Monday, March 4, 2019

Of Bullpen Cups & Balls - A Baseball Magic Trick

What is the rule when a batted baseball lodges in a paper cup sitting in a foul-territory bullpen? Is the ball dead for a two-base award or do we play on when the fielder tries to throw it back in? Such a play occurred in Spring Training's Grapefruit League as Cardinals batter Jeremy Martinez's hit to Marlins right fielder Magneuris Sierra took a detour into St. Louis' first-base dugout.

What is the ruling for a ball entering a cup?
The Play: With two on (R1, R2) and two out, batter Martinez hit a fair ground ball down the right field line, whereupon it entered the on-field bullpen in foul territory down the right-field line. Outfielder Sierra ran to play the ball, throwing it toward second base as it became apparent that the "ball" was actually wedged in a discarded paper cup, the force of the projectile bouncing on the infield dirt enough to dislodge the ball as R1 and R2 scored, with batter-runner Martinez jogging into third base.

The Call: Martinez wound up at second base while both runners were permitted to score. Read on for the proper ruling.

The Rule: Generally, a ball remains in play until an umpire calls "Time." All that we need to know here is whether the ball fell out of play by going into the bullpen or lodging in the cup. Official Baseball Rule 5.06(b)(4)(F) discusses base awards for balls falling out of play, with the relevant provisions of this rule as follows:
Two bases, if a fair ball bounces or is deflected into the stands outside the first or third base foul lines; or if it goes through or under a field fence, or through or under a scoreboard, or through or under shrubbery or vines on the fence; or if it sticks in such fence, scoreboard, shrubbery or vines.
The batted ball appeared to enter, but not immediately exit via rebound, an on-field bullpen. The Universal Ground Rules do not address on-field bullpens, but individual stadiums with such features generally discuss the on-field bullpen in their ballpark-specific ground rules. For example, the following San Francisco's bullpen rule:
A ball is deemed to be lodged if, in the umpire’s judgment, it has become unplayable by going behind equipment, the seating area or otherwise.
Ball enters the bullpen seating area and rebounds out of the seating area back onto the playing field: In Play. 
The language is identical for Oakland and Tampa Bay. Chicago's Wrigley Field had a similar rule before the Cubs relocated the on-field bullpen to below the right-field stands.

Did (and if so, when) the ball fall out of play?
Analysis: There are two separate issues regarding this play, the second of which relies on the outcome of the first.

First, we must determine whether the ball has become stuck in a bullpen. There's a strong chance that Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium doesn't cover the issue as San Francisco/Oakland/Tampa does, which sets us up for an umpiring elastic clause decision.

In general, however, the SF/OAK/TB provision about a ball becoming unplayable should apply here; we see our 1B Umpire signaling "safe," as if to say, that ball is still playable and thus live.

With our umpire having ruled the ball live, we turn to issue #2, which is the ball-in-cup problem.

The ball and cup break apart after bouncing.
We know that the MLB Umpire Manual interpretation concerning a ball that enters a player's uniform states that "Time" should be called and the umpire should then use common sense and fair play to place the runners in a "nullify the act" standard. We also know this interpretation doesn't apply to a ball lodging in a player's glove, which instead should be treated as a live ball.

But what of a cup?

The MLBUM interpretation for 5.06(b)(4)(F) holds that a ball should be deemed lodged if it "sticks in a fence, scoreboard, shrubbery or vines located on the playing field...[or if it] goes behind a field tarp or wall padding without leaving the playing field."

Johnny Damon drew a cup lodge 2B in 2001.
Precedent: In 2001, Athletics batter Johnny Damon hit a ball that rolled into and became stuck in a plastic cup at the Oakland Coliseum. While Boston outfielder Trot Nixon tried to throw the ball/cup contraption, Damon circled the bases for an apparent inside-the-park home run until umpires ordered Damon back to second base, ruling the play dead under the auspices of this very same lodged-ball rule.

Conclusion: The proper call here is a dead-ball two-base award for a lodged ball. If the umpire deems the ball playable in the bullpen—and that's a judgment call that hinges on your interpretation of "playable" (I'm personally not looking to have an outfielder fish out a ball from behind a steel bench...I can't even guarantee that's the same ball)—we play on, but if the umpire deems it unplayable because it rolled behind the bullpen bench/equipment, we treat it as a lodged ball as in 5.06(b)(4)(F). Assuming that the ball was deemed playable, we have a ball-in-a-cup being thrown toward the infield. By rule and interpretation, for both possibilities (bullpen lodge or cup lodge), this is a lodged ball and is treated in the same fashion: two-bases pursuant to 5.06(b)(4)(F). Score R2, place R1 at third base, and put the batter at second.

Wrap: Miami Marlins vs. St. Louis Cardinals (Spring Training), 3/2/19 | Video as follows:
Alternate Link: Ground ball gets stuck in right field bullpen, prompting a cup-throw to second (STL)


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