Few rules in major league baseball provide such a captivating history as that of the infield fly rule. From its origins as an instrument to legislate the morality of infielders, through its strange turn as a legendary subject of United States law, and with occasional base running blunders by professional players who have misunderstood it since, the infield fly continues to be one of the more interesting rules in MLB.
First, MLB’s definition of the infield fly:
An INFIELD FLY is a fair fly ball (not including a line drive nor an attempted bunt) which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort, when first and second, or first, second and third bases are occupied, before two are out. The pitcher, catcher and any outfielder who stations himself in the infield on the play shall be considered infielders for the purpose of this rule.
It’s important to note that, in subsequent language, the rulebook clarifies (among other things) that the infield itself is not an actual boundary, that an umpire’s decision on an infield fly cannot be appealed and that the determining factor in an umpire judging a fly is the aforementioned “ordinary effort.” The latter covers, for example, the effects of windy conditions.
Baseball adopted the infield fly rule in 1895 so infielders could not let an easy pop-up drop to set up a chance at a double play while an opposing base runner held his position, assuming the ball would be caught. Baseball deemed such a deceptive move by the defense as unfair to the base runners. It was modified from its original designation of men on first and second with one out to include the same scenario with no outs, as well as bases loaded and less than two outs. Apparently, the original definition arose when a team attempted to end an inning with such a play. Amendments came when similar situations with no outs called for the same type of ruling.
Curiously, this whole idea of a deterrent to defensive stratagems against base runners in the rules of baseball is limited to pop-ups.
For instance, pitchers, with runners on first and third, may fake a pick-off throw to third to try to draw the base runner on first off the bag to pick him off. Likewise, with runners on first and third, catchers may fake a throw to second on an opponent’s attempted steal of second base to draw the other base runner off third. In the same situation, catchers may throw the ball back to the pitcher in a way intended to make the runner on third believe he going for the putout at second, when in fact the pitcher plans to throw out the base runner on third if he tries to score.
Just recently, in the NLCS, second baseman Chase Utley acted a though he was fielding a ball that was actually hit into center field, trying to confuse Andres Torres and keep him from advancing all the way to third on the hit and run.
Those are just a few examples in which defenders try to deceive opposing base runners. However, those actions are not illegal and happen all the time. Why such behavior on pop-ups was singled out a century ago is anyone’s guess.
Another oddity is the infield fly’s rule book contemporaries. Baseball instituted some of its most fundamental regulations around the time of the infield fly rule’s inception. Some examples include four balls constituting a walk, the pitching distance set at 60 feet six inches and a caught foul-tip counting as a strike. Those rules are among the basics of the game and it is surprising that such a nonessential ruling as the infield fly would surface during those formative years in the history of the game.
For instance, a mere 13 years before to the infield fly rule’s appearance, foul balls caught on the first bounce still counted as outs. The adoption of the infield fly rule is analogous to the absurd notion of the NFL outlawing play-action passes shortly after instituting the forward pass for fear that fake handoffs would put opponents out of position.
The peculiar history of the infield fly rule prompted a University of Pennsylvania law student to pen an initially anonymous, somewhat satirical, and wholly logical law review article called “The Common Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule.” William S. Stevens wrote it in 1975, and his legal commentary made its way to publication and even into in law school classrooms.
Stevens argued that fair play cannot be assumed in a game (or society) that puts emphasis on winning (or upward mobility via wealth accumulation). Therefore, baseball legislated fair play in the same manner some societies, mostly those spawned by the Brits, formed their legal systems. That is, by taking a decision on a previous ruling and following that verdict subsequently, until the previous decision is slightly modified, which then produces the new law to be followed.
While Stevens studied the infield fly rule with the diligence of a law student and the ingenuity of a humorist, many players have misunderstood the rule, much to their detriment. A few recent examples include some of the biggest names in baseball.
On May 13, 2003, Barry Bonds (most home runs in major league history) hit a pop-up with one out and the bases loaded. Jim Joyce (he of Armando Galarraga‘s lost perfect-game-fame) correctly called an infield fly. The ball fell untouched in front of home.
Neifi Perez (thrice suspended under MLB substance abuse policies) was the runner on third. Perez felt obligated to run home once the ball bounced. Fernando Tatis (once hit two grand slams in a single inning) spared his opponent an embarrassing out when he stepped on the plate instead of tagging the befuddled Perez. Therefore, a rule meant to limit the damage to one out worked, but only because of ignorance of those involved in the play. Tatis could have tagged Perez for a double play.
Other star players, such as Albert Pujols (greatest active hitter) are not as lucky as Perez. On April 8, 2010, Matt Holliday hit a pop-up behind second base. Umpire Mike Reilly called the infield fly before Brandon Phillips muffed the catch. Phillips then mistakenly thought he had to force Pujols at second base, so he threw to second. Pujols mistakenly thought he’d been put out on that throw, so he headed back to the dugout. Orlando Cabrera completed the unlikely double play by running over and tagging Pujols while he was off first base.
Other examples abound, several produced by Rich Marazzi in Baseball Digest’s “Baseball Rules Corner,” but they follow the similar theme that Marazzi uses for his series: Players sometimes make mistakes on the rules of the game that could cost their team a win.
As interesting as misplays by fielders and runners are regarding the infield fly rule, perhaps the most interesting part of the rule is its formation in the first place. Why one specific form of scheming—or, as some would call it, gamesmanship—found its way among the most basic of rules, while others were never considered unjust, is one of the more unusual stories behind baseball’s rules.