Saturday, April 17, 2021

Ask the UEFL - Runner Catches Foul Ball in Vols Game

HP Umpire Darren Spagnardi ejected Tennessee baseball head coach Tony Vitello during the Vols' NCAA game against Vanderbilt after a foul ball call when Vandy runner Isaiah Thomas caught a batted ball in foul territory. 

The Ask the UEFL question before us ponders whether a baserunner touching a batted ball in foul territory can constitute interference. Although this analysis uses the NCAA ruleset, both professional OBR and high school NFHS rules are similar.

In addition to the definition of "foul ball" holding that a batted ball is foul when it touches a player in foul territory prior to bounding past first or third base, the relevant rule regarding interference is NCAA 8-5-d, which states that "a runner is out when—the runner interferes intentionally with a throw or thrown ball, or interferes with a fielder who is attempting to field a batted ball" (the Official Baseball Rules/pro version is OBR 5.09(b)(3), "he intentionally interferes with a thrown ball; or hinders a fielder attempting to make a play on a batted ball").

Pursuant to this rule, the interference with a batted ball need not be intentional and the batted ball need not be fair. By the strictest reading of 8-5-d, Thomas could have conceivably been called for interference.

That said, the spirit of the rule as well as tenets of common sense and fair play factor in here: was this ball likely to be fair if not for the runner's actions? If interference was to be called on this ground ball in foul territory, what precisely did R3 interfere with F5 from doing—if the only answer is "fielding a foul ball," is this truly interference meritorious of an out call?

Gil's Call: Given the overwhelming evidence to suggest this ball would have otherwise been foul if not for the runner's touch (Coach Vitello said "It would have taken an awkward bounce for the thing to be fair, obviously"), the common sense interpretation of 8-5-d here would be to leave this play alone and simply call the ball foul, as the umpires did.

As for the ejection, ESPN/SEC's broadcasters used the phrase "when they're on their way back to the dugout," an oft-used "they were walking away" argument. However, analysis of the film at the moment umpire Spagnardi dips his right shoulder to begin his ejection mechanic, Coach Vitello, clearly has his face turned toward the umpire and appears to be verbally engaged.

So much for walking away.

In regard to the reason for ejection, Vitello perhaps unwittingly explained that the conversation with Spanardi had veered into ejectable territory: "For whatever reason, it got real personal in a hurry. It was a lot less about the things going in the game than it was more personal."


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