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Baseball rules corner: umpires have to be especially careful when calling foul balls.


Take what happened during a game at Oakland where the A's hosted the Mariners last July 3.

The A's were batting in the fourth inning with two on and two out when Eric Byrnes grounded out harmlessly to first baseman Greg Colbruun. But first base umpire Greg Gibson called a foul ball immediately after Byrnes made contact. Gibson thought Byrnes had hit the ball off his front foot, thus making it foul.

Knowing the ball was in play, Byrnes took off for first on the crack of the bat apparently not aware that Gibson had ruled the play a foul ball. According to writer Mitch Stephens of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Byrnes slowed down after noticing Gibson's call

Seattle skipper Bob Melvin argued the ball never hit Byrnes' foot. Three of the four umpires agreed.

The crew met near the pitcher's mound for a couple of minutes and decided to call Byrnes out, but first called upon Oakland manager Ken Macha, who after a long, heated discussion protested the game.

At that point, crew chief Dana Demuth signaled Byrnes out, drawing thunderous boos from the 19,612 in attendance.

Macha cited rule 5.02 as the basis for his protest. The rule reads, "After the umpire calls "Play" the ball is alive and in play and remains alive and in play until for legal cause, or at the umpire's call of "Time" suspending play, the ball becomes dead. While the ball is dead no player may be put out, no bases may be run and no runs may be scored ..."

The point of Macha's argument is that once Gibson called "foul" it was the same as if he had called "time." In other words, Gibson killed the play. Macha said, "Once an umpire calls a foul ball, the play is dead. Period. We had a one-run lead, runners at the corners and our hottest hitter up. We just wanted him to finish the at-bat."

A former umpire told me that if the umpire's call of "foul" affected the runner (Byrnes), you have to go by the umpire's "foul" call. Did the call affect Byrnes? As stated above, according to Stephens, Byrnes slowed down after noticing Gibson's call.

The veteran umpire who wishes to remain anonymous did say that he has seen plays where a foul ball was called and the call was ignored if it did not affect the runner or runners. He thought the umpires were justified in reversing Gibson's call only if the mistaken call did not affect the outcome of the play.

From this corner, any time an umpire calls "time" or "foul," the ball should be dead. By attempting to play God and determine if the "mistaken" call affected the runner or runners is asking a bit too much. Former Yankee outfielder Tommy Henrich tells this story:

"Many years ago we were playing the White Sox when Red Rolfe hit a slow roller into foul territory then trickled into fair territory. Umpire Billy Evans prematurely called the ball foul. The foul call killed the play. The White Sox manager argued with Evans who said, That's a fair ball tomorrow.'"

Conversely, I've come up with the following anecdote from my archives. When Casey Stengel played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he once topped a roller down the first base line. The ump yelled "foul," but the ball inexplicably rolled back into fair territory before passing first base. The first baseman picked up the ball and tagged Stengel. The umpire then changed his call from "foul" to "you're out!"

Did the umpire feel that his call did not affect Stengel's sprint to first base? I don't know and it's obviously too late to ask. But from this corner I emphatically disagree that umpires should be allowed to change a call once they've called "foul." It sets a dangerous precedent.

Although not etched in stone, there are several situations where history, tradition, and past practice have allowed an umpire's ruling to be reversed.

They are: (1) misinterpretation of a rule; (2) a check swing called a "ball" by the plate umpire; (3) a swipe tag made on a runner if the umpire did not make a call, but seeks help from a partner; (4) a ball dropped by the catcher on the umpire's blind side (no pun intended) on a tag play at the plate so long as the dropped ball can be seen by another umpire; (5) when umpires make opposite fair-foul calls on the same play; and (6) controversial fair-foul calls involving home runs that leave the playing field.

One final point. The A's protest was never heard because the A's won the contest 5-2. We will never know if major league baseball would have upheld the protest. I have always maintained that all protests should be acted upon so a precedent and case study is set for the future. It would also give the Official Playing Rules Committee a chance to review the situation and perhaps implement a new rule or amend an existing one. Is that too much to ask?
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Author:Marazzi, Rich
Publication:Baseball Digest
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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