Interference in a baseball game does not happen very often and some umpires are ill prepared to deal with it. Getting the uncommon plays correct is what distinguishes the better umpires from the average ones. Recognizing the illicit act is perhaps the easiest of the tasks involved. Knowing whether to kill the ball immediately and then correctly assessing the penalty is the greater challenge. Except where noted, the material applies equally to NFHS, NCAA and pro rules.
The two most common forms of interference are arguably a runner getting hit by a batted ball or running into a fielder who is attempting to make a play. It is also possible for someone who is not a player to interfere with play. An umpire, a coach and even a spectator are all capable of altering a play.
Spectator interference is a simple rule: The ball is immediately dead and the umpire awards the offended team appropriate compensation that, in his or her opinion, would have resulted had interference not taken place (NFHS 2-21-3, 8-3-3e; NCAA 4-8, 6-4a, 8-3n; pro 6.01d, 6.01e).
Of course there will sometimes be a coach who disagrees with what the umpire determines to be “appropriate compensation,” but there is another angle to this — just what is a spectator? That may seem to be a laughable question and certainly no one would argue that a fan or parent in the stands is a spectator, but there are a host of other personnel who may be on the field and whose status is not specifically addressed by the rules. NCAA and pro rules distinguish between authorized personnel and spectators, while the distinction is somewhat unclear in NFHS (NCAA 4-7, pro 6.01d). The lack of clarity was sufficient to cause an erroneous decisive call in a prep playoff game.
Play: Late in the game, with R2 on second, B3 grounds to F6, whose throw to first is wild to the home-plate side of the bag. Meanwhile, a photographer had decided to walk from the first-base dugout to the designated media area beyond first base. The overthrow passed near the photographer’s ankle with no apparent deflection. Ruling: The ball was allowed to remain live and R2 was thrown out at the plate, denying what would have been the go-ahead run. After a brief conference, the plate umpire overruled the base umpire, stating the ball had struck the pants of the photographer, which constituted interference. He allowed R2 to score the eventual winning run and placed B3 on second.
Caseplay 5.1.1K states intentional interference by a photographer results in an immediate dead ball, which implies unintentional interference is ignored. That interpretation was verified by the NFHS.
Consequently, the codes agree authorized non-playing personnel are only guilty of interference if their act is intentional. If such personnel inadvertently touch the ball or their contact with a player does not alter the play, the ball remains live and in play. Please note it is intentional interference if any non-player fields, kicks or pushes a ball, regardless of possible motives.
It is unintentional “interference” if a base coach, bat person, etc., tries to evade the ball and it touches the individual or if it touches such person without the person being aware the ball was coming or if the ball hits an animal. If the umpire determines the interference was intentional based on the person’s action, the play is treated the same as spectator interference.
When a spectator reaches out of the stands or goes on the playing field and touches a live ball, it is spectator interference. Obstructing the vision of a fielder, throwing objects at him or pouring liquids on him can also be construed as interference.
A fielder may reach over a fence, railing, rope or other line of demarcation to make a catch. He may jump on top of a railing or a canvas that may be in foul ground unless prohibited by ground rule. He does so at his own risk and no interference should be allowed if a spectator alters the play (NFHS 8-3-3e; NCAA 4-8c, 7-11t; pro 6.01e Cmt).
Umpires need to be on the field and no matter where they stand, the ball and/or a player are likely to find the same spot on occasion. There are a few situations where an umpire can “interfere” with play, but it is not interference by rule. Those are if a pitch or thrown ball touches an umpire, or a runner or fielder collides with an umpire. In those cases, the contact is ignored and the ball remains live.
If a fair ball touches an umpire after having passed an infielder other than the pitcher, or after having touched an infielder, including the pitcher, the ball also remains live and in play (NFHS 5-1-1f-1; NCAA 6-1h, 6-2f and Nt, 8-2f; pro 5.05b4).
However, if a fair ball touches an umpire in fair territory before touching an infielder, including the pitcher, or before passing an infielder other than the pitcher, it is interference and the batter is awarded first base. The ball is dead and other runners advance only if forced.
If an umpire hinders the catcher’s throw, it is most likely interference. If the hindrance occurs while the catcher is attempting to prevent a stolen base or pick off a runner, the ball is delayed dead. If the throw is prevented or does not retire the runner, interference is called; the ball becomes dead and runners return to their base. However, if the throw retires the runner, the interference is ignored.
The hindrance may also occur while the catcher is fielding a batted ball or dropped third strike. In these situations, the play in NFHS and NCAA is treated the same as an attempt to prevent a stolen base (delayed dead ball) (NFHS 2-21-2; NCAA 6-3a). In pro, however, the contact is ignored and play continues (Evans interp.). An umpire can also interfere by handling a live ball.
Like umpires, coaches are supposed to be on the field. Unlike umpires, though, their role is minor. Consequently, the rules are much less tolerant on which acts by coaches are interference.
With two coaches stationed in close proximity to fielders, there are a variety of ways a coach can interfere with play. Interference with a fielder attempting to field a batted ball need not be intentional, but there cannot be interference with a throw unless the act is intentional or in fair territory. A coach is also prohibited from physically assisting a runner in returning to or leaving a base or by leaving his box and acting in such a manner as to draw a throw. In both those cases the ball remains live until playing action ends.
Physical assistance means doing something that improved the runner’s chance of accomplishing his goal as a runner or communicates coaching instructions. Touching alone is not physical assistance. An accidental collision with a coach outside the coaches box is not interference. Any advancement by other runners is allowed (NFHS 3-2-2; NCAA 3-3e, 8-5f; pro 6.01a8).
A coach is also prohibited from leaving his box and acting in such a manner as to draw a throw (NFHS 3-2-3; NCAA 3-3f, 8-5g; pro 6.01a9). A coach’s actions can adversely affect play in several ways: A throw to the plate or an aborted throw may provide sufficient time for a following runner to advance; a fielder may make an unnecessary bad throw which allows runners to advance; or the coach’s actions may confuse or hinder the defensive team’s best efforts.
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