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The Back 40: Unwritten baseball rules and the infield fly

By  Jay Williams

 

Anyone who has grown up around baseball knows all about the game’s so-called unwritten rules.

  • You don’t bunt to try and break up a no-hitter. (I’m sorry, but isn’t the goal of baseball to get on base and try to score runs to win? If I bunt in that situation, throw me out at first base and your no-hitter is still in play.)
  • You don’t steal a base late in a game when you have a big lead. (No one ever defines what exactly a “big” lead is, but otherwise I’m okay with this. Stealing a base with a 7-run lead in the 8th inning does have a certain rubbing-their-noses-in-it feel to it.)
  • You don’t swing at a 3-0 pitch when your team has a big lead. (I’m generally okay with this one, too…if only because most of the baseball coaches in my life would have made me run wind sprints after the game if I had swung at ANY 3-0 pitch in ANY situation.)
  • Rules number four through infinity are too numerous to list here.

A lot of people think baseball’s unwritten rules are silly, but they do exist. Not in the official rulebook, of course. But they are passed down from one generation of ballplayers to the next to make sure the game is played “the right way.”

FYI…playing the game “the right way” has also never been defined exactly. I’m at the age where seeing an epic bat flip after a guy hits a homerun makes my heart palpitate. If he bat flips when his team is behind by several runs, my heart palpitations generally turn into full-body convulsions. But that’s a generational thing. They’re not going to change my mind, and I’m not going to change theirs. We’ll just have to agree to disagree about “the right way” when it comes to bat flips. And I’m okay with that.

Now let’s talk about an official rule of baseball that may be understood even less than those unwritten rules. I’m talking about the good old infield fly rule… perhaps the least understood rule in all of baseball. I am convinced that 40% of Major League Baseball players cannot define the rule for you. As a youth league baseball umpire, I can assure you that number is 99% of youth league players. The number of youth league coaches who don’t know the exact rule is probably 90%. Oh, they know there IS an infield fly rule…they just don’t know the specifics. And when it comes to parents in the stands of youth league games…knowledge of the infield fly rule comes in at a rock-solid 0%.

Here are the basics. With runners on first and second base OR bases loaded… AND there are less than two outs in the inning…if the batter hits a fly ball that can be caught by any infielder with ordinary effort, then the batter is automatically out whether the ball is caught or not. The rule is designed to prevent the defense from intentionally dropping a fly ball so they can try to get more than one out on the play.

Sounds simple, right? No…of course that doesn’t sound simple! There’s nothing simple about it! I understand it because I’ve been playing, watching, coaching, and umpiring baseball for 45 years. But try explaining the infield fly rule to someone who is new to the game. You may as well try to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity. Which makes sense because time and space are often involved in infield fly rule plays.

Earlier this week I was umpiring a 10U game (that’s players who are ages 9 and 10). Bases loaded, no outs…so the infield fly rule is in effect. Sure enough, the batter hits a pop fly right at the first baseman. I immediately signal for the infield fly (arm pointed straight up in the air) AND yell as loudly as I can, “Infield fly!” Then I repeat myself to make sure that I am heard.

You know what’s coming next. The first baseman dropped the ball. The batter is already out because of the infield fly rule. That’s out #1. But the play is still live because the runners on base can advance at their own risk. They don’t have to advance, but they can. Sure enough, the runner who was on first base wanders off a few steps then stops. The first baseman picked up the ball then tagged that runner. That’s out #2.

By now the chaos is in full swing. The runner who began the play on third base had initially started home then went back to the bag when his coach yelled at him to return. Now he took off for home again. After tagging the runner beside him, the first baseman wheeled and made a perfect throw home. The catcher then tagged the runner coming from third. That’s out #3. Just your everyday infield fly rule triple play special.

I signaled and called timeout with a big smile on my face, because I knew that a long explanation was in order. I called both coaches to the plate and explained the play in detail. After they were satisfied, I held a short tutorial for the parents in the stands. One of them half-jokingly said, “Hey, blue…you’re making this up, right?”

I laughed and told them they better get used to the infield fly rule because it’s going to be a part of the game as long as their kids keep playing baseball. One of them asked a smart question, “What should a baserunner do in that situation?”

I told her, “Any runner should go to the base that they started the play on, and park themselves on it.”

That may be good advice, but with chaos reigning around them and coaches and parents screaming from every direction, it’s awfully hard for most kids to keep their wits about them in that situation.

But at least this particular rule is written down and can be studied.

Batter up.

 

You can reach Jay Williams at jwilliams@hicks-co.com.

 

 

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