Should I Stay or Should I Go?

stay or go







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.


3 responses to this post.

  1. The cleaning lady’s gone doolally and I’m otherwise engaged. But I’ll be back for this. You bet.


  2. A true delight. Not that I attempted to follow every exact nuance (even though nuance was at the heart of this piece); it was enough that I got the general drift. Had we been talking I’d have probably asked you to repeat various bits to ensure it was all completely clear in my mind, this being my obligation. Our shared obligation would have been to maintain a serious regard for the subject. Baseball is entitled to such a regard, it is seriously contrived sport, the rules – honed over many years – provide an elegantly balanced spectacle and encourage discussion on the highest technical level. Best of all it is (unlike football) a more or less natural spectacle, of which some 75% could be appreciated by a Martian coming new to the game and being faced with a television which lacked sound. A ten-minute spoken tutorial would raise this percentage to 90% – beyond that, beer would become part of the equation.

    I love baseball. It was a major reason for looking for work in the USA, though I didn’t mention this at job interviews. I became a rabid Pirates fan and my faith was rewarded in 1971. Numerical facts stuck to me like Scotch tape. During the first two months of the 1966 season I asked a thousand questions and gradually I began to see the sport from the inside and then – even more gratifyingly – as a reasonably expert outsider. I pointed out to those who would listen that the concept of “earned” in an ERA was a philosophical expression of the American character: that Americans embraced the principle of self-dependence and were entitled to avoid being brought low by the failure of others. Thus those that “failed” should be identified as such. Also, I concluded that batters and pitchers were self-dependent, lone heroes but that pitchers were, in the end, superior in that they were also required to endure.

    Some readers, even some baseball fans, may regard what you’ve written as arcane and hardly worth the effort. I disagree. Just because the elements that have brought about this new law occur in an incredibly contracted period of time and are difficult to monitor doesn’t mean that they should be ignored. The “fault” they cover is counter to the principles of a beautiful sport and they interfere with its beauty.

    On the whole I would support this development; other, tactical, changes are harder to assess. Designated hitters were introduced after I returned to the UK. Immediately I saw the reasons for this in terms of the American psyche: a pitcher trying for a hit is a “weak” spectacle, why not temporarily replace the pitcher (as a batter) by a real batter to create a “stronger” spectacle. It’s an American tendency. And yet there’s an undesirable byproduct here; it diminishes the concept of a team sport. In the long term it is an argument in support of faultless robots playing the game. Another point: beforehand, having a pitcher at the plate with the bases loaded required a genuine managerial decision. That has presumably disappeared.

    I could go on. Your post is clear, accurate and vivid and it look me back forty years plus. I knew we were kindred spirits, now I know we are “more kindred”. Both of us are bound by the same moment of agony in the Odd Couple when Felix calls Oscar at the ball park with some finicking domestic query and Oscar misses a triple play. The fielding team in the movie were the Pirates, by the way, and that seems in keeping. The Pirates got lots of practice with double plays (Alley to Mazeroski to Pagliaroni) because their pitchers were lousy.


  3. A lovely, deliberate sport which allows plenty of time for consideration of its intricacies. In the Majors here only the American League adopted a DH rule, 41 years ago. The National League pitchers take a turn at the plate, and home team (and league) rules apply in inter-league games including the world series. My dad was a big Dodgers fan…one of my earliest baseball memories is of him explaining to me how an unassisted triple play could be achieved. We played a lot of ball as kids, but only under the auspices of heaven above. Shirts for bases…sometimes trees, and any building for a backstop, the fewer windows the better.


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