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There had better be a ball in that glove or the fielder runs the risk of being called for a fake tag. All rule codes address fake tags and other trick plays. (Photo Credit: Jim White)

By Paul Jacoby

There have been many attempts at “gamesmanship” in the history of baseball and softball. The best or most bizarre situation I’ve encountered dealt with defensing a hit-and-run or run-and-bunt.

With a runner on first, the pitcher would throw a pitchout and the catcher would immediately throw a little pop fly toward the middle of the infield. The infielder would wave and yell, “I’ve got it,” while a player in the dugout would hit two bats together to simulate the sound of the ball being struck by the bat. Others in the defensive team’s dugout would yell, “Get back!” That would make the runner stop, thinking the ball had been popped up and a retreat to the previous base was necessary. Instead, a defender would catch the fake pop-up and either tag the runner or throw to the first baseman, who would apply the tag. If I remember correctly, the team (a junior college team) successfully executed that ploy about 20 times in one season!

Every player growing up remembers seeing and probably getting caught with the “hidden ball trick.” It still is successful once in a while at the major league level, which makes every former player smile.

Fun as plays may be for those implementing them, the NCAA is trying to curtail such behavior in its softball games. One of the statements in the Coaches Code of Conduct is for “coaches and players to comply wholeheartedly with the spirit and intent of the rules. The deliberate teaching of players to violate the rules is indefensible.”

Does that mean an outfielder should not hold her glove high over her head with the ball in it after a possible shoestring catch in the hopes of getting the call in her favor? How about an outfielder acting like she’s catching the ball to freeze a runner, or an infielder faking a flip as the ball goes by into the outfield?

I understand the problems with the batter hopping around on an inside pitch in hope of being hit by a pitch. Or infielders taking a slightly indirect path to make contact with a runner to draw interference.

College ball has battled the hit-by-pitch call the last couple of years as coaches had their batters move and get hit by inside pitches. Umpires have to be keenly aware of those.

I agree with the rule that doesn’t allow the fake tag in softball. There have been cases in which a runner, thinking the fielder received the ball, would make a late, dangerous slide and injure herself.

All rule codes recognize a fake tag as obstruction. Whenever obstruction occurs, whether a play is being made on a runner, a delayed dead ball is signaled.

In NFHS, the umpire shall issue a team warning to the coach of the team involved and the next offender on that team shall be restricted to the bench/dugout for the remainder of the game (2-21, 3-6-2). USA Softball Rules Supplement 19 B notes, “Continued fake tags should result in ejections. In flagrant cases where the sliding player gets hurt, the offending player should be ejected without warning.” In NCAA, subsequent fake tags by the same individual may, at the discretion of the umpire, result in a one-base award to the obstructed player and each other baserunner forced to advance (9.5.3.5). In USSSA FP, the first offense results in a team warning. For a second offense and any subsequent violation, the offender is restricted to the bench for the remainder of the game and the current head coach shall be ejected (11-2A Pen.).

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The offense has some tricks of its own. “The Skunk in the Outfield” play has been used in baseball. A runner on first goes into right field to try to draw a throw so the runner on third can score. In the last few years some softball teams were trying the same play.

With a runner on third, following a walk, hit batter or steal, the batter-runner or runner would head out to right field on a wide route to second base. All defenses work on first-and-third plays to keep the runner on third from scoring while also attempting on some plays to obtain an out on the other runner. One of the plays is to freeze the runner at third by looking her back or making her stop her progress, then getting the ball to a middle infielder (usually the shortstop). That fielder will then try to tag the batter-runner or runner or walk her back toward first. The main focus remains the lead runner. The fielder will react to what R3 does and throw home if she advances or run at her or throw to third if she retreats.

By running wide into the outfield, the runner is not out unless she is out of the basepath. That would force the shortstop, while holding the ball, to go out farther to attempt the tag. That increases the distance from home plate and makes the throw home much longer. In turn that gives R3 a better chance of scoring.

To combat that play, all codes but NFHS state runners may not intentionally run into the outfield between bases (USA Softball 8.3D; NCAA 12.10.3; USSSA FP 8-6F).
While coaching high school softball, our team was involved in many 1-0 and 2-1 games. We tried many plays on both sides of the ball in attempting to win.

One that my girls loved was when we had runners on first and third. Most defenses would just allow us to steal second so as to not give the lead runner a chance to score. One time the runner from first tripped coming off the bag. She fell in the dirt and started to crawl. A play was made on her and we ended up scoring and winning the game. That play led to an annual tradition of seeing which girl could do the best “fake flop” and then get in a rundown to help score the run. I’ve never seen players have so much fun or laugh so hard at each other.

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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.

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