During basketball season, I wrote a column about rules that many people don’t understand, and I heard many positive comments about it. Now that we’re in the midst of baseball and softball, I thought we might do the same thing with those sports.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard, “He has to slide!” over the years, well, I’d have a lot of dollars. This is one of the biggest mistakes people make. The baseball rulebook specifically says, “A runner never has to slide.” Certainly, most of the time, it would behoove the runner to slide, but he or she is not out because they didn’t.
Of course there’s an EXCEPT portion of this. Outside of MLB, you can’t just plow somebody over instead of sliding. The rulebook terms it malicious contact, which is somewhat at the discretion of the umpire. If I see somebody lower a shoulder instead of sliding, it will be called malicious contact; the runner is out and also ejected from the game! You also can’t vault over another player because of safety issues; even if a tag is not applied, the runner is out.
It’s a great idea to slide most of the time. Players should be encouraged to do so on any play that might be close. But you will never be called out because you didn’t slide unless you perform the EXCEPT part explained above.
Another common misconception involves running through first base. Runners are taught that when they beat out a throw to first to run past the base, turn to their right, and return to the base. Most of the time, this is what happens. However, you will occasionally see a runner turn to the left before returning to first. You will immediately hear, “Tag him! He turned the wrong way!”
There is no wrong way to turn. You can legally turn in either direction in order to get back to first base. Where you can be tagged out is if you make a distinct move toward second base. Once you’ve done that, you’re fair game. Again, this is an umpire’s judgment on whether you made a move that implied you were trying for second base. It might be worth a tag just to see, but most of the time, you won’t get that call.
A foul tip is when the ball is batted backward directly to the catcher’s mitt and caught by that catcher. You’ll often see this happen on strike three, and the batter is out if the catcher makes a clean catch. A foul tip is a live ball. Many times, I’ve seen a runner stealing a base when a foul tip occurs, and he or she wants to go back to first. The ball is live, and the catcher can throw down to another fielder to make a tag on that runner.
The difficulty is in the call. An umpire is supposed to call, “Foul tip,” and make a particular signal. But all most people hear is, “Foul.” Thus, they think the ball is dead, just as it would be if somebody hit a foul ball down the line. At younger ages, I like to teach the rule and tell the runner to stay on the base that was stolen, but by high school, players should know this.
Speaking of foul balls, if the batted ball hits home plate, is it foul? No, it is not. Think about the shape of the baseball field. It is a diamond. Where is one of the tips of that diamond? It’s the back corner of home plate. Every part of home plate is in fair territory. I’ve actually seen a batted ball land and stay right on home plate. It was fair, and the catcher picked it up and threw the batter out at first base. This is the same as the misnamed foul lines. The lines are fair territory. Foul territory starts outside the foul lines.
Those are a few of the more common mistakes that casual fans (and even a number of coaches) seem to make year after year. The baseball rulebook is a morass of linguistic gymnastics and is only compelling to those of us who try to interpret it for the purpose of umpiring. There are scenarios that I hope never happen in a game I’m part of because they’re so complicated, I might have to pull my rulebook out to make sure I get it right.
There is one new rule this year in high school baseball that I disagree with, and that’s the new pitch count regulations. Pitchers in JV or varsity games are limited to 105 pitches in a game. They also have some rules about days of rest based on how many pitches they threw before they’re allowed on the mound again.
I’m sure there have been some rotten coaches who let kids pitch way too much. However, in small schools like ours and many others, there are a finite number of players who can pitch without making a mockery of the game. Big schools naturally have plenty more choices, but we’ll struggle if we have a week with four games.
And now teams are slowing down the game because of this. The thought is if you tell your batters to work the count and take a bunch of pitches, you can get the other team’s stud out earlier. Listen, if you see a great pitch on the first delivery, swing the bat. It might be the best pitch you’ll see.
I have no problems limiting my 12U pitchers to 75 pitches or fewer. I’ve done that for years, even as a 7th-grade coach. But when a young man has developed into an adult body, we don’t need to have a rule that doesn’t recognize his potential ability; all pitchers are built differently.
That rule is not going away anytime soon, and the other rules I mentioned are unlikely to change either. Now you can watch baseball with an enlightened perception and stop yelling at those poor umpires!
Word of the Week: This week’s word is gadfly, which means one who persistently annoys, as in, “The umpire was ready to eject the gadfly who kept shouting about rules he didn’t understand.” Impress your friends and confuse your enemies!