Fairness and the Infield Fly Rule

Fairness and the Infield Fly Rule

Not one American in a hundred, if that, is conversant with the infield fly rule.

Who cares, says you, about some silly old rule for some stupid sport that once was our national pastime and now plans to open its Major League season today in Australia, halfway around the world. Good point, but I submit that this arcane imperative, which assumed its present form in 1901, was the beginning of America as we know it.

Before baseball's infield fly rule, life was simpler, if not always fair. We had no permanent federal income tax or thermonuclear weapons. No one gave a hoot about gluten or cholesterol. There was no FBI or CIA, Pledge of Allegiance or safety net. Your family was your social security. People died younger, often from things we laugh off today. Children didn't have to go to school in some states, although they could be put to work in mines and factories.

A yearning for evenhandedness is what gave birth to the infield fly rule, which was designed to prevent the fielders from taking unfair advantage of the batters.

Here's what was happening (buckle up!): when there were two or more runners on base creating a force play at third base and less than two outs, if a batter hit a pop fly, infielders would let the ball drop so they could get an easy double play as the base runners raced to reach the next base. The runners had to stay close to their original bases in the event the ball was caught so they wouldn't be doubled up. Like many Americans in everyday life, they were damned if they did and damned if they didn't.

To prevent this particular example of man's inhumanity to man, the umpire is empowered to intercede. If, in his judgment, a fly ball can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort; the ump then loudly proclaims, "Infield fly rule, the batter is out!" And said batter is out, whether the fielder catches the ball or not. The runners are free to stay or go, although staying put is recommended, as will be demonstrated.

I first encountered the infield fly rule one spring day in high school, 50 years ago. I was playing second base. The bases were loaded, with no outs. The batter hit a towering popup in my general direction — the kind that give you too much time to think. Our first baseman, Steve, who was older and infinitely more adroit, called me off. He would catch the ball, which was fine with me. I had heard the umpire yell, "Infield fly rule, batter is out," but I assumed that he was making a rash prediction.

What happened next was bewildering to almost everyone playing and watching the game. Steve looked calm and relaxed. He tapped his glove. He seemed to have the ball in his sights, but inexplicably it dropped directly in front of him. I was flummoxed beyond word or deed.

I was not the only one present who was ignorant of this theoretically benevolent rule. All of the runners on all of the bases ran, as if they had to (which they didn't). Steve calmly picked up the ball, tagged the player dashing toward second and threw home to nail the hapless runner trying to score. It was a triple play, easy as pie.

Steve had turned the rule to his advantage, banking on the ignorance of people like me. I was 14 and just beginning to appreciate that life was going to be way more complicated than I had ever imagined.