The return of the Infield Fly Rule
posted by Howard Wasserman
Law-and-sport types are having fun this morning (at least those not living in Atlanta) because everyone is suddenly talking about our favorite rule in all of sports–the Infield Fly Rule. Lawyerly fascination with the Rule was captured in William Stevens’s famous 1975 “Aside” in the Penn Law Review. It remains the most legalistic of rules in the most legalistic of sports. And if you can explain it to someone, you know baseball.
In last night’s Wild Card playoff game between Atlanta and St. Louis, the umpire made a controversial infield fly call on a fly ball into short left that fell when the Cardinals’ shortstop and left-fielder miscommunicated; the shortstop had settled under the ball and looked ready to make the catch, then ran out of the way when he thought the left-fielder had called him off. (Video here). The call took the Braves out of what would have been bases loaded/one-out situation, trailing 6-3; instead, there were two out and the Braves did not score again. The game was delayed for 18 minutes when Atlanta fans began throwing stuff onto the field. The Braves played the game under protest, but MLB denied the protest and upheld the Cardinals 6-3 win.
What we have here is a nice example of statutory interpretation; whether the call was correct depends on how you resolve the conflicts among textualism, history, and purposivism.
The text of the rule requires only that the ball “can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort.” Commentary to the rule (call it legislative history or committee notes) points out that the rule’s applicability is not subject to “arbitrary limitations” such as the baselines or grass, so the fact that the ball was hit into the outfield does not matter. The rule also can apply even if the ball is handled by an outfielder (as happened here), if the umpire determines that it could have been as easily handled by an infielder. So far, watching the play with the text in mind, the call seems right. But the purpose of the Rule is to prevent an infielder from dropping the ball on purpose and getting a double play on the base runners who had to stay put on the short fly ball. Given how deep the ball was hit, there was no way the runners would have been doubled off and no way the shortstop would have tried. So the interests served by the rule were not implicated on the play, thus purposivism suggests the call was wrong. Now the question is whether you believe text or purpose controls.
In addition, the play had procedural problems. The Rule requires the umpire to “immediately declare” infield fly “[w]hen it seems apparent” that the rule is catchable by an infielder with ordinary effort. The commentary emphasizes that “the decision should be made immediately.” If you watch the replay that begins at the 0:55 mark on the linked video, however, the umpire makes the call really late, probably because it took longer than usual for it to become “apparent” that the ball was easily handled by the infielder. But note that the Rule also states that the obligation to “immediately declare” infield fly is for the benefit of the runners, not the batter; the batter is out on the call, so the goal is just to give runners notice of the play (the ball is live and runners can move at their own risk). Since neither baserunner was disadvantaged by the call, the lateness did not affect them. The only thing the lateness of the call did was heighten the confusion surrounding the play and therefore the fan and player anger over the call.
So my instinct is that the umpire got it right, however odd the play looked. Either way, I’m just glad to be able to write and talk about the rule.