aseball is unique in the fact its playing confines are not always specifically spelled out by the rulebook.
Yes, at the NFHS, college and pro levels, the distance between the bases is always 90 feet, and the pitching plate is 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate. However, each baseball field comes with its own wrinkles as far as how much foul territory is in play, where tarps and bullpens are located, the height of the outfield fences and much, much more.
As such, each baseball game starts with a pregame plate meeting where not only starting lineups are exchanged and made official, but where the two head coaches or managers and all members of the umpiring crew come to agreement on the ground rules that will be in place for that particular game.
The only restriction on ground rules is they cannot conflict with or supersede any printed rule. An example is the telephone cable that stretches between the plate and the backstop. Playing it off the wire makes sense as the wire is not apt to materially change the path of the ball; however, the rules provide a foul ball is dead when it touches anything foreign to the ground.
Another idea with merit is a ground-rule triple because the fence the ball goes through is so distant any runner could easily make it to third. The problem is the rules state fair batted balls that go over or through a fence result in a two-base award. However, NCAA rule 8-3o-1 permits a ground rule in this type of situation.
The home coach is required to propose any ground rules at the pregame conference. If the visiting coach disagrees, the umpire-in-chief makes the final determination. The UIC may add any special ground rules, at his or her discretion (NFHS 4-1-2, 10-2-3a; NCAA 4-5; pro 4.05). If something occurs that is not covered, the UIC has authority to rule (NFHS 10-2-2; NCAA 3-6b; pro 8.01c).
In the vast majority of games, the review of ground rules is routine and the home coach spends most of the time explaining all the openings in the fences that the ball will never go through. However, if the coach proposes an incongruent rule, the umpire needs to proceed cautiously. It’s not a good idea to start a game with a confrontation over something that is not likely to happen. Of course, if safety is involved, the umpire must insist a change be made.
Coaches generally prefer to keep the ball live in as many scenarios as possible and there is merit to that, but it is not always sensible. On one local field, there are three sheds immediately behind and higher than a chain-link fence beyond first base. The coach always proposes that if an overthrow (a somewhat possible scenario) goes over the fence and bounds back off a shed, the ball remains live.
On another field, the chain-link fence is open (no gate) to a shed about a foot beyond the fence line. It is possible for a ball to go through the space between the shed and the fence and that would clearly be a dead ball, but the coach wants a ball that hits the shed and returns to the playing field to remain live.
In both cases above, the ball would leave the field and should become dead.
Other examples of situations or field characteristics that may require ground rules include, but are not limited to: dugout facing and openings; scoreboards; open bullpens; batting cages, fences or tarps in which the ball may lodge; sloped areas; unusual or temporary ground conditions; overhanging tree limbs; cables; power lines; poles; bunting; parked cars or other manmade devices within the playing field; or an overflow of spectators onto the playing field.
In formulating or approving ground rules, safety should be foremost. Players should not be allowed to chase balls into open creek beds, rocky slopes, open pits, large puddles or muddy areas. Jumping on tarps or ledges should also be forbidden.
Simplicity, for both players and umpires, is also a consideration. The umpires are the ones who have to figure out what the ball actually hit. Ground rules that create great difficulty are those that seek to keep live a ball that hits off a specified portion of a dead-ball area. Examples are dugout facades that are set back from the dead-ball line or posts inside the dugout. The problem with the latter is it may be difficult to discern whether the ball hit the post, the helmet lying next to it or the back wall.
Another aspect of dugouts that may require attention is the dugout extension, a somewhat common modification in amateur games because many fields have small dugouts. The home team may ask for a certain area adjacent to the dugout to be considered part of the dugout so that equipment may be stored there. The umpires must ensure the limits of the extension are clearly defined and that it complies with the requirement it be on the outfield side and no closer to the foul line than the dugout itself. The extension must be the same for both teams (NFHS 1-2-4; NCAA 1-16).
NFHS rules provide for a designated media area. In most prep games, there isn’t any value in having such a dead-ball area but it could be needed.. An umpire’s first responsibility is to ascertain the media area is placed in an innocuous location. Obviously it is going to be against a fence, but any spot in a direct line with a throw from the third baseman around to a throw from the second baseman is not a good idea.
A ball is immediately dead if it hits someone within or partially within a designated media area (NFHS 1-2-8). If the person is totally outside the marked area when contacted, it is treated as spectator interference. The ground rules sometimes stipulate an unoccupied media area remains live-ball territory; that’s possible by defining a media area as “a designated area occupied by media personnel.”
Throws from dead-ball territory require special mention. Under all codes, such a throw can never be made and no ground rule can change that. The ball is always dead when carried into a dead-ball area (NFHS 5-1-1i; NCAA 6-1d; pro 5.06b3C).
Above all, umpires must keep in mind that ground rules must be safe and simple.
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