Baseball is a unique sport filled with situations that you may only see once every few years, if at all. Umpires must be prepared to rule on these situations in real time, but we have our own expert to rely upon. Brandon Magee explains the fair or foul ruling on a few plays, including a truly unique grounder from the minors.
Baseball has been America’s national pastime for well over a century and a half. Yet it still provides long-time spectators events that they have never seen before – or will again. As baseball fans, we are well aware of the written and unwritten rules that govern the game. However, sometimes the very foundational supports of the game get knocked over.
Ball or Strike? Safe or out? Fair or foul? The pillars of baseball are based upon these basic binary concepts. For the most part, there are no questions regarding these actual states. While the whims of umpires make the actual strike zone different than the exact rule-book definition, we all know that a ball that is three feet over the batter’s head will be a ball and a fastball that cuts the middle of the plate at the belt will be a strike. The same is true with a fly ball to centerfield. If it is caught, it is an out; if it is dropped, the runner is safe.
Even fair and foul is a fairly well understood concept. We know a ball sliced into the stands over the dugout is a foul ball while one driven towards the pitcher’s mound is fair. The concept seems simple to understand and easy to adjudicate.
However, baseball is never as simple as that. Take, for example, a bunt down the line. In a game against the Minnesota Twins in 1987, the Kansas City Royals Kevin Seitzer got down on his knees in an attempt to blow the rolling ball foul:
While Seitzer clearly did not change the ball’s course in his attempt, it does highlight the nebulous concept of fair and foul, especially in the infield. Let’s take a look at the rulebook and see how a fair ball is defined:
A FAIR BALL is a batted ball that settles on fair ground between home and first base, or between home and third base, or that is on or over fair territory when bounding to the outfield past first or third base, or that touches first, second or third base, or that first falls on fair territory on or beyond first base or third base, or that, while on or over fair territory touches the person of an umpire or player, or that, while over fair territory, passes out of the playing field in flight.
A fair fly shall be judged according to the relative position of the ball and the foul line, including the foul pole, and not as to whether the fielder is on fair or foul territory at the time he touches the ball.
The definition seems fairly straight forward. Certainly in the case of the Seitzer play, the ball had clearly settled in fair territory and was adjudged to be a hit.
However, there is a comment to the rule book definition that sheds light on why Seitzer was making the mock attempt at getting the ball to go foul:
If a fly ball lands in the infield between home and first base, or home and third base, and then bounces to foul territory without touching a player or umpire and before passing first or third base, it is a foul ball; or if the ball settles on foul territory or is touched by a player on foul territory, it is a foul ball. If a fly ball lands on or beyond first or third base and then bounces to foul territory, it is a fair hit.
The comment makes clear that just because a ball starts out in fair territory, it is not necessarily a fair ball. The ball must stay fair until it passes either first or third base, is touched by a fielder while the ball is in fair territory, or, as it does in the Seitzer play, stops in fair territory.
This concept extends to foul balls as well. In a 2013 game, Nick Swisher tops a fastball foul at the plate. Clearly, Swisher believes the ball is foul as he leaves the batter’s box and waits for the ball to go back to the pitcher and begin play again. However, catcher Brayan Pena knows the rules well. As the ball inches its way down the third baseline, Pena follows it; when the spin on the ball takes it back to the line, Pena grabs it and runs back to home plate, tagging the perplexed Swisher out.
Again, the term settles is the key. The mere fact that the ball started in foul territory does not make the ball a foul ball, at least not until the ball goes beyond the demarcation points – first and third base.
The above plays deal with a bunt and an infield spinning top, plays that tend to put the inches into the phrase “a game of inches.” But there is no way a hard grounder heading for the first-base dugout would put the concepts of fair and foul into play. Right?
Wrong. In a Triple-A game, Eric Campbell of the Las Vegas 51s sliced a ball thrown by El Paso Chihuahuas’ Eric Yardley. The ball is clearly foul, landing a good 15 feet into foul territory and appearing well on its way into the stands or the dugout. Instead of going forward when it hit the ground, however, the ball decided to defy logic and go back towards the field. Eventually it crossed the foul line and went back into fair territory, where the first baseman made an easy 3-unassisted putout.
— El Paso Chihuahuas (@epchihuahuas) September 2, 2016
Fair or foul? It seems so simple, but as the plays above show, the concept is just a little more complex than most binary concepts.