Rulebook 101: Was Courtney Hawkins’s Route To First Base Legal?

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 experts to rely upon. Rick Rowand went to the tape to determine if the umpires made the correct decision when they called Courtney Hawkins safe following his unconventional route to first base.

In an article earlier this year I covered the difference between the base line and the base path, and the numerous ways a player can be called out running between home and first.  

A video came to my attention earlier today that perfectly demonstrates a common misunderstanding of the rule. Or does it?

Let’s go to the videotape:

Now, let’s go to the MLB rulebook, and the section – Rule 5.09(a) – that governs running to first base:

(11) In running the last half of the distance from home base to first base, while the ball is being fielded to first base, he runs outside (to the right of ) the three-foot line, or inside (to the left of) the foul line, and in the umpire’s judgment in so doing interferes with the fielder taking the throw at first base, in which case the ball is dead; except that he may run outside (to the right of) the three-foot line or inside (to the left of) the foul line to avoid a fielder attempting to field a batted ball;

Rule 5.09(a)(11) Comment (Rule 6.05(k): The lines marking the three-foot lane are a part of that lane and a batter-runner is required to have both feet within the three-foot lane or on the lines marking the lane. The batter-runner is permitted to exit the three-foot lane by means of a step, stride, reach or slide in the immediate vicinity of first base for the sole purpose of touching first base.

The video above shows a play in the game between the Birmingham Barons and the Chattanooga Lookouts on Sunday, featuring the correct application of this rule. Barons’ outfielder Courtney Hawkins hits a soft ground ball that is fielded by pitcher Ryan Eades of the Lookouts. Hawkins initially runs towards first, inside the foul line. The question at this point is: Should Hawkins have been called out for being inside the basepath? The fielder shows clear intent to tag Hawkins out, not making a throw to first.  

However, the baserunner stopped before the tag is applied and began to retreat toward home, using the already-established path. Eades was between home and first, ball nestled in his glove, glancing occasionally out to the field because Eddy Alvarez was on second after a leadoff double.

The question now becomes: is Eades obstructing Hawkins from reaching first, since the fielder positioned himself directly in front of the runner?,

Before Hawkins reached the plate on his backwards walk, he darted quickly to his right and then ran towards first. He made his move when he saw that Eades had lowered his head, looking at the ground. The fielder was able to reach out and apply the tag for the out – but it was with an empty glove, because the ball had fallen out when Eades moved to tag Hawkins.

Hawkins notices the ball on the ground and sprints to the bag, sliding into first as Eades plucks the ball off of the grass. The umpires ruled Hawkins safe at first. Was that the correct call? It appears he was outside of the three foot area baserunners are allowed to avoid a tag.

We are left with three questions:

  1. Should Hawkins have been called out for running inside the foul line to first?
    No. The runner has one foot in the proscribed basepath area. In fact, his foot is on the foul line, well within the boundary described by the rule. He also did nothing to obstruct the fielder from attempting to make a play.
  2. Was Eades obstructing Hawkins?
    No. Hawkins retreated to home of his own volition and Eades had control of the ball. Hawkins is permitted three feet on either side of his baseline to try and evade the attempted tag. If Hawkins inadvertently stepped on home plate, he should have been called out – but that did not happen here.
  3. Should Eades have been called out for going into foul territory to avoid the attempted tag by Eades?
    Again, the answer is no. Even though Hawkins went more than three feet from the baseline, that wasn’t until after the tag attempt – and remember, Eades no longer had the ball in his glove at the time. It was bouncing harmlessly on the grass. Eades was charged with an error on the play.

It took at least four viewings of the video to see what the umps saw in real time. I’m still surprised they get it right – in real time – as many times as they do. Good work, blue.

Follow Rick on Twitter @rrowand.

About Rick Rowand 116 Articles
Like all little boys who grew up in Little Rock, Rick became a fan of the Red Sox and continues to be one to this day. He is the proud parent of two adult children and currently lives in Metro Atlanta and is not a member of any known cult. Rick likes to cook for friends and enemies, and his favorite band remains The Clash! Member of the IBWAA because, well, we all need to belong somewhere.

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