Probably no rule application in baseball gets more hotly debated than interference, particularly batter’s interference. Several examples of interference, all of which occurred in youth ball games that I umpired in 2013, warrant a closer look.
In one situation a runner attempting to advance from 2nd to 3rd on a ground ball to short interfered with the shortstop attempting to make a play. Seeing that the ball was hit into the hole, the runner from 2nd hesitated – as runners in this situation often do to avoid being hit by the batted ball – as he advanced toward the next base. In this case, though, the runner hesitated, took a step forward and then a step backward before continuing on his path toward 3rd base. In doing so he turned his head to look at the shortstop, who was stepping up into position to field the ball, looked back at the ball, and then proceeded directly in front of the shortstop who had started reaching down to catch the ground ball.
The home plate umpire, who often has the better view of this play in a two-man system, called “Time Out” and ruled the runner out for interfering with the shortstop. (The base umpire had to turn his line of sight away from the base runner in order to watch the shortstop’s throw to 1st base, thereby not seeing the entire situation on the base path as it developed.) When this happens in a 2-man umpiring system, the home plate umpire has to decide if the runner hinders or impedes the shortstop, who is attempting to make a play. The actions of the base runner in this situation indicated that he was doing more than simply trying to avoid being hit by a ground ball. As a result the home plate umpire had to read the intent that led to the base runner’s actions.
In other game situations intent is not a factor. For example, in another game situation a runner at 2nd base impeded the shortstop as he attempted to field a soft liner hit to the third base side of the bag. The runner, who was leading off 2nd base when the batter hit the ball, started returning to 2nd to avoid getting caught in a double play. The base runner’s path back to the base, though, put him on a collision course with the shortstop, who was running forward, near the base, to catch the ball in flight. The runner did not gauge the downward trajectory of the ball and bumped the shortstop before he could catch it. The base umpire correctly ruled interference and called the runner out.
In this situation the runner’s intentions did not matter. The runner committed an act that impeded or hindered the shortstop, who was attempting to make a play. The definition for interference (MLB 2.00) clearly states this:
“Offensive interference is an act by the team at bat which interferes with, obstructs, impedes, hinders or confuses any fielder attempting to make a play.”
Play situations and rule statements that follow in the rule book are often taken out of context or misapplied on game day. The definition of interference provides the foundation and the framework for understanding all the rules and play situations concerning offensive interference. The best example of this concerns batter’s interference, particularly with respect to the widespread, common notion that, “The batter is entitled to the batter’s box.”
First of all, the MLB rules do not state this. In fact, no known, ‘official’ rule book, at any level – e.g., Little League, Babe Ruth League, National Federation High School, NCAA – contains this statement. Confusion stems largely from Rule 6.06(c) where it states that, “A batter is out for illegal action when…he interferes with the catcher’s fielding or throwing by stepping out of the batter’s box or making any other movement that hinders the catcher’s play at home base.”
Coaches and spectators – and too many umpires – make the mistake of reading into this rule the converse notion that the batter may remain in the batter’s box provided he/she makes no movement at all. Because Rule 6.06(c) focuses on a deliberate movement by the batter, too many lovers of the game mistakenly conclude that no movement by the batter grants him/her ‘protection’ from committing interference. Over time this mistaken impression has morphed into the aforementioned, erroneous belief that “the batter is entitled to the batter’s box.” For example, one commenter to a frequently visited, rules interpretation website even had the temerity to state that “…if the batter just stands there in the box, he’s immune.” Another commenter, an umpire rules interpreter no less, questioned why a right-handed batter would duck during an attempted steal of 3rd “when he was protected” by remaining in the batter’s box.
Interestingly enough, if you ask right-handed batters of any age why they duck during an attempted steal of 3rd base, most will tell you it’s to ensure that they make a clear effort to avoid interfering with the catcher’s throw. I know that because I asked. Over 3 baseball seasons, from 2010 through 2012, I asked 26 right-handed batters ranging in age from 11 to 18, why they ducked or stepped aside during a teammate’s steal attempt of 3rd base. Twenty-one of them (80.1%) replied that they were trying to stay “out of the catcher’s way.” This should not sound surprising.
Most kids have a better sense about what constitutes fair play than adults. Each of the 21 young players whom I interviewed said he was not told anything by his coaches, he simply decided on his own to avoid getting in the catcher’s way. Those kids demonstrated a clearer understanding of the spirit of the rules than at least one umpire rules interpreter who made a fool of himself on the internet. Oh, and the other 5 said they did not have to duck because the catcher did not throw the ball!
Meanwhile, that website debate raged on for a total of 24 pages, replete with every hair-splitting interpretation and innuendo for which our National Pastime has become richly known.
Rule 6.06(c) speaks to a deliberate movement made by a batter, in the event he/she chooses to move, such as by ducking or stepping aside. The rule speaks specifically to the case of a batter who steps out of the batter’s box or makes any other movement that hinders the catcher’s play at home base. Not all batters will choose to step outside the batter’s box, however this does not mean that, by remaining in it, they cannot still interfere with, obstruct, impede, hinder or confuse the catcher who attempts to make a play. As the rule definition states, batters remain liable for any other movement as well.
In the final analysis, the Rule 2.00 definition of interference predominates. Whatever game situations take place on the field, whatever interpretations get debated ad infinitum, whatever case plays and citations appear later in the rule book, the definition stands alone as the basis for determining whether interference occurred or not.
The Rule 2.00 definition uses the word “act,” as opposed to the word “movement.” Without trying to split additional baseball hairs, most attorneys and administrative law judges will tell you that a person may commit an “act” without making any movement. Hence, we commit the act of remaining silent without moving our lips. Likewise, a batter commits the act of interference by remaining in a batting stance and impeding the catcher’s throw without moving.
Confusion also stems from the debate that began in 1975, when Reds’ batter Ed Armbrister got in the way of Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, who was attempting to field Armbrister’s bunt in front of home plate. Most observers of this controversial play concede that this play started the debate, which continues to this day.
A verbatim application of MLB 2.00, combined with a picture of the play, clearly shows that Armbrister impeded or hindered Fisk’s attempt to make a play on the bunted ball. Incredibly, home plate umpire Larry Barnett did not rule batter’s interference. Moreover, the American League’s Special Instructions to Umpires at the time stated that “collisions of this type are not to be called interference.” How the American League got away 38 years ago with issuing “special instructions” in direct opposition to MLB rule 2.00 goes beyond the scope of this article. Still, we can easily see how this disputed play in the 1975 World Series fuels the continuing debate, nearly a half century later, over what constitutes batter’s interference and what does not.
As sports officials, baseball umpires have to enforce the rules of the game. In doing so we also accept responsibility for ensuring, within the scope of the rules given to us, that neither team gains an unfair advantage over the other. Some will argue that point – as many have already done with me – but why else do we have rules that govern competitive team sports in the first place? No set of rules is perfectly clear or addresses every conceivable game situation that could occur. That’s why the codifiers of the baseball rules included Rule 9.01(c), which states, “Each umpire has authority to rule on any point not specifically covered in these rules.” In this respect baseball umpires have unique power and responsibility that transcend practically every other profession, except, of course, for the Supreme Court. If we do not enforce the spirit as well as the letter of the rules, who will?
Any kid who played pickup stickball knows that fair play and a level playing field define the spirit of the rules. To a kid it’s real simple. That’s why we duck or step aside to avoid getting in the catcher’s way. As baseball umpires we have to apply and enforce the rules in the spirit that they are intended.
Just as a kid playing the game; just as Rule 2.00 states the definition for interference.
Editor’s Note: The following sources provided information for the writing of this article –
Baseball by the Rules, Glen Waggoner, Hugh Howard, Kathleen Moloney
Knotty Problems of Baseball, The Sporting News
Rules of Baseball, Major League Baseball
The Rules and Lore of Baseball, Rich Marazzi