Now There’s Something You Don’t See Every Day, Part II
I am back from a week at the beach with my extended family. I intentionally eschewed the internet, while confirming that my Kindle Paperwhite really can go an entire week of heavy use on one charge. I also check ESPN each morning for the baseball scores, and so it was that I did see this heck of a catch by Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo:
The umpire initially called this no catch, but the crew put their heads together and changed the call. The final decision was correct, but you have to dive pretty deep in the rule book for it.
What makes this more interesting to me than most highlight plays is how it ties in with my theme of baseball’s extremely peculiar boundary rules. A fielder cannot run into the stands and make a legal catch. The definition of a catch in Rule 2.0 includes the comment that “A fielder may reach over a fence, railing, rope or other line of demarcation to make a catch. He may jump on top of a railing, or canvas that may be in foul ground.” On the other hand, a comment to Rule 6.05(a) specifies that “A fielder, in order to make a catch on a foul ball nearing a dugout or other out-of-play area (such as the stands), must have one or both feet on or over the playing surface (including the lip of the dugout) and neither foot on the ground inside the dugout or in any other out-of-play area.”
The mere fact of these two rules illustrates my point about the boundary to the playing field. There isn’t a single rule defining just what the playing area is. You have to work it out by implication: We are told only obliquely that this is even an issue: there may be a fence, railing, rope or other line of demarcation. Then again, there may not. A professional field always has a fence, because without a fence you can’t charge spectators to come inside it. But I have seen college fields with only partial fences. If a foul ball should be hit at a part of the field with no fence, and if the fielder can reach it, then he can make a legal catch, even in the midst of spectators. The line of demarcation seems itself to be within the playing field, since presumably otherwise the fielder could not stand atop a railing. Then it is only in a rather obscure comment to a separate rule that tells us in passing how this boundary affects play.
This is a vestige of the early game, when baseball was played on open fields. You needed provisions for dealing with obstacles such as trees and buildings, but the underlying assumption was that the natural limitation to play was the fielder’s ability to catch up to the ball, rather than any artificial boundaries. The boundaries evolved to meet pragmatic needs of enclosed fields and separation of players from spectators. The rules for boundaries seem like an afterthought because the boundaries themselves are an afterthought.
Then there are those spectators. Ken S pointed out in a comment a couple of weeks ago that yet another peculiar feature of baseball is that the spectators can legitimately directly influence the game play. Also from that comment to the definition of a catch: “No interference should 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.” The language of “should be allowed” is obscure. What it means is that spectator interference won’t be called if the ball is outside of the playing area. So if you team is at bat and a fielder on the other side is trying to catch that ball coming your way, you are perfectly within your rights to snag it first, or knock it out of the way, or push him aside. (But recall the sad tale of Steve Bartman, and be sure to keep track of which side is at bat.)
So getting back to that Rizzo play, I am surprised that the umpire initially called no catch. Major league umpires are generally well versed in the obscure corners of the rules. My guess is that the umpire forgot that the railing (in reality a brick wall about a foot wide) by rule is within the field of play.
There is, of course, this exception to the boundary rules, as well as all other rules of baseball and laws of physics: