My good friend “JC” is an excellent writer and fellow umpire. He is the writer of the information below and I think it is an excellent recount of what happened in the Marlins’ game and an even better explanation of the rule.
There has been a lot of very public discussion as to whether technology should be used to ‘call’ a baseball game. I’m totally against it. Why just baseball? Why not let a computer decide when Kobe Bryant travels (nearly every time he has the ball) or when some offensive guard commits the act of ‘holding’? It’s all the same… a determination of a game rule decided by a human in real-time (remember, we don’t have the luxury of re-play in 37 angles on the field). I’m also sure that MLB management and players would be against it too should it ever happen. First of all, the judgment part of the game is what makes it a game. Secondly, those higher pitches that are in the strike zone (by definition in the official rules) but often not called strikes now would surely lower some batting averages.
I urge anyone that questions how an umpire makes a call to stand 60 feet 6 inches (wearing minimal padding for protection) from a 25-year-old man throwing a very hard object upwards of 90mph in your direction. It’s no picnic, believe me.
Last night umpire Bob Davidson called a ground ball “foul.” If it has been fair, the Marlins would have won the ballgame. The call “cost them the game.” There is much wailing about the call, with most commentators thinking Davidson got it wrong. Maybe he did; it’s hard to tell from the video.
What’s more interesting to me, however, is how many commentators are castigating Davidson based on a faulty understanding of the applicable baseball rule. The mistake is consistent. The commentators think that where the ball “landed” matters. It doesn’t.
Here’s the video:
Here’s the rule: A FOUL BALL is a batted ball that settles on foul territory between home and first base, or between home and third base, or that bounds past first or third base on or over foul territory, or that first falls on foul territory beyond first or third base, or that, while on or over foul territory, touches the person of an umpire or player, or any object foreign to the natural ground. OBR Rule 2, “foul ball.”
Let’s parse the rule. There are four ways a batted ball is foul. Only one matters for this play, but let’s get the others out of the way.
First, a definition. “Foul territory” means the portion of the playing field outside of the chalk lines running from home plate to and past 1B and 3B (and perpendicularly upwards from those lines). The chalk lines themselves are in fair territory, as are the bases (and the “foul poles”). OBR Rule 2 “foul territory” (see also, OBR rule 2 “fair territory”).
1. A batted ball is foul if it “settles” on foul territory before passing first base or third base. Settles means stops. This portion of the rule applies to dribblers and bunts. What’s most important is that the only thing that matters is where the ball settles. It’s irrelevant where it was before it stops. Think bunts. A bunt may start out in foul territory, and then roll back into fair territory and stop on the grass in fair territory before passing 1B or 3B. Fair ball, because of where it settled. Or, a bunt may start out in fair territory and then go into foul territory and settle there (before passing 1B or 3B). Foul ball.
2. A batted ball is foul if it “first falls” on foul territory behind 1B or 3B. This applies to batted balls that first touch the ground beyond a base; fly balls or line drives. In this case, it’s where the ball first hits the ground that counts. The distinction between #1 and #2 is that #1 applies to batted balls that first touch the ground before passing a base, and #2 applies to batted balls that first touch the ground after passing a base.
3. A batted ball is foul if it first touches something other than the “natural ground” while on or over foul territory. The key here is “first touch.” If the first “foreign object” (equipment, screens, humans) the batted ball touches is on (or over) foul territory, it’s a foul ball. Full stop. (Think bunts again. This is why fielders deliberately touch bunts after letting them “roll foul.”) However, if the first “foreign object” the batted ball touches is on or over fair territory, it’s a fair ball, irrespective of anything else, including where it ends up.*
With these out of the way, let’s look at the fourth way a batted ball can be foul, which is the portion of the rule that applies to the Davidson call.
4. A batted ball is foul if it “bounds” past a base while on or over foul territory. “Bounds” means bounces. This portion of the rule applies to grounders; batted balls that first strike the (natural) ground before passing a base (and before striking anything else but the natural ground), and which then pass 1B or 3B. (If they do not touch the ground before passing a base, then #2 applies. If they settle before passing 1B or 3B, #1 applies. If they first touch something before either of those events, #3 applies.) The key here is that the only relevant place is where the ball is when it passes the base. Where it was, or hit the ground, before or after this point is irrelevant. It simply doesn’t matter where the ball first hit the ground before passing a base, nor where it hit the ground after bouncing past a base.** If a bounding batted ball passes 1B or 3B on or over foul territory, it’s foul. Full stop. If a bounding batted ball passes 1B or 3B on or over fair territory, it’s fair. And it’s “any part of the ball over any part of the base” that matters.
Here’s some examples of commentary based on a faulty understanding of the rule (all by sportswriters or baseball insiders who should know better; we’ll ignore the rantings of “mere” fans, and the Marlins’ broadcasters).
“If the ball is ruled fair while crossing the bag, it is a fair ball. If it is to the foul side of the bag, it is determined foul. [So far, so good.] TV replays showed that the ball landed inches in fair territory past the bag, but Davidson didn’t follow the ball as it struck the ground.” [This is irrelevant.] Joe Frisaro, MLB.com.
“Replays clearly show Sanchez’s hit landing in fair territory behind third base.” [Yes, it did, but that’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter where the ball “landed.”] Jeff Gordon, St. Louis Post Dispatch. (Similarly: “Davidson ruled the ball foul, although replays showed it was in fair territory over the bag and hit the dirt in fair territory just past the base.” Matt Gelb, Philadelphia Inquirer. “Replays indeed showed ball landed inside the foul line behind the base, meaning Sanchez’s grounder should have scored Hanley Ramirez from second base.” Steven Wine, AP. “The ball never landed in foul territory. Dreadful.” Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria.)
“What the ball did when it went past me is irrelevant….” Umpire Bob Davidson. He’s right