Many baseball fans, and possibly some players and coaches, believe that a baserunner who reaches first at the same time as the ball is safe. Those under that impression often will declare, magisterially and emphatically, that the ‘tie goes to the runner.’ However, that exact phrase doesn’t actually exist anywhere in baseball’s rules. While that may surprise some, it is also true that there is no mention of baserunner ties in major league baseball’s rulebook in any manner. The question then is, do we take silence on the issue to mean we must reject the oft-cited assumption completely?
Here are the relevant rules in the MLB rulebook:
Rule 6.05 (j) A batter is out when, after a third strike or after he hits a fair ball, he or first base is tagged before he touches first base.
Rule 7.01 A runner acquires the right to an unoccupied base when he touches it before he is out. He is then entitled to it until he is put out, or forced to vacate it for another runner legally entitled to that base.
Rule 7.08 (e) Any runner is out when he or the next base is tagged before he touches the next base….
Explicit in those rules are two things. First, a runner is out if he is forced or tagged before reaching the base. The rulebook clearly shows that with the first and third examples. Conversely (and just as clearly shown) a runner is safe if reaching a base before being forced or tagged under rule 7.1. These rules are two sides of the same coin, for either the runner must beat the defense to the bag to be safe or the defender must beat the runner to the bag to record an out.
Missing in those rules are instructions for dealing with runner and defender reaching the bag simultaneously. The ‘tie’ lacks explanation. Some feel that no mention makes the tie benefiting the runner a myth, on par with misguided thinking that the hands are part of the bat, for example. However, closer inspection may show the reason why the ‘tie goes to the runner’ is such an age-old adage.
With no specific instruction on how to rule a tie, the umpire following only what is explicitly written in the code must assume ties simply do not exist, and many do just that. A common refrain among umpires seems to be that there are no ties on plays at bases. That interpretation means umpires are following the lead of Protestant Reformers and studying their rules sola scriptura. Subsequently, they must judge according only to the passages referenced above.
Unfortunately, such strict acceptance means calling a runner out or safe on an actual tie based on one instance of the rule while ignoring the other. To get around that, they argue that the ball either beats the runner or it doesn’t, and the runner is subsequently either out or safe. While the former is questionable, the latter is correct. No matter how debatable a call may be in baseball, safe and out are still the only two choices.
One problem with the only-ball-or-runner-first answer is that a provision should be made for a tie and simply favor either the runner or the defender. All calls would still be mutually exclusive, depending only on which side benefited from some clear and final decision on ties. But, this hypothetical scenario would require those in authority to give weight to one instance in the rulebook over the other and make a slight modification in the wording in all references to outs at bases. That has not happened over the course of 100 years and seems unlikely in the future.
After eliminating that far-fetched solution, another problem still remains with umpires saying that the ball either beats the runner or it doesn’t. That, of course, is an umpire’s claim that a ball cannot reach a defender precisely when the runner touches the bag. That notion is much more problematic and real. We can look at horse racing for convincing photographic evidence that it is possible for two or more horses to reach the finish line at the same time, even after a race lasting two minutes or more. How, then, could it not be possible for a runner and defender to reach first base after a play lasting all of four seconds? It is possible, and any umpire that claims it is not has chosen to speak only where the scripture speaks.
Another option for umpires, which is to study the rules for intent and allow an implicit interpretation regarding ties, has its own problems as well. For, if an umpire admits it is possible for ball and runner to meet a base at the same time, they face a new dilemma. Is a tie an out or is it safe? Some umpires could put the onus on the defender to beat the runner and declare the runner safe if he reaches the base at the same time. They could reference a rule for such a call. Others, taking the opposite stance, could argue that they follow a rule as well, just a different one. Here are examples of such stances, with predictably conflicting results.
In this Q and A on MLB.com, major league crew chief Tim McClelland took the questions. When a reader asked about the ‘tie going to runner,’ he said that wording is not found and that “…the rule book does say that the runner must beat the ball to first base, and so if he doesn’t beat the ball, then he is out.” In this example, McClelland seems to invoke rule 7.1 while ignoring the other two, so he calls the runner out.
Here is another quote regarding the same question, in a Q and A with former major league umpire and current umpire academy owner Jim Evans. Evans’ answer differs from McClelland’s. Evans says the rulebook states, “…that a runner is out IF the defensive team tags him or his base BEFORE he reaches it. The implication is if the tag doesn’t occur first (not at the same time or after), the runner would be safe.” Here this umpire prefers rules 6.05 (j) and 7.08 (e) over McClelland’s selection, so he calls the runner safe.
Proponents of the conflicting methods of interpretation shown above deal with two rules, 7.1 and 7.08 (e) in particular, that cannot both be true and cannot both be false. We are left with a logical contradiction. Unfortunately, we’re also left no closer to a concrete solution.
In looking through baseball’s rules, nothing says that a ‘tie goes to the runner’. Feel free to ridicule any who claim that wording is in the book. However, calling such an idea a myth may be pushing it, since an umpire may call a runner safe on a tie.
Umpires will call a runner both safe and out on ties at different times. Some will do so for different reasons, either by ‘missing’ the call because they ruled that the ball or runner did get there first, or by choosing one particular rule over another from among the same set of rules. The umpire must make a judgment call on such plays, as he often does in the game of baseball. Even though there surely can be a tie at a base, a call either way must be made by men with differing opinions of what the correct call is.
That sounds a lot like the methodology in interpreting the strike zone.