Understanding the Rules of Baseball

The rules of baseball should be second nature, right? From Babe Ruth to "Big Papi," baseball has captivated the national imagination for more than a century. More than a pastime, baseball is a global industry that touches the lives of players and fans in preschool and retirement homes.

We all know that three strikes make an out and four balls cause a walk. But what about some of the more intricate rules of the game? Understanding the balk and the infield fly rule will not only help to enhance your enjoyment of the game, they'll also give you a broader understanding of the sport.

May the Force Be with You
In baseball, as in life, there are sometimes situations that are simply out of a player's control. These are known as force outs. If a runner is on first base and the next batter hits a fair ball, the runner on first has no choice but to run to second.

In this example, the second baseman only has to tag the base before the runner arrives. It is not necessary to tag the runner. If the bases are loaded, a force out is possible at any base because all runners must advance on a fair ball.

If there is no force play, the fielder must tag the runner to make the out. So if a runner is on second and nobody is on first or third, he does not have to advance. This is a case in which the fielder must tag the runner and not just the base.

Force outs can also affect whether a run scores. If a third out occurs in a force-out situation, even if a runner crosses home plate before the third out is made, that run would not count.

The Infield Fly Rule
When placed on the spot, even the most diehard fan may have trouble summing up the infield fly rule. Like many rules governing baseball, this is a judgment call by the umpire.

Here's how it works: When there are fewer than two outs and there is a force play at third (either bases loaded or runners on first and second), if the batter hits a fair fly ball that the umpire believes can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort, the batter is automatically out - regardless of whether anyone actually catches the ball.

In these cases, the umpire typically announces his call, saying "infield fly, the batter is out." The rule can apply even if the ball is not caught in the infield, such as an infielder retreating to the outfield to catch the ball with ordinary effort, or an outfielder happens to catch it instead.

The rule was designed in 1895 to address strategies that players were using at that time. The idea is to prevent the team in the field from purposely dropping or missing an infield fly so they can create an easy double play.

For example, let's say there are less than two outs and runners on first and second. The batter hits a pop fly to the third baseman, who lets it drop, meaning the runners must advance. He then picks it up, steps on third for one out and makes a throw to second for a double play. Since both runners expected him to catch the ball instead of letting it drop, they would have tagged up on their bases and be at a disadvantage when trying to run.

Remember, the infield fly rule is a judgment call. An umpire may decide the rule doesn't apply because he thinks it would take extraordinary effort for the fielder to catch the ball. Or the umpire might invoke the rule and then the ball goes foul - in which case the batter is not out, it just gets treated like any other foul ball.

Grand Theft Baseball
Everyone knows how a runner steals second or third bases. What's not always clear is how a player can steal first or home.

Stealing first base is technically impossible. If first base is empty and the catcher misplays a third strike, the batter can run for first. If the batter makes it, it's not recorded as a stolen base but as an error on the catcher. Because of this rule, some major-league pitchers have been able to record four strikeouts in an inning.

Stealing home happens the same way, from a rules standpoint, as stealing second or third. What makes it such a rare occurrence is that it's a play that carries a very low chance of success, so few runners attempt it. And if the batter at the plate is left-handed, giving the catcher a clear shot at the runner on third, stealing home is nearly impossible.

Although the feat is not always recorded in official statistics, the leader of home-plate theft is Ty Cobb with 50. Few of the other leaders on the list have played in the modern era, reflecting the play's rarity. One explanation for its disappearance is that pitchers today work more from the stretch than the windup, resulting in faster delivery to the plate and less time for the runner to make a move.

Balk This Way
Lest you think that all the rules apply to batters and fielders, there is always the balk. An umpire calls a balk when a pitcher interrupts the pitching motion or commits any one of a number of infractions designed to confuse the opposing team. For example, the pitcher may start a windup and then abruptly stop.

The pitcher can also be called for a balk if he fakes a throw to an empty base or pitches while facing away from the batter. Using an unorthodox pitching motion or pitching back to the batter too quickly to try and catch the batter off guard are other violations of the balk rule, as is doctoring the ball with sweat, spit or substances that make it more slippery or sticky.

The punishment for a balk is hefty: Each runner is allowed to advance one base, including home if the runner is on third. The idea is to protect the runners from deception by the pitcher, although other deceptions are permitted, such as pickoffs and lookbacks.

Different Ages, Different Rules
As with many sports, the basic rules of baseball vary slightly depending on the age group involved. Little League baseball games only last six innings, and the rules vary to encourage fair play and safety as players develop.

For example, in the minor league under Babe Ruth Baseball rules, runners can only steal second and third bases, and stealing attempts may be limited for younger players to three per inning. If there is a 10-run differential after the losing team completes its fifth inning at bat (or sixth for older kids), the game is over.

High school baseball rules also differ somewhat from Major League Baseball. For example, if a runner is on first and the pitcher, from the set position and in contact with the rubber, turns his shoulders toward first but does not throw, an umpire following high school baseball rules will call a balk and award second base to the runner.

Additionally, while major leaguers can sport all the bling they (or their team's owners) want, a high school baseball player can only wear Medic-Alert bracelets and religious items. In addition, the medical bracelets must be taped so the information can be seen.

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