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Friday, May 24, 2024

Infield fly interference double play (Updated Twice)

A wild ending to last night's Orioles-White Sox game. It offers a new entry in the Berman/Friedman "jurisprudence of sports" canon and a nice example of all the problems when the public (including "the media") discusses law.

The White Sox have 1st/2d-one out in the bottom of the ninth. The batter hits a fly ball on the infield grass. Orioles shorstop Gunnar Henderson, stationed behind second base, moves to the ball. He momentarily stops and goes around Andrew Vaughn, the runner on 2d, as he retreats (slowly) to the bag; Henderson gets under and catches the ball. The second-base ump calls infield fly, putting the batter out. The third-base umpire calls Vaughn out for interference, ending the game on a double play. Chaos and nonsensical indignation from the Sox announcers ensue and continues onto the interwebs.

From the 2024 Rulebook: Interference includes a runner who "fails to avoid a fielder who is attempting to field a batted ball." § 6.01(a)(10).  The runner is out and the ball is dead. § 6.01 PENALTY. A comment to § 6.01(a) adds a "runner who is adjudged to have hindered a fielder who is attempting to make a play on a batted ball is out whether it was intentional or not." A separate rule defining fielder right of way imposes an obligation on all members of the batting team to vacate any space a fielder needs to field a batted ball. § 6.02.

The text of the rules undermines the immediate reaction of the Sox announcers and many online commentators screaming about how Vaughn did not intend to interfere, did not know where the ball or fielder were, did not try to interfere, etc. But intent not matter. The rule prohibits the batter not from affirmatively interfering with the fielder. It prohibits the runner from "fail[ing] to avoid" the fielder--it imposes an affirmative obligation to avoid the fielder and to clear the space for the play to be made. Vaughn failed to avoid--he stopped, located the ball, and walked back towards second as the shortstop runs from behind, but in a way that, even unintentionally, blocked Henderson's direct path to the ball. That is enough under the rule. White Sox manager Pedro Grifol recognized that the umps got it right but criticized the rule's lack of intent requirement. Similarly, that Henderson caught the ball with ease does not matter--the rule does not require successful hindrance or apply only if the interference prevented the fielder from making a play.

Some open issues.

1) I cannot tell from the video whether there was contact between fielder and runner or whether the problem was that the runner hindered the fielder by making him change direction in going towards the ball. It does not matter to the rule. But the third-base umpire who called interference and the crew chief conflicted on this--the crew chief said the runner made contact, while the ump who made the call said it did not matter whether he made contact, only that Henderson had to move around him. The call is correct either way, but it helps to have the facts right.

2) Update: I completely revised this point because I got it so wrong. I initially wondered whether the order of the calls (interference and infield fly) matters--if the ump called interference first, the ball would be dead and the batter cannot be out on the infield fly. The answer is no, because of the IFR--and shame on me, having literally written the book on this, for getting it wrong. A comment to the definition of IFR provides:

If interference is called during an Infield Fly, the ball remains alive until it is determined whether the ball is fair or foul. If fair, both the runner who interfered with the fielder and the batter are out. If foul, even if caught, the runner is out and the batter returns to bat.

So interference operates differently on a potential infield fly play than it would on another play. The order of the calls does not matter. The runner is always out. And the IFR overrides the ordinary interference rule and puts the batter out, at least if the ball is fair (this ball was in the middle of the infield and unquestionably fair). Again, shame on me for not remembering that piece of the IFR. Thanks to Mike Dimino for setting me straight. And for further proof the umps got the call right.

3) The Sporting News published an article purporting to explain the play and the intersecting rules. It says the following about interference:

There are different levels of interference when it comes to baserunners.

Per MLB rules, players on the batting team, including coaches, cannot get in the way of a player trying to field a batted ball. However, the rule states that if interference takes place on a batted ball, only the batter is declared out. All other runners must return to their previous bases.

The only time a runner is declared out is when a player or coach interferes with the fielder's right of way to throw a ball. If so, the player for whom the throw was intended to get out will be ruled out.

The article links to a glossary on MLB's web site. Based on the information the article relies on, the call was wrong--the batter should have been out and the runners returned to their bases. But the definition in the glossary does not match the "fielder right of way" rule in § 6.01(b). Under that rule, the ball-is-dead/batter-is-out/runners-return provision applies to "a member of the team at bat (other than a runner)." Section 6.01(a) controls a runner who fails to vacate the right of way and calls the runner out. The Sporting News story never mentions § 6.01, nor does MLB's web site. And the web site does not accurately state the actual rule.

Reporters often do not go to the primary source of law (in this case, MLB Rules); they rely on shortcuts, such as summaries on a web site. This is sunderstandable, as most reporters are not trained in reading and parsing statutes. But MLB does not do itself any favors and fails to protect its umpires from inaccurate and unfair criticism by providing incorrect shortcuts.

Finally, some points about the jurisprudence of sports and how conversations about sports rules match conversations about the law.

1) We have the usual complaints about the game ending on the interference call, Berman's "temporal variance" in enforcing sports rules.

2) I cannot find the video, but at one point the Sox announcer demands that the crew chief step in and overrule the call. This wrongly accords the crew chief some power to overrule other umps' calls and to control what they do. We see the same thing in the demands that John Roberts "do something" about justices' ethical misbehavior--an erroneous assumption that the Chief is somehow the boss of the Court and of the other justices.

Further Update: MLB reportedly defenestrated the umps in a private communication with the White Sox, suggesting the umps were wrong in insisting they had no discretion and had to call interference as soon as they saw contact or a hindrance.

Further Further Update: A reader emails wondering why interference ever arises on an IFR--can the runner interfere with a fielder who need not catch the ball for the out. Recall that the runners can advance at their own risk on the play, which means the fielder usually wants to catch or at least control the ball to prevent runners from advancing. Absent thenterference rule, a runner has an incentive to keep the fielder from getting to the ball, giving his teammates an opportunity to advance if the ball is not caught, even if the batter is out.

Further Further Update: Another reader suggests that, if the ump had discretion, a non-call would have been appropriate here. The runner was in an impossible situation--he had to determination the location of the ball and the fielders, determine their path to the ball, and get to a spot that is out of their path and does not subject him to being doubled-off. That is a lot to ask of a runner.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on May 24, 2024 at 09:48 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


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