Baseball has been America’s national pastime for well over a century and a half. Yet it still provides long-time spectators with events that they have never seen before – or will again. And sometimes, a joke falls flat.
In the eighth inning of a minor league game between the Rumble Ponies of Binghamton and the Yard Goats of Hartford, with the count one ball and two strikes, pitcher Cory Burns of Binghamton fumbled his delivery, throwing the ball barely off the mound. While the ball is slowly rolled toward catcher Colton Plaia, the batter – Josh Fuentes – took a mocking, half-hearted “swing.”
Home plate umpire Patrick Sharshel indicated a strike by raising his left arm, and when Plaia tagged Fuentes, he was called out, ending the inning. It was a costly out, late in the game with the Yard Goats down by a run… a deficit which would turn out to be the final score one inning later.
So, what regulation did Fuentes forget about?
In the 2017 Major League Rule Book, Rule 5.01(b) states:
After the umpire calls “Play” the ball is alive and in play and remains alive and in play until for legal cause, or at the umpire’s call of “Time” suspending play, the ball becomes dead.
Could the umpire have called time during this sequence of events? Rule 5.12(b)(8) states:
Except in the cases stated in paragraph (2) and (3)(A) of this rule, no umpire shall call “Time” while a play is in progress.
5.12(b)(2) is about lighting failure. 5.12(b)(3)(A) is about incapacitated runners. Neither rule would affect this play.
So, what about the pitch itself? Was it an actual pitch? 6.02(b) says:
If the pitcher makes an illegal pitch with the bases unoccupied, it shall be called a ball unless the batter reaches first base on a hit, an error, a base on balls, a hit batter, or otherwise.
That rule, itself, does not seem to affect this situation. However, there is a further comment:
A ball which slips out of a pitcher’s hand and crosses the foul line shall be called a ball; otherwise, it will be called no pitch. This would be a balk with men on base.
Now, we are getting somewhere. The ball, while it obviously slipped from Burns’s hand, had enough forward momentum to gradually make its way over the foul line and there were no Goats on base during this sequence.
Given that the “throw” is officially a pitch, we go back to 5.01(c):
The pitcher shall deliver the pitch to the batter who may elect to strike the ball, or who may not offer at it, as he chooses.
Now, let’s take a look at the gif again with particular attention on the home plate umpire.
Notice that umpire Sharshel does not indicate a strike until AFTER the ball crosses the foul line, despite Fuentes swinging prior to the crossing. Sharshel correctly interpreted the comment for 6.02(b) and did not make any call until the toss became an official pitch. Once it crossed the foul line, the umpire could then judge the mock swing to be an attempt to strike the ball (via 5.01(c)) and utilize Rule 5.09(a)(10) which state:
A batter is out when after a third strike or after he hits a fair ball, he or first base is tagged before he touches first base.
While Fuentes was obviously attempting to bring additional humor to an unfortunate pitch by Cory Burns, he forgot the golden rule of baseball: The play is live until time is called. His forgetfulness led directly to a third strike and a third out. In a tight game in the late innings, a faux pas can be fatal to the chances of winning.