Photo as seen on The Atlantic.com
In Defense of Baseball’s Infield Fly Rule
Baseball’s Infield Fly Rule has sparked more legal fascination than any other rule in sports. It returned to the national spotlight this past week when an unusual and controversial infield fly call in last Friday’s National League Wild Card game between the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves short-circuited a potential Braves rally in a game the Braves ultimately lost. Opinion has been divided on the correctness of the call.
But beyond criticism of this specific call, some fans on Twitter and in web forums expressed a deeper distaste for the Infield Fly Rule itself, questioning whether it is necessary, wise, or warranted. They’re misguided: The rule is part of the sport’s fabric, uniquely warranted for a situation that’s unique to baseball.
There’s no other situation in baseball when the fielding team will be better off by not catching a fair ball than by catching it.
Here’s how the Infield Fly Rule works. When a team has runners on first and second or the bases loaded with less than two out and the batter hits a pop-fly ball (but not a line drive) in fair territory that can be easily caught by an infielder (under the rule, can be caught with “ordinary effort”), the batter is called out, regardless of whether the fielder catches the ball; if the ball drops and remains fair, it is in play and the runners can try to advance at their own risk. The rule is designed to remove the incentive for a fielder to deliberately drop an easily handled ball on the infield, which likely would allow him to turn a double play on the two base runners (and perhaps, although less likely, a triple play). It took its more-or-less current form in 1901, enacted in response to infielders actually doing this, a bit of trickery that was deemed not “sporting” at the time.
We have moved beyond those 19th-century definitions of sportsmanship. Modern players employ many tricks and attempts at deception that our baseball forebears might not have appreciated. The question is whether, stripped of antiquated concerns for sports ethics, the rule can be justified. I say yes.
Critically, the Infield Fly Rule applies to a game situation that contains four distinct features. No other game situation in baseball, or indeed any other sport, contains all four features. The presence of all four features makes the infield-fly situation sui generis and necessitates a special rule.
The four relevant features are:
- Players have a strong incentive to intentionally not do what they are ordinarily expected to do in the game.
- The team gains a substantial benefit or advantage by intentionally not doing what is ordinarily expected.
- The play is slow-developing and not fast-moving, so the player has time to think and control what he does.
- Even doing what is ordinarily expected of them, the opposing players are powerless to stop the play from developing or to prevent the team from gaining this advantage.