Inside the rules: fan interference

Jeffrey Maier, Steve Bartman, and Jared Macchirole. Many baseball fans recognize those names right away. Images come to mind of postseason baseball, outfielders moving toward a wall for a catch, and then—well, then arms reach from the stands, fielders fill with rage, and at the time no one seems to be sure what happened. But replays eventually tell all. These three fans reached for balls coming right at them, and their desperate grabs at a keepsake may have kept fielders from making key putouts in playoff games.

As memorable as those images are, none of the three resulted in fan interference. At least one of them should have.

According to section 3.16 of MLB rulebook, fan interference results in a dead ball and may be cause for an out:

When there is spectator interference with any thrown or batted ball, the ball shall be dead at the moment of interference and the umpire shall impose such penalties as in his opinion will nullify the act of interference.

APPROVED RULING: If a spectator clearly prevents a fielder from catching a fly ball, the umpire shall declare the batter out.

MLB first addressed spectator interference in the 1954 edition of the rulebook, deciding then that interference fell under the umpire’s judgment of what would have likely happened had the situation played out normally. The penalty of a dead ball is clear in the wording within the definition of rule 3.16. However, actions that constitute interference are not so obvious. Luckily, MLB solved that with a lengthy comment under the rule which clarifies what does (and does not) call for interference, while also providing a specific example of the umpire’s power to place (and even plate) runners.

Rule 3.16 Comment: There is a difference between a ball which has been thrown or batted into the stands, touching a spectator thereby being out of play even though it rebounds onto the field and a spectator going onto the field or reaching over, under or through a barrier and touching a ball in play or touching or otherwise interfering with a player. In the latter case it is clearly intentional and shall be dealt with as intentional interference as in Rule 3.15. Batter and runners shall be placed where in the umpire’s judgment they would have been had the interference not occurred.

No interference shall be allowed when a fielder reaches over a fence, railing, rope or into a stand to catch a ball. He does so at his own risk. However, should a spectator reach out on the playing field side of such fence, railing or rope, and plainly prevent the fielder from catching the ball, then the batsman should be called out for the spectator’s interference.

Example: Runner on third base, one out and a batter hits a fly ball deep to the outfield (fair or foul). Spectator clearly interferes with the outfielder attempting to catch the fly ball. Umpire calls the batter out for spectator interference. Ball is dead at the time of the call. Umpire decides that because of the distance the ball was hit, the runner on third base would have scored after the catch if the fielder had caught the ball which was interfered with, therefore, the runner is permitted to score. This might not be the case if such fly ball was interfered with a short distance from home plate.>

As is often the case in baseball’s rules, the comment under the rule shows the broad scope of the umpire’s power. The “umpire’s judgment” may rule the batter out on interference and place runners where the umpire feels appropriate. That is similar to rule 3.15, which is referenced in the comment for 3.16. (3.15 covers those persons allowed on the field, such as policemen and base coaches.)

During an April 24 home game for the White Sox this past season, the Seattle Mariners’ Casey Kotchman hit a groundball double down the first base line with runners on first and second in the top of the ninth and the score tied 2-2. During the play, a fan reached over the railing and picked up the ball.

Third base umpire Fieldin Culbreth ruled that the runner on first would have scored had the fan left the ball alone. He sent that runner (Jack Wilson) home, and Seattle suddenly held a 4-2 lead. Ozzie Guillen’s profanity-filled objection to the ruling led to his ejection from the game. Guillen wasn’t the only one upset with Culbreth’s ruling. After the game, Sox first baseman Paul Konerko said, “…on a play like that, where does [Culbreth's] judgment end?”

The bad news for Konerko and the White Sox is that Culbreth’s judgment on interference knows no end. He had complete authority to score the runner once the fan interfered. The good news for Konerko and the White Sox came after the big first baseman hit a homer in the bottom of the ninth to draw his team within a run. Then he watched teammate Alex Rios hit a walk-off bomb to win what ended up being a wild early-season game.

Fan interference played a role in another Seattle game just a few months later. On July 6, Jack Wilson scored late in another close game. This time it was on a garden-variety sacrifice fly in the bottom of the eighth against Kansas City. Wilson’s run cut the Royals’ lead to 3-2. The interference came when the next batter, Russell Branyan, hit a ground ball just like Kotchman had a few months earlier—past first base and down the right field line. And, just like a few months earlier, a fan reached over the rail and caught the bounding ball.

But this time, the fan interference worked against Seattle, as umpires ordered Ichiro Suzuki, the runner on first when the play began, to remain at third base. A ground-out ended the inning, along with the threat, and the Mariners lost 3-2.

That fan cost the Mariners a shot at tying the game. Royals’ manager Ned Yost felt the Mariners would have held Ichiro regardless, but his third baseman, Wilson Betemint, disagreed—“For sure, he’s (Ichiro) going to score on that one.” While those two disagreed, the only opinion that mattered that night was the umpire’s.

These two examples illustrate the umpire’s ability to place runners at their discretion on spectator interference. Of course, those two regular season calls, while crucial in the context of each game, aren’t as famous as other cases of interference calls that were not made.

In the 1996 American League Championship Series matchup between the New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles, a boy named Jeffrey Maier reached out for a Derek Jeter fly ball headed toward the top of the right field wall, and brought the ball into the stands. At the time, he Yankees trailed 4-3 with one out in the bottom of the eighth. The home run tied the game and the Yankees later won in extra innings.

While the 1996 Yankees were not as dominant as their teams in the following few seasons, they still had a better regular-season record than the Orioles and probably didn’t need such a huge break to take the series. But, as Bob Uecker said during the broadcast, Maier’s actions may have “affected (the outcome) of the series.” It may not have doomed the Orioles, but they certainly could have used a road win in the opening game.

Rich Garcia was the right field umpire that night, part of the extra crew for postseason games. He was out on the play, hustling to make the right call. Ironically, he ended up so close, right by the fence, that it may have been what hindered him from seeing Maier’s glove reach over the top of the wall while he tracked the ball’s flight. He didn’t see the interference, and that’s how it ended up a home run. Although baseball didn’t allow replay for umpires on these calls at the time, video indicates that Maier did, in fact, interfere by reaching over the wall, into the field of play.

Had Garcia seen the kid’s glove, a whole new problem would have arisen. He would have had to either rule the ball catchable for an out, or off the wall for a hit. Either way, he would have likely not called a home run, changing the course of the game.

Garcia felt terrible following the game. In an interview, he said that fans’ reactions bothered him after the incident, though maybe not in the way we’d have guessed.

But honestly I felt better in Baltimore hearing the people screaming at me and yelling at me than I did in New York when they were clapping when they saw me. That’s not good. I really felt a little bit better when they (Baltimore fans) booed me. I didn’t like it when they (Yankee fans) clapped for me because it sounded like they thought I was on their side and I was cheating for them. That’s a terrible feeling to have.

Garcia didn’t have instant replay at his disposal, and that night his crew had to make the call live and then live with it.

This year, memories of Maier came back when another Yankee fan reached for a home run, just over the right field wall, during the playoffs. Jared Macchirole made all the highlight shows when he seemed to make contact with Ranger right fielder Nelson Cruz‘s glove as Cruz tried for a Robinson Cano fly ball. The importance of the play itself wasn’t as controversial as Maier’s brush with fame in ’96 since the Rangers went on to win the game, and series, handily. However, controversy did lie in the fact that the umpires chose not to use replay to double check, even though the option was available to them.

MLB had voted to use replay on boundary calls starting late in the 2008 season. Calls eligible for video review specifically include spectator interference, so umpires would have been wise to at least check the video on the Macchirole play. Ranger manager Ron Washington briefly argued the call at the time, but right field umpire Jim Reynolds insisted that the ball was a home run, and that was that.

Had Reynolds checked the video immediately, he’d have seen that Macchirole’s behavior right after the play was odious, but evidence of interference during the play was not as obvious. As Craig Calcaterra noted, different angles and photos make the play difficult to judge. Despite that, the argument still could be made for interference. Hardly any argument could be made for not checking the tape at the time.

Just this last August, the Mets’ Mike Hessman drove a ball deep to left field for an apparent home run. However, umpires reviewed the video and overturned Hessman’s homer and ruled his long fly a triple instead. Clearly we now live in a world where replay can be a useful tool to check fan interference on a home run, which makes Jim Reynolds’ decision to do without during a playoff game a couple of months after Hessman’s unlikely triple all the more confusing.

Of course, no talk of fan interference would be complete without reference to Steve Bartman. As nearly everyone knows, Bartman (and other fans seated nearby) reached for a foul ball during Game Six of the 2003 NLCS, with his hometown Chicago Cubs clinging to a 3-0 lead in the eighth inning. Bartman made contact with the ball as it fell, and left fielder Moises Alou lost his mind when he couldn’t make the catch. Alou was apparently equal parts upset with the fans, and acting in hopes of earning an interference call from umpires with his body language.

However, that ball was clearly in the stands, and as the rules state, Alou was “at his own risk” when he reached over the wall. Perhaps official replay at the time under current rules could have at least focused the national television audience, if not those at Wrigley Field that night, on the fact that under the rules Bartman did nothing wrong. It may have even spared him some level of notoriety. Regardless, if Will Leitch, a diehard Cub-hater, can feel sorry for Steve Bartman, it’s probably time everyone does.

Looking at those three famous non-calls, it is clear that according to the rules, Maier clearly interfered, Macchirole may have interfered, and Bartman defintely did not interfere. The fact that their actions took place during the postseason cements their names in baseball history—one as the hero, one as the clown, and one as the goat.

References & Resources
As usual, mlb.com, Retrosheet, and links inserted within the text provided assistance.

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Comments

  1. MikeS said...

    That April 24th White Sox – Mariners game is a little unique.  While the umpire can do whatever he wants, even awarding the batter an in the park home run, that play is almost always treated as a ground rule double, like it was on July 6th.  It’s the difference between the umpire making the right call and the common call.  The smae thing happens with calls like failing to try to avoid being hit by a pitch or interference against the midddle infielder turning the pivot on the DP.  Those things happen often, but the benefit of the doubt often goes to the hitter or the runner.

    Cub fans whining about Bartman always bothers me.  That play allowed no runners to reach base or advance and the cubs were still up 3 – 0.  Bartman didn’t give uo any of the 8 runs that inning.  The Cubs choked away that game (and series) all on their own.

  2. David Wade said...

    Good points Mike.

    I also should add that in looking back over my conclusion, it’s pretty obvious I’m trying to rehabilitate Bartman.  I probably should have steered clear of the absolutes I used, given how close the ball was coming down toward the field side of the railing in front of his seat.

  3. gdc said...

    If it’s not already part of the umpires training they should probably confer and have guidelines for ground rule doubles and scoring from first such as:
    -runner was running on the pitch (score)
    -ball was rolling into the corner and fan reached down for it, it would not have bounced back (score)
    -outfielder was shifted well away from line and ball was touched in foul territory (score)

    without them having to make judgements like “Damon has a weak arm” or “Molina would have been lucky to get to third to begin with”

  4. Steve Stein said...

    When Wily Mo Pena was “playing” RF in Fenway (and I use the term loosely), I felt it was MANDATORY for die hard Red Sox fans to interfere with balls in the RF corner.  Make sure the batter is held to a double rather than have Wily Mo misplay it into an iside the park HR.

  5. Matt said...

    It’s interesting (if I understood the article correctly) that which team is playing at home does not come into play.  Not that it necessarily should, but it would be interesting if say, an Oriole hitter hits a near-home run and a Yankee Stadium fan reaches out and grabs it to make it a home run…maybe the home team and its fans should suffer.  Kind of unites the home team with its fans.  Of course, such a rule is probably unworkable (what if an Oriole fan happens to be at Yankee Stadium that night), but I think that was really what the outrage about Bartman always centered on…that he should have known better and helped his own team.

  6. Jim C said...

    Nice article; well-written and researched. What bothers me about the Bartman play is that, as you correctly pointed out, he was one of 5 or 6 people reaching for that ball. How and why he got singled out for vilification is just horrible. The Cubs and their fans wanted a scapegoat, so they got one.

  7. David Wade said...

    Thanks, Jim C.  I guess since he was the one that deflected the ball, the blame fell on him even though others were as guilty when you count intent.  I admit deriding him in the days that followed, but I’ve obviously softened since.

  8. StevenKeys said...

    David, nice, informative write but you’re ‘off base’ with the “Bartman” assessment.

    1) Cubs weren’t “clingling” to a 3-0 lead pre-Bartman’s non-called, interference. At that point they were confident & cruising. The “clinging” would come soon enough.

    2) I didn’t think Alou “lost his mind,” he was angry, protesting a passive umpire crew at a key juncture in the contest. You want “lost his mind” example, see Geo. Brett “pine tar” game;

    3) Bartman clearly did “reach out on the playing field side of such…railing,…and plainly prevent(ed) the fielder (Moises) from catching the ball (Rule 3.16, Cmt), which should’ve constituted “spectator’s interference” and Florida’s “batsman” being “called out.”

    In watching the video on MLB.com, Steve appears to be a good foot over the “railing,” “out on the playing field side,” while Alou, once at the wall, puts his glove nearly straight upward into the air, slightly towards stands but remains on his side of the railing. A bias in Bartman’s favor to plead forgiveness is good thing, but working it to deny truth on his clearly discernable interfence only prolongs the debate and the pain.

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