What every young man should know: How to strike out and get to first | Bleader

What every young man should know: How to strike out and get to first

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Was this the book?
  • Was this the book?
At a susceptible age, I came across the Duane Decker baseball novels for boys. An incident in one of them impressed me deeply. Decker's protagonist, representing the decisive run in a big game, had advanced to scoring position. But the last 90 feet (or 180 feet, or whatever) are the hardest, and Decker's base runner decided gamesmanship was in order.

"Hey, pitcher!" he yelled (or words to that effect). "Let me see that ball. I think there's some kind of goop on it."

The pitcher glanced at the ball, shrugged, and lobbed it to the base runner—who stepped aside and, as the ball rolled into the outfield, tore home.

What book was that? Maybe Switch Hitter, about rookie phenom Russ Woodward, whose "greatest enemy was himself." Says this plot summary I just found online, "He finally learned what 'team' meant, but it was a long time before he could work it out for himself." He'd have pulled a fast one like that. Or maybe Good Field, No Hit, about scrappy Johnny Madigan, who's determined to stick in the "bigs" despite a lack of physical tools.

I have no memory of whether Duane Decker applauded his character's low cunning or denounced it. That sort of fine point would have eluded me completely. What mattered was that the ploy worked! In a recent essay on hockey for the Reader, I recalled from grade school a player named Bryan Campbell who went on to play for the Blackhawks. As I said, we never played hockey together—he was out of my league. But we were opposing captains in an intramural softball playoff game that became an epic.

To keep a long story short, the bottom of the last inning found Bryan's team leading 3-2. But my brother Peter led off with a triple, I contrived to be hit by a pitch that arrived at the plate about an inch inside, and I immediately stole second. With one out I said to the pitcher, "Let me see that ball. I think there's some kind of goop on it."

The credulous lad tossed it over. I screamed at Peter to take off, and I followed on his heels with the winning run.

But the umpire, Jimmy Reesor, someone I'd thought of as a friend, decided time had been called and sent us back to our bases. When the game ended we were still stranded there. The next day I lodged a formal appeal with the league commissioner (my eighth-grade teacher). Time had not been called! I insisted, and demanded the game be replayed from that point. When my teacher denied the appeal I was disconsolate. What's the point of reading baseball novels for boys if the tips you pick up there can't be put into practice?

Since then an ambition of mine has been to carefully read through the Official Baseball Rules, line by line, combing it for possibilities—ploys in the best Duane Decker tradition that are possible within the rules, or beyond the rules (which is to say you can do them because the rules don't say you can't). I'm certain these possibilities exist. In fact, the other day I e-mailed Major League Baseball and asked if MLB ever employed rules "hackers," so to speak, masters of the dark arts tasked with spotting exploitable loopholes so MLB can close them preemptively.

I received this answer: "Our Umpire Directors and Supervisors are all former Umpires. Many of them are rules experts, including two who are virtual savants. The Supervisors have relationships with Minor League Baseball, the NCAA, youth organizations and a national referee association. Our Playing Rules Committee includes not just many people affiliated with MLB and its Clubs, but also Minor League Baseball and the NCAA. Thus, when unusual situations arise, at many different levels of baseball, it is very common for them to hear about it. While rules differ at various levels, those plays become case-studies. When unusual plays happen in the Majors, it's very common for our Supervisors to type up a report and to email it out to the entire Umpiring staff to educate them about it."

In other words, no, Major League Baseball doesn't. When "unusual plays" arise, it is up to umpires like poor Jimmy Reesor to rule on the fly. These rulings become case studies, and these case studies lead to amended rules. When I riffled through the rule book the other day I noticed that it had been amended and adopted in 1949—and then further amended 52 times since! The Official Baseball Rules is as much a work of accretion as Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

So why am I so confident the rule book doesn't cover everything? One reason is that any set of rules is a kind of game of Whack-a-Mole: batten a hatch here and you blow a gasket there. (For more on this, consult the Securities and Exchange Commission.) More specifically, I have long been pondering a ploy of my own that I believe is fully worthy of Duane Decker, and I finally turned to the rule book to see what it had to say about it.

The rule book, though it runs to 132 pages online, says next to nothing.

Here's the scenario:

The pitcher gets two quick strikes on the scrappy lead-off hitter in a critical situation in a big game. He decides to waste a pitch, hoping the overeager batter will lunge for a ball he can't reach. But the ball comes in a little too wide, or high, or low. It gets past the catcher and sails to the backstop. No harm done, except—

You, the wily batter, see the ball bounding away, take a cut, and run to first.

"I struck out," you explain, "and strike three wasn't caught."

"You can't strike out on a pitch if you never tried to hit it," screams the opposite manager.

"Happens all the time," you say. "Happens every time a batter swings to protect a runner stealing second."

"But if it's past the catcher it's no longer a pitch!" he screams.

"Then what is it?"

"Where's the rule book?"

A pitch, the rule book replies uselessly, "is a ball delivered to the batter by the pitcher."

A strike is "a legal pitch when so called by the umpire, which—
(a) Is struck at by the batter and is missed;
(b) Is not struck at, if any part of the ball passes through any part of the strike Zone . . ."

A strikeout shall be scored "whenever a batter: (1) is put out by a third strike caught by the catcher; (2) is put out by a third strike not caught when there is a runner on first before two are out; (3) becomes a runner because a third strike is not caught . . ."

"The batter becomes a runner when—
(a) He hits a fair ball;
(b) The third strike called by the umpire is not caught, providing (1) first base is unoccupied, or (2) first base is occupied with two out;"

This language doesn't begin to cover the situation. So I contacted Major League Baseball. Though I also asked about rule book hackers, my main agenda was to find out what headquarters made of my scenario. I got back an answer a lot longer on sanctimony than helpful information.

The answer to the question goes to the root of the game of Baseball and basic concept of the game: The pitcher throws the ball to the batter, and the batter tries to hit the ball (with an actual STICK in the very early days of the game). In at least one spot in the rule book, the bat is referred to as a "stick"!

Anyway, the rule in reference to the writer's question is Rule 5.03 (still in pretty "ancient" verbiage that has been handed down over the years):

"The pitcher shall deliver the pitch to the batter who may elect to strike the ball, or who may not offer at it, as he chooses."

So "tricks" such as a batter swinging his bat with two strikes on a pitch over his head that is headed towards the backstop is not within the spirit or concept of the rules.

Granted, batters often swing at a pitch to "protect" a runner who is stealing. But (1) it must at least appear as though the batter is trying to hit the ball; and (2) there are strict rules that prevent the batter from going "too far" on such a play and being declared out for interference.

In other words, there's no rule that covers it, but if there were we probably wouldn't allow it because now that you bring it up it just doesn't sit right with us old-timers. In the rules I quote above, the key language is clearly about strike three being a strike as "called by the umpire." As it was in eighth grade, as it remains whenever "unusual plays" occur, it's on the ump to come up with something. And he's got to juggle not only the letter of the rules but also the "spirit or concept" of the rules.

So here's the deal. The pitch got away. It sailed over the catcher's head and I swung and missed. Now I'm standing on first base. Call it a strike and I get to stay here. Or are you going to screw me again, Jimmy Reesor?

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