A friend was going on recently about corporate tax “loopholes”, and I asked for a precise definition of loophole. When I was offered “a legal way around the law” I scoffed at the ouroboros quality of the definition, chided, demanded more and got nothing. A half dozen dictionaries later confirmed that my friend was right. A loophole is a flaw in a rule or law that allows a person or persons to circumvent the law without technically breaking it. That the flaw might be designed (or purchased) by a future user (read: corporate influence on lawmakers) came to be the crux of the discussion, agreement was reached immediately, and talk turned to matters less obvious.
Another bit of flawed law caught my attention yesterday…a baseball matter. Highly esoteric, but I must go on about it. The new rule, commonly referred to as the transfer rule, seems to have been invented as a solution to a very particular problem. An officiating problem. A problem with making a correct, split second decision, in this case about whether a defensive player (the second baseman) has actually caught the baseball in his glove. It would be an easier call to make were it not for the existence of the “double play”. In by far the most common “double play” situation, the second baseman receives the ball from another infielder while (more or less, another judgement call, interpreted with great scope) touching the second base bag, “forcing out” the baserunner advancing from first base. For the play to actually be “double” however, he must extract the ball from his glove and throw it to the first baseman, who must be in possession of the ball prior to the arrival of the batsman in order that the batsman be out. The great beauty in the double play is the second baseman’s ability to receive a throw and then fire off his own as quickly as possible. It is advisable for him to do this while airborne, to avoid the cleats, knees and elbows of the baserunner who is charging toward him, and who is within the rules making as much physical contact as he can, as long as the bag can be touched while dishing out the punishment. Given this twelve foot wide, four foot high (the runner is usually sliding, perhaps to spare his own face) zone of potential bloodshed, the second baseman may mishandle the ball while retrieving it from his glove to throw. Whether his balletic prowess is undermined by actual collision or mere fear matters not to the scorekeeper, or the umpire, but prior to the “Transfer Rule” being instated an umpire had to decide whether the second baseman was legitimately in possession of the ball long enough to “force” the “out” at second base. Pretty sketchy business when the whole catch/pull/throw process takes under a second, usually in a cloud of dust. A dropped ball was no good for getting the out at first base, but it was often recognized that the second baseman had controlled the ball sufficiently to “out” the lead runner, the runner who was hell-bent on “disrupting” him. Disputes over these calls, like all the many other disputes in baseball, lead to tantrum throwing, ejections, and occasionally the thinly veiled assault of pitchers intentionally hitting batters in order to “settle the score”. Score settling, of course, can bleed into the next game, the next year, or the next decade.
So…to solve one of the million vagaries that plague (comprise) the game, some group of geniuses wrote a rule stating that the “catch” was not legitimate until the following throw had taken place…in short, if the second baseman drops the ball at any time during his turn of handling it, during a double play, the catch was not made and the runner is safe.
Well…that’s what they meant to write. They weren’t specific enough, though. They actually only approved a rule that says a “catch” occurs only when a fielder “voluntarily or intentionally releases the ball”. Works like a charm at second base, during a double play attempt, bringing great relief to umpires everywhere. Unfortunately the same rule now applies to outfielders, who may “glove” a ball, then run toward the infield, convincing baserunners that a “catch” has been made and they are not allowed to advance. In many situations, had the catch NOT been made, they would be FORCED to advance. Baserunners are now at the mercy of fielders who would be remiss if they did not take full advantage of the new rule and begin feigning blunders, luring runners into precarious situations with their acting skills. Will umpires now be pressed to judge the intentions of fielders during the now protracted catching process, or will the rule be revised? Pretending is as rampant in baseball as it is in soccer or basketball, but a rule that encourages fake blunders needs to go. It is a complete subversion of the sporting intent of the Infield Fly Rule.