June 10, 2015 0 By Dan Freedman


It is often said that lawyers are the people in society who have read the inside of the box.  We (ostensibly) know the rules, and we are charged with helping interpret those rules, enforcing those rules, and/or seeking remediation when someone violates those rules.  But what happens when a rule isn’t a rule?  What happens when there is another side of the box, the side with the rules that are seldom enforced?  (As an aside, we will cover the unwritten rules at another time.)

Situation in Point: A shortstop, in attempting to turn a double-play, doesn’t touch the bag.  This is so commonplace that is has its own name: “The Neighborhood Play”.  Abide by the specific rules of baseball, and the base runner is safe.  When was the last time that call was made?

Situation in Point: A third baseman swipes the tag down well ahead of a would-be base stealer.  The throw and tag beat the runner by some distance, but the glove (with the ball) doesn’t actually make contact with the sliding player.  We often chalk that one up to “the throw beat him”, so he should be out.  With instant replay now being utilized at the Big League level, this is probably a safe call.  But for the last 100+ years (prior to 2014), more often than not (read: nearly always), the runner was out.  Was this the right call?

How many times have you seen the strike zone expand on a 3-0 count?  Or when a pitcher is at the plate?  Or shrink for a batter with a reputation for a great eye (see Boggs, Wade)?  Again, with new technology and umpires under stricter scrutiny, this happens less often, but it still happens.  Isn’t a ball a ball and a strike a strike, regardless . . .?

Umpires have an incredibly difficult job.  The rule book looks like a phone book and reads like the Talmud.  And yet, umpires are expected to know all of the rules, recognize the play, and make the right call, all in a split second.  Not so easy to do.  So, should they be forgiven for being lenient?  Or for choosing when not to enforce the rules?

How about this one, a direct case on point: A college softball player hits her first and only homerun of her career.  Coming around first base she tears a ligament in her knee, and cannot make it around the bases.  By rule, if her teammates help her, she will be out; if she cedes to a pinch-runner, it will be a single.  Isn’t this an instance when the rule need not be a rule?  Apparently not, as it took the great sportsmanship and humanity of her opponents to help make the homerun happen for the injured player.  By the way, this happened twice – on the same day, six years apart.

(After what we have seen recently in college softball, it is worth reading these to reaffirm your faith.)



A rule is a rule, even when the umpires need to use common sense to enforce it.  A batter hits a swinging bunt down the third base line.  It rolls and rolls.  If the third baseman touches it, it will be a fair ball, and an infield single.  So, he does what any right-thinking grown man would do: he drops to his knees and blows the ball into foul territory.  Ingenious?  Not so much; the umpires rule interference, the batter is safe, and now it is the hitter who gets to blow – a sigh of relief, that is.

But, sometimes, a rule is not a rule, and umpires (or league officials) have to use common sense not to enforce it.

In 1983, George Brett came to the plate at (Old) Yankee Stadium to face Rich “Goose” Gossage.  The Royals trailed 4-3, there were two outs, and U.L. Washington (and his toothpick) were on first.  We all know what happened next: Brett hit a bomb deep into the right field seats; Billy Martin contested the homerun claiming George had too much pine tar on his bat; Umpire Tim McLelland agreed (invoking MLB Rules 1.10(c) and 6.06) and called Brett out; game over; and then Mt. George erupted.  By all accounts, Brett was in violation of the rule, and however bush it may have been, Martin (and McLelland) were right in their assessment.  However, American League president Lee McPhail disagreed, claiming that was not the “spirit of the restriction”.  McPhail overruled the rule, and allowed the homerun to stand.  The teams had to finish the game nearly a month later (with Ron Guidry playing centerfield and Don Mattingly playing second base), and the Royals tallied the victory.

The “when is a rule a rule” debate has become heated the past two seasons with respect to “foreign substances” that pitchers use to get a better grip on the ball.  Back in the day, Vaseline was the substance du jour, but that was used to gain a competitive advantage.  Hell, Gaylord Perry, a self-described cheat (his biography is entitled “Me and the Spitter”), is in the Hall of Fame (see, Bloom Back on the Rose, March 21, 2015).

In my day, sandpaper and nail files were used for competitive advantage.  Today, it does not seem that pitchers use the substances to cheat, but cheating it is (Rule 8.02(4)).  But when?  If Clay Buchholz loads goop into his hair and touches his flowing locks in between every pitch, why don’t the umpires call him out.  When Kenny Rogers had a dark streak of something on his throwing hand in the World Series, or Jon Lester had some green substance on his glove during another World Series, why were those acceptable?  And yet, when Michael Pineda loads up his neck with pine tar; or when Brian Matusz or Will Smith put a little rosin and sunscreen on their arms, let the suspensions begin.  Which rule were they violating that the others were/have not?

(As an aside/on a related note, this is one of my favorite videos: Joe Niekro trying to fling away an Emery board.)

One thing we can all agree upon is that, with respect to the field, all of the rules must be enforced, right?  Well, not always.  How many times have you seen a batter wipe away the back line of the batter’s box before he digs in a little farther back.  Rare is the umpire – at the MLB level, at least – who will redraw the batter’s box.  I guess Rule 6.03 isn’t necessarily “a rule”.  Or what about teams who over-chalk the baselines if they have especially proficient bunters?  Or teams that over-water the infield if facing a team with speedsters?  I guess umpires liberally interpret (i.e., don’t enforce) Rule 1.04.

Here is a famous one that could easily not have been enforced.  To baseball aficionados it is known as “Merkle’s Boner”.  If you don’t know the story, it’s pretty good one:

On September 23, 1908, Fred Merkle, all of 19 years old, having played in only 38 games all year, was called for his first big league start against the Cubs in the heat of the pennant race (Merkle’s Giants were tied with the Cubs for first place).  With the game tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth, Merkle came to the plate with the winning run on first.  This was only his 48th plate appearance of the season.  Merkle promptly singled down the rightfield line, moving the winning run to third.  The next batter, the light-hitting Al Bridwell, ripped the first pitch into centerfield for the apparent game winner.  Giants fans poured out of the stands and mobbed the field.  Merkle, advancing from first base, saw the onslaught of fans and (knowing what a crowd of unruly/overly excited New Yorkers might do to him) turned back to the dugout before ever reaching second base.  The Cubs’ centerfielder, responding to his teammate’s pleas, tossed the ball to Johnny Evers, who stepped on second base to record the third out.  Rule 4.09 was enforced, and “Merkle’s Boner” was born.  So much chaos ensued that the game was ruled a tie, and the teams had to meet two weeks later to decide the pennant.  The Cubbies won that game, on their way to winning the 1908 World Series.  Which, as we all know, is the last time that happened.  Which leads us to a topic for another day: The Baseball Gods . . .

As with most topics, we could go on and on.  You watch enough baseball, you will see and learn something new nearly every day.  Unfortunately, you oftentimes have to learn it by figuring out what rule was or was not enforced.

To some people, baseball is boring.  To others, it is confusing.  To us, it is beautiful.  But even to the baseball lovers and cognoscenti among us, it is truly dizzying trying to determine “when is a rule a rule”.