fortunately, its author attained lasting fame anyway by his discovery of the homer. Many other useful additions to baseball were made by the Greeks in the years that followed, such as the treiska miasmos (three-strikes-and-yer-out), the spheros entroadyton (passed ball), and the treiska katabasis (ground-rule triple) which was reduced to a double in 1708 by the Queen's Commissioner of Spherical Bodies, Sir Isaac Newton. And mention must be made of colorful expressions that were coined during the Hellenic era, such as “How ‘bout dem Hittites!”

In turn, baseball had a salutary effect upon Grecian culture. When the early Olympic games suffered from a drop in attendance during an extended Reading Period, the fast-food concessionaires, afraid of losing their livelihood, lobbied vigorously to get baseball included as an Olympic sport. Their initiative saved the Games. A veritable gaggle of Greeks poured into Olympia, and T-chitons with team logos did a brisk business. Yet the very best sellers were red-figure baseball cards featuring players in the nude. Today, alas, only the Vatican has a complete set, which is kept in an electrum-and-alabaster shoebox in the Original Attic of the Penitenteria Apostolica's Librorum Prohibitorum.

But although the game of baseball grew more complex by the accretion of the aforementioned rules under the tutelage of the Greeks, its underlying theory remained elusive until 450 B.C., when a major insight was contributed by the famous shortstop-second-base combination of Zeno and Parmenides playing for the Athenian Nemeses. A pop fly ball inspired Zeno to formulate his First Paradox of Motion. Zeno realized that if the ball were hit straight up, a point would be reached at the exact apex of its flight when it would be motionless. At that instant of supreme indecision the ball would not know whether to go up or down. Yet a ball that is completely still at a given moment cannot spontaneously start moving a moment later. It follows as a matter of logic that the baseball will remain suspended in mid-air.

Several weeks after posting his thesis on a public billboard in the Agora, Zeno had the opportunity to introduce his Paradox into an actual game. It was the top of the ninth inning and the visiting Visigoths were ahead by a score of 49 to 1. There were no outs and the bases were loaded as usual. The batter for the Goths hit a high pop fly directly over home plate, and Zeno strolled in to position himself under the ball. But just as the umpire began to yell "Infield Fly!" Zeno shushed him and demanded that the game be called on account of darkness. Zeno argued that the ball would never come down. It is immobilized at its highest point, he assured the umpire, and will remain there for all eternity. So strong were Zeno's famed powers of persuasion that a hush descended over the stadium and the umpire was plunged into deep cogitation. Meanwhile, the baseball unceremoniously reversed its course, bounced off Zeno's head, and fell to the turf. The alert catcher scooped it up, stepped on the plate, and fired to third. The third baseman tagged the bag, wheeled, and fired to Parmenides at second. The umpire yelled "Three outs—triple play!" Immediately all the Visigoths poured out of the dugout. In the fracas that ensued, one of them set a precedent by killing the umpire. The Hellenic League Council declared the Nemeses winner by forfeit with a final score of 50 to 49. Zeno was feted as a hero, and the Infield Fly Rule was retroactively amended so that it would not apply to philosophers who are beaned by the ball while sincerely arguing the Rule's inapplicability.

However, Zeno's Paradox did not solve the question of why the Infield Fly Rule arose in the first place, a dilemma that would have to await the genius of Aristotle. But Zeno's work did inspire one of Euclid's famous postulates—you know, the one about the triangle. Euclid began by noting that in the infield fly as described by Zeno, the upward leg of flight of the baseball was equal to the downward leg, since they formed a straight line superimposed upon one another. This was true even if the ball itself never came down. Now, Euclid reasoned, what if one were to pry apart the two legs from the bottom? This would create a new figure, which Euclid named a "triangle." Upon pondering this new geometric construction, Euclid further observed that merely separating the legs would not increase the length of either of them. Thus, the "sides" of the "triangle" remained equal when pushed apart. To test his theory, Euclid drew a diagram depicting the two sides of the triangle as squeezed back together. They merged into a single vertical line representing the height of the triangle, just as Zeno had earlier predicted. Euclid proudly announced that in all future triangles the height of the triangle will be represented by a vertical dotted line—a lasting virtual homage to Zeno and his critical insight into the deep metaphysics of the Infield Fly Rule.

Earlier posts:
Part I

Posted by Administrators on March 22, 2007 at 07:15 PM in Legal Theory | Permalink

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