It’s a basic rules concept that the location of a fielder’s feet in fair or foul territory has no impact on the fair/foul determination when the fielder touches the batted ball — it’s all about the location of the ball. The fielder can’t make a foul ball fair by reaching over the foul line from fair territory (or vice versa).
But step into the area of determining whether a fielder was properly in live-ball territory for purposes of making a catch, and determining the location of the fielder’s feet suddenly becomes vital.
Such dead-ball rulings are more common at lower levels of play where fields sometimes are not completely fenced. But at higher levels of play, such rulings can still be needed at dugout entrances. Let’s review the relevant rules starting with the requirements for being considered in live-ball territory when making a catch.
In NFHS, fielders are considered in live-ball territory if at least one foot (or even part of a foot — or any part of their body) remains in live-ball territory. Lines (real or imaginary) delineating live-ball/dead-ball territory are considered live-ball territory. If part of a fielder’s foot is on that line and part is in dead-ball territory, they are still considered legally within live-ball territory for purposes of making a legal catch (2-9-1, 2.9.1C Cmt.). If the fielder dives and sprawls across the line delineating dead-ball territory, so long as some part of the fielder remains in live-ball territory, the ball remains live (5.1.1P).
In college and pro, fielders are much more restricted. No part of the fielder may be touching dead-ball territory at the time of the catch (NCAA 6-1-d1; pro 5.09a1).
What if a fielder makes a legal catch but then falls or moves into dead-ball territory? Not that many years ago, the pro and college levels had rules that if the fielder stayed on his feet, the ball was kept live; if he fell, it was dead — the so-called “catch and carry” rule. But those days are gone and all three codes align: If a fielder makes a legal catch, but then moves or falls into dead-ball territory, they are credited with the catch, but any runners (other than the batter, who is out on the catch) are awarded one base (NFHS 8-3-3d; NCAA 6-1d; pro 5.06b3C, 5.12b6).
NFHS rules have a provision that if a fielder makes the catch and then deliberately moves into dead-ball territory — “intentional catch and carry” — they still are credited with an out, but runners are awarded two bases from their location at time of pitch (NFHS Base Award Chart).
Let’s look at a few plays.
Play 1: R3 and R1. One out. B4 hits a foul fly ball near a line delineating dead-ball territory. F5 straddles that line — with one foot in dead-ball territory and one foot in live-ball territory — while making the catch. Then, momentum causes F5 to step completely into dead-ball territory. Ruling 1: In NFHS, F5 is credited with a legal catch. R3 and R1 are awarded one base. In NCAA and pro, the catch is not legal; this is a foul ball.
In college and pro, for a legal catch, a fielder must have secure possession of the ball before touching dead-ball territory. In high school, a fielder must have secure possession of the ball before both feet leave live-ball territory.
Pro rules specify the lip of a dugout (the top of the dugout steps that is even with the playing surface), even if it’s a different material from the field, is considered outside the dugout and live-ball territory (MLB Umpire Manual).
Play 2: F3 moves toward the dugout while tracking a foul fly ball. F3 secures the ball in the glove with one foot in live-ball territory and the other foot in the air above the first step into the dugout. Then, F3 steps with the right foot onto that first step of the dugout as the left foot remains in live-ball territory. Ruling 2: In college and pro, the catch is legal because the ball was secured prior to making contact with dead-ball territory. But once the fielder entered dead-ball territory, the ball is dead and any runners are awarded one base. In high school, the catch is legal and the ball remains live because at least part of the fielder remained in contact with live-ball territory.
Play 3: One out and R3 on third. B3 hits a fly ball in foul territory near a short fence. F5 makes a leaping catch, hurdles over a short fence into dead-ball territory and remains on his feet. F5 fires the ball home, where F2 tags out R3, who tagged up and tried to advance. Ruling 3: Under all codes, F5 is credited with a catch, but the ball was dead when F5 entered dead-ball territory (any part of the body under NCAA and pro rules; entirely under NFHS rules). R3 is awarded home.
Play 4: B1 hits a high fly ball in foul territory near a line delineating dead-ball territory. High winds blow the ball around and F5 enters dead-ball territory with both feet before leaping, securing the ball in the glove and then landing completely in live-ball territory. Ruling 4: Not a valid catch. Foul ball. While the fielder is not required to have a foot touching live-ball territory at the time of a catch, the fielder must originate from live-ball territory and secure possession before entering dead-ball territory in order to be credited with a legal catch. A fielder may enter the dead-ball area so long as he re-enters live-ball territory at the time of the catch.
Play 5: B1 hits a foul fly ball near the dugout steps. F3 remains in live-ball territory while making the catch, but momentum would have carried F3 into the dugout and dead-ball territory had several teammates on the bench not supported the player. Ruling 5: Legal catch and the ball remains live. Nothing prohibits players or spectators preventing a fielder from falling down or stepping into a dugout or other dead-ball area.
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