When a well-hit ball bounces into the stands it is sometimes classified as a ground rule double. But is this correct? Brandon Magee argues that precision in baseball announcing will give the listener a much better understanding of the action.
In the bottom of the 4th inning on Saturday night, Dustin Ackley hit a ball from Rick Porcello that bounced into the stands for a double. Kyle Seager, the runner at first, was off with the pitch and normally would have scored. However, the umpires placed him on third. Steve Lyons, color commentating for NESN, mentioned that on a ground rule double, umpires have discretion when placing runners but rarely utilize it. Although Lyons would later correct himself, it made me think that baseball is a game of precise rules, and how using precise words would help with understanding the nuances of the game.
The hit by Kyle Seager is covered in the Official MLB Rules in Section 6.09 (e):
A fair ball, after touching the ground, bounds into the stands, or passes through, over or under a fence, or through or under a scoreboard, or through or under shrubbery, or vines on the fence, in which case the batter and the runners shall be entitled to advance two bases.
As you can see, the umpires acted correctly by placing Seager at third, as it is the only course of action they have per the rules of the game. While these doubles are often called ground-rule doubles (even by MLB boxscores), they are actually not specific to any ground and should be called by a more precise name. I have often heard the term automatic double applied, which makes sense, as that is what the rules provide for.
Ground rules are covered in the MLB rules as well, in Section 3.13:
The manager of the home team shall present to the umpire-in-chief and the opposing manager any ground rules he thinks necessary covering the overflow of spectators upon the playing field, batted or thrown balls into such overflow, or any other contingencies. If these rules are acceptable to the opposing manager they shall be legal. If these rules are unacceptable to the opposing manager, the umpire-in-chief shall make and enforce any special ground rules he thinks are made necessary by ground conditions, which shall not conflict with the official playing rules.
The official rule book does not go into specific rules, which makes sense as these rules are specific to each park and potentially each game. Fenway Park, for example, has a couple of potentially quirky rules. In particular, there is a ladder on the wall that is in the field of play. What happens if a ball strikes the ladder and somehow bounces over the wall? Well, Fenway Park’s Ground Rules covers the situation:
A ball striking the top of the scoreboard in left field in the ladder below top of wall and bounding out of the park is two bases.
That ground rule has not actually been activated, to my recollection. However, there is a Fenway ground rule that gets used quite often without anyone mentioning it or even realizing it is a rule:
A fly ball striking line or right of same on wall in center is a home run.
While that rule clearly makes sense, there is a second ground rule affecting that same area.
A fly ball striking wall left of line and bounding into bullpen is a home run.
An example of this rule would be if a ball hit the Giant Glass sign and immediately careened into the bullpen. The correct call would be a home run – a ground rule home run.
Now, the rule that Lyons had on his mind is Section 3.16:
When there is spectator interference with any thrown or batted ball, the ball shall be dead at the moment of interference and the umpire shall impose such penalties as in his opinion will nullify the act of interference.
Although the rule seems quite clear, the rule book has a clarifying comment:
Rule 3.16 Comment: There is a difference between a ball which has been thrown or batted into the stands, touching a spectator thereby being out of play even though it rebounds onto the field and a spectator going onto the field or reaching over, under or through a barrier and touching a ball in play or touching or otherwise interfering with a player. In the latter case it is clearly intentional and shall be dealt with as intentional interference as in Rule 3.15. Batter and runners shall be placed where in the umpire’s judgment they would have been had the interference not occurred.
No interference shall be allowed when a fielder reaches over a fence, railing, rope or into a stand to catch a ball. He does so at his own risk. However, should a spectator reach out on the playing field side of such fence, railing or rope, and plainly prevent the fielder from catching the ball, then the batsman should be called out for the spectator’s interference.
In this case, and in the case of all intentional interference (for example, a ball boy accidently fielding a fair ball down the line), the umpires do have discretion on where runners are placed. Of course, discretion is often a difficult thing to employ and umpires defer to what is statutory in different, but similar, cases. The end result of these plays should be described as a fan-interference double. However, even the MLB Boxscores uses the ground rule double designation:
Words have meaning. When announcers, writers and even MLB employees themselves use incorrect terminology to describe specific events, it serves only to obfuscate what should be clear. There is a clear difference between an actual ground rule double, a double by rule and a fan-interference double. There is no reason to apply the name ground rule double to all of them.