Rules and quirks

Every sport has its quirks especially when it comes to the rules. And baseball is no different. Every so often when watching a game or a highlight reel we see one of those really bizarre rulings that sends our mind into a tailspin. You know the type: The play that has you yelling blue murder at the umpires because they don’t know what they are doing.

What I want to share with you today is a sort of top 10 of strange rule quirks that I have either seen with my own two eyes, or, thanks to the power of the internet, have read about. Not every item in the list is a rule per se. No, that would be a little to dull; some are idiosyncrasies in the game that the rules allow. At the risk of the THT reader mailbag bursting to the seams with e-mails saying I’ve missed this or got than wrong one a little caveat is in order: this list isn’t meant to be comprehensive or complete. A bit of research will reveal myriad obscure rulings that are all entertaining in their own way. All I hope is that I at least teach you one thing that you didn’t know about our national pastime.

Enough of the guff, so in no particular order let’s get cracking on that putative top 10.

1. Ground Rule Triples

Well, technically that is not quite correct. A ground rule is governed by the unique characteristics of the field. For instance, at Wrigley Field a ball that gets lodged in the vines by the fence is an automatic ground-rule double. However, a ball that bounces before skipping over the fence, while commonly referred to as a ground-rule double, is in fact just a two-base award.

So what about that ground-rule triple?

There are two ways that this can happen and you almost never see either at major league level. One, is if a player deliberately touches the ball with his hat or mask (ie, tries to catch it, for instance), or, two, if a player deliberately throws his glove at, and touches, a fair ball. Since neither of these corresponds to unique characteristics of the field it isn’t really a ground rule triple but rather a three-base award.

That’s not the end of the story. If you believe what you read on the internet legend has it that a ground-rule triple is possible at only one park: Fenway. On the Green Monster there is a ladder that groundskeepers used to retrieve home run balls. Although the netting has gone, the ladder remains and it is this, if hit, that yields the mysterious ground-rule triple. Sadly this is a case of where you certainly shouldn’t believe what you read online. It simply isn’t true. Or if it is it certainly doesn’t make it into MLB’s official ground-rule list. In fact the ladder has only been hit twice. On both occasions the batting team score an inside the park home run.

2. Twenty-three ways to get a man (any man) on first base

I won’t bore you and list all 23, but they range from the obvious, such as a hit or a force play, to the slightly esoteric, such as deploying a pinch runner for a man already on first, to the downright odd, such as a failure to pitch within 20 seconds or four illegal pitches (eg, catcher out of the box).

Perhaps the most bizarre is if there is a runner on first base when the game is suspended. If this runner then gets traded prior to the makeup a new player is allowed to take his place without the roster implications of using a pinch runner, thereby reaching base.

What the heck; I lied. Here is the full list of all 23 ways for a man to get on first base (courtesy of ESPN Magazine).

1. walk
2. intentional walk
3. hit by pitch
4. dropped 3rd strike
5. failure to deliver pitch in 20 seconds
6. catcher interference
7. fielder interference
8. spectator interference
9. fan obstruction
10. fair ball hits ump
11. fair ball hits runner
12. fielder obstructs runner
13. pinch-runner
14. fielder's choice
15. force out at another base
16. preceding runner put-out allows batter to reach first
17. sac bunt fails to advance runner
18. sacrifice fly dropped
19. runner called out on appeal
20. error
21. four illegal pitches
22. single
23. game suspended with runner on first, that player is traded prior to the makeup;
    new player is allowed to take his place

3. Base running assistance

Have a read of rule 5.10, which states: If an accident to a runner is such as to prevent him from proceeding to a base to which he is entitled, as on a home run hit out of the playing field, or an award of one or more bases, a substitute runner shall be permitted to complete the play.

This can result in some interesting base running scenarios. You may recall the Red Sox Blue Jays game on September 14, 2005 where, with Gabe Kapler on first, Tony Graffanino homered. While rounding second base Kapler ruptured his achillies tendon. Although he tried to get up he couldn’t continue. Graffanino correctly remained 10 feet or so behind Kapler knowing that if he passed him the home run would be struck from the record, Kapler would be out and Graffanino would have to stay on second. After a five minute delay Boston Manager, Terry Francona invoked rule 5.10 to put in a substitute runner, Alejandro Machado, for Kapler. The home run was completed and Boston scored two runs.

An interesting variation would have been if Graffanino had been injured and a pinch runner had scored his run. Would Graffanino have been credited with the home run? The rules aren’t clear so answers on a postcard please.

Incidentally, the rules would have also allowed Graffanino to give Kapler direct assistance. In the above instance there is nothing in the rules to prevent Graffanino from pushing or lifting Kapler around the bases himself.

4. Triple play without the ball touching a fielder

Not necessarily a rule per se but rather a composition of a range of rulings. Again there is some debate as to whether a triple play without the ball touching a fielder is an urban myth. While it might be technically possible, it certainly hasn’t happened and nor is it likely to.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The theory goes like this:

There are runners on first and second with no outs. The batter hits a fair ball that can be fielded by one of the infielders. He is out by the infield fly rule even if no one touches the ball. Then the crazy stuff really starts. The runner on first passes the runner on second, so the runner on first is out due to rule 7.08, which forbids a runner overtaking another runner on the base paths. Two outs. The runner at second is then struck by the batted ball as it lands (rule 7.08 again—look, it covers a whole host of base running situations). There we have it three outs and no fielder has touched the ball.

The Mariners somehow “hit” into a triple play in a Sept. 2 game in Tampa Bay—without a ball being put in play. How’d that happen? It wasn’t easy. Raul Ibanez got called out on strikes for the first out. Adrian Beltre got nailed stealing second for the second out. Then Jose Lopez bolted for the plate and got thrown out at home for the third out. Try that one on your X-box sometime.

Ah, the joys of the creative mind.

5. Balks

The balk is one of those slightly arcane rules that few properly understand. A balk is a penalty charged against a pitcher for deviating from the legal pitching motion while a runner is on base. It can occur either on a pitch or on a throw to a base during a pick-off.

There are 15 ways to balk.

1. switches his pitching stance from the windup position to the set position (or vice versa)
  without properly disengaging the rubber;
2. when going from the stretch to the set position, fails to pitch;
3. throws from the rubber to a base without stepping toward
  (gaining distance in the direction of) that base;
4. throws from the rubber to a base where there is no runner and no possibility of a play;
5. steps or feints from the rubber to first base without completing the throw;
6. pitches a quick return pitch, that is, intending to catch the batter off-guard;
7. pitches or mimics a part of his pitching motion while not in contact with the rubber;
8. drops the ball while on the rubber;
9. after a feint or throw to a base from the rubber, fails to disengage
  the rubber before reengaging and pitching;
10. after beginning to pitch, interrupts his pitching motion;
11. begins to pitch while the catcher is out of the catcher's box when giving an
   intentional walk;
12. while pitching, removes his pivot foot from the pitching rubber, except to pivot;
13. inordinately delays the game;
14. pitches while facing away from the batter;
15. after bringing his hands together on the rubber, separates them except in making a
   pitch or a throw;
16. stands on or astride the rubber without the ball, or mimics a pitch without the ball

All are slightly esoteric but perhaps the most bizarre is number eight when the pitcher drops the ball while on the rubber. Such a situation occurred in Phoenix on April 19, 2006. Matt Cain was on the mound for the Giants. Gonzalez was at third, Clark at first and Estrada was at the plate. Cain dropped the ball as he leaned in to get a sign from the catcher, Matheny. Gonzalez scored. Cain apparently thought a time out had been called but the ump got the call absolutely spot on. It didn’t matter anyway as the Giants lost convincingly, 10-3.

6. When a perfect game is not a perfect game

Surely there can’t be any ambiguity surrounding a perfect game, can there? Oh yes, with people like Bud Selig in charge anything is possible.

Rule 10.19 (f) reads: No pitcher shall be credited with pitching a shutout unless he pitches the complete game, or unless he enters the game with none out before the opposing team has scored in the first inning, puts out the side without a run scoring and pitches all the rest of the game. When two or more pitchers combine to pitch a shutout a notation to that effect should be included in the league’s official pitching records.

Seems innocuous, right? Wrong.

The key clause is this: “unless he enters the game with none out before the opposing team has scored in the first inning, puts out the side without a run scoring.” This effectively says that a pitcher can inherit three base runners in the first inning and as long as he gets out of the inning with the score still zero a perfect game is intact.

This rule is responsible for the most imperfect perfect game in baseball: Ernie Shore’s infamous perfect game in 1917 where Babe Ruth was initially pitching for the Red Sox. Ruth threw four balls to allow a base runner. A short kerfuffle followed and Ruth was tossed from the game. Shore came in to relieve, the base runner was gunned down trying to steal second and Shore then proceeded to retire the next 26 batters for the perfect game.

It isn’t an isolated incident either. On May 31, 1998, Neil Allen managed to pitch a three-hit shut out after replacing Leiter in the top of the first. His line for the season read: 0 complete games, 1 shutout!

7. Fair balls and foul balls

We all know the foul ball rule. If the ball is first hit fair and then touches foul territory before it crosses either first or third base then it is called foul. However, if a fielder interferes with a fair ball so that it goes foul it is ruled fair. Check out what happened when Kansas City played the Seattle Mariners on May 27 1981.

The Royals were ahead 7-4 and Amos Otis tapped a dribbler down the third base line. Seattle third baseman Lenny Randle got down on all fours and proceeded to blow the ball over the line (yes, blow) causing it to roll foul! Royals manager Jim Frey, not surprisingly, argued the call while Randle claimed he was just praying that the ball would go out. The ump ruled that the Randle was indeed interfering at Otis scores a hit.

8. Batting out of turn

You’d think that batting is straightforward. As a hitter you know your place in the order and that is where you bat. However, if you have learned anything from this column it is that things might not be as they seem. Batting out of turn isn’t as uncommon as you may think and can cause great confusion between the umpires as they try to decide what to do.

The most recent instance involved Kansas City on July 1, 2005 when David DeJesus achieved the rare feat of batting both first and second in the first inning. This is what happened: Kansas City manager Buddy Bell delivered a different lineup to the umpires than was posted in the dugout. In the bottom of the first inning, David DeJesus led off with a single. Angels manager Mike Scioscia then spoke with plate arbiter Jerry Crawford about the batting order. Since Angel Berroa was listed as hitting first on the official lineup card, he was called out and DeJesus was told to bat again. This time he hit a fly ball to center field for the second out.

There are at least another 50 instances of players batting out of turn. All are catalogued by those wonderful folks at Retrosheet.

9. Rules for rules sake

Remember when you are playing ball or football or basketball with your younger brother and out of nowhere he announces a new rule that works to his advantage? It happens all the time doesn’t it? Believe it or not that situation isn’t limited to playground frolics; it also applies to the bigs.

Take the stolen base. Did you know that it used to be possible to steal first from second? Why would you want to do that? Well, if there is a runner on third stealing first from second could distract the catcher and allow the runner from third to score. The last recorded instance of this happening was on September 4, 1908 by Detroit’s Germany Schaefer in a game against Cleveland. Soon after the rules committee outlawed the practice as they thought it made a mockery of the game. I don’t know about you but it sounds kind of fun!

Wait, there’s more. Have you ever heard of Eddie Gaedel?

If not, here is his story. Eddie had a small problem; he was only 3’7″ tall. What’s more he actually turned out for the St. Louis Browns in 1951 as part of a publicity stunt (he even had the number 1/8 on his back). The problem was that the strike zone was a microscopic inch and a half. Not surprisingly Gaedel was walked (Bill Veeck, general manager of the Browns, gave Gaedel strict instructions not to swing at any pitch) and took first base where he was replaced by a pinch runner. The next day the American League met and voided Gaedel’s contract. Although there is no minimum height rule, the insinuation is clear: there is no place for a midget in the game.

10. The Yankees bending the rule book on pine tar

Cast you mind back to July 23, 1983 if you will. The Yankees are leading the Royals 4-3 in the top on the ninth inning at Yankee stadium. Royals first baseman George Brett spanks a two-run shot over the fences to give Kansas a 5-4 lead. Whoa, not so fast. Yankees manager Billy Martin sprinted out of the dugout to argue the call with the umps. His gripe? Well, the bat that Brett used apparently contained more than 18 inches of pine tar on it—the maximum allowed under the laws of the game. Yup, the umpire over turned the home run and the Yanks went on to win.

After the game the Royals protested and it was eventually overturned by Major League Baseball. However, it was too late to help the Royals.

11. Six consecutive strike outs in an inning

We all know the mantra three strikes and you out, right? Not so fast. Don’t forget the famous incident in the 2005 ALCS where A J Pierzynski managed to reach first on an unambiguous dropped third strike call (technically called an uncalled third strike by the way). Nothing wrong with that I hear you say. We often see uncaught third strikes where the catcher subsequently tags the batter out. However, playing the Pierzynski moment to a possible conclusion brings to the fore an endless set of bizarre outcomes, such as having six consecutive strike outs in an inning (or 54 in a game!)—20 Ks no longer looking too impressive now is it? Here’s how:

1. The first two batters strike out.
2. 3rd batter strikes out, but the catcher flubs, and the runner reaches first.
3. The lead-off man steals second, as the pitcher throws a strike, and the catcher can't
   throw him out.
4. Fourth batter strikes out, and the catcher again flubs, so the runner reaches first.
5. Double steal as the pitcher throws a strike, and the catcher is caught flat-footed in a
   fielder's choice.
6. Fifth batter strikes out, and the catcher flubs again, so the runner reaches first.
7. Sixth batter strikes out, finally ending the inning

That’s a wrap folks. By all means let me know of any other bizarre incidents or rulings that you have either seen or heard of. If I get enough I’ll run another column later on in the year with other strange happenings.

As I said at the start: here are ten things that if you knew at the start you probably shouldn’t, and if you have just learned you probably wish you hadn’t. At least you’ll be able to impress your buddies when you next go out. Or will you?

References & Resources
Many thanks to Retrosheet, Baseball-Reference and Google. You are all wonderful resources.

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9 years ago

the six consecutive strike outs in an inning got me thinking, it is possible to have any number of strikeouts if the runner on third steals home while the other 2 also steal to advance. And then the batter strikes out again and reaches base because the catcher misses the ball again and it keeps going 🙂

8 years ago
Reply to  Tashdeed

Don’t even need triple steal. On the third out first base doesn’t have to be open. Batter swings at a ball in the dirt for the third strike and the pitch goes to the backstop. All runners advance.

anthoney baroney
9 years ago

Re: Yanks vrs Royals ‘pine tar’ game – The Yankees didn’t bend any rule. They only brought the existing rule to the attention of the umpires. The rule is what the rule is.

The baseball commisioner, in his wisdom, declared it ‘against the best interests of baseball’ or ‘against the spirit of the rule’ and allowed Brett’s homerun to stand. The game was later completed from the point it had been stopped and eventually the Royals won that game. It was played prior to the regulary schedueled game later in the season (both parts of the game occurred at old Yankee stadium). I believe that rule is still on the books, but I could be wrong. Yet, it doesn’t matter, because it won’t be applied to fact.

Just sayin’

8 years ago

My fave is throwing a complete game with only nine pitches. Lead off batter triples on the first pitch. Pitcher comes set, runner breaks from third. Pitcher steps off the runner and throws home. Batter interferes and is called out. Runner returns to third. Rinse and repeat as needed.

8 years ago
Reply to  John

Er… Pitcher steps off the *rubber*

8 years ago
Reply to  John

This would be nice, but would not work…
when the batter interferes with the play at the plate, the runner is out, not the batter (unless it’s the 3rd out of the inning, then it’s the batter that’s out.) So this would not work unless you’re playing softball where regardless of the # of outs.. that person that interfered it always out.

A Kurtz
8 years ago

If the ump doesn’t SEE the fielder catch the ball ( it was trapped under his chest) is the batter out?