SCENARIO: Runner on first and the first baseman is holding him on with his foot in foul territory before and throughout the pitch. The coach wants a balk called because the defensive player was in foul territory. Is there such a thing as a "Fielder's Balk"?
RULING: In Major League Baseball, there is no such thing as a "Fielder's Balk". Umpires, please see below for what should be done when a coach wants a "Fielder's Balk" called.
CONFUSION: The confusion stems from the wording of 4.03 in the Official Rules of Major League Baseball. This particular coach isn't the first to read it and think the rule book refers to a fielder's balk, and he surely won't be the last. Instead of sharing just the text, here is a photo of the way it shows up in my MLB rule book. The layout is confusing at best...
Casual reading of this section clearly shows that the penalty is to be a balk. End of story, right? Nope. Understanding more about the way the MLB rule book is laid out, you will see that the penalty only applies to 4.03a which deals specifically with a "Catcher's Balk" and not with 4.03b, 4.03c, or the initial 4.03 intro paragraph.
This can be very confusing because one would logically think that there is a penalty specified for every infraction of the rule book. But this is just one more of many MLB rules where it states, "Thou shalt not..." and then fails to provide the punishment.
In researching the issue further, I went to my rulings and commentary books and I located the clarification in the Major League Baseball Umpire's Manual (MLBUM) where it states...
2.16 FIRST BASEMAN PLAYING IN FOUL TERRITORY
Official Baseball Rule 4.03 provides that when the ball is put in play at the start of or during a game, all fielders other than the catcher shall be on fair territory. In particular, when holding a runner on first base, the first baseman shall position himself with both feet in fair territory. There is no penalty specified for violation other than the first baseman shall be instructed to keep both feet in fair territory if brought to the attention of the umpire, or-if blatant or recurring violation upon immediate direction of the umpire. If a player, after so directed by the umpire, blatantly refuses to comply, the player is subject to ejection.
OPINION'S AT THE BALL FIELD
In surveying a few friends and spectators at the OYB ball fields last night this common sentiment was conveyed...
MICHAEL LEAVITT - "In super league do they say anything when the first baseman sets up with his foot in foul territory?"
PLAYER - "Yeah, Rocky Mountain doesn't let us do that. They tell us to get in bounds."
MICHAEL LEAVITT - "Do they ever call a balk for doing it?"
PLAYER - "Nope. They just tell us to get in fair territory."
WHAT CONSTITUTES BEING IN "FAIR TERRITORY"?
We always have coaches and players that want to strain at a gnat and gain the greatest possible advantage, and I am fine with that. But where is the line drawn?
- 1) Can one foot be in fair territory and the other in foul territory?
- 2) Can one foot be in fair territory and the other on the line with part of the foot toughing the line and the rest in foul territory?
- 3) Or do both feet have to be clearly in fair territory?
The answer to this may surprise you, but the rules are completely different between Major League Baseball rules and NFHS high school rules.
MLB - Using MLB rules, both feet must be in fair territory, meaning just that. The line is in fair territory, so if any part of the first baseman's foot crosses the line into foul territory, then he is in violation.
NFHS - High School rules have a different allowance and penalty. Here is the text...
This means that a player can have 1 foot, but not two in foul territory at the time of the pitch. If any part of his second foot is also across the line and is in foul territory, then he is in violation. It should also be noted that using high school rules that there is a clear penalty of an "Illegal pitch." An illegal pitch with runners on results in a "Balk" call.
BEFUDDLED: So there you have it, the situation was confusing at best, but we managed to find the answers. The confusion is justified since we have people hanging around the Orem Youth Baseball fields as well as the local high school fields. Both leagues are called a bit differently, but neither are as clear cut as the normal fan, player, or coach would initially think.
MLB RULES: When the ball is in play and the pitcher is getting set to pitch, the defensive team (minus the catcher) should have both their feet in fair territory. If not, then they should be told to do so. If they continue to repeatedly have their foot out of bounds, or blatantly refuse, then the player should be ejected.
HIGH SCHOOL RULES: All defensive players (minus the catcher) should have at least one foot in fair territory when the pitcher is preparing to pitch. If they do not at the time of the pitch, then it is an illegal pitch subject to a balk with men on base.
The same ruling shared above from the MLBUM is also shared in the Professional Baseball Umpire Corp. Umpire Manual 2014 in section 3-18...
So there you have it. On the Orem Youth Baseball fields it is not a balk for the first baseman to have his foot in foul territory when holding a runner on first base. Instead, it is a warning to the first baseman to get into fair territory.
AND FINALLY - 2 MAN UMPIRE CREW: Please also understand that with a two man umpiring crew, this situation is a very low priority to the umpire. Coaches should be much more interested in the field umpire watching closely for the pitcher to actually balk than they are looking over constantly to see if the first baseman is in fair territory. After all, there is only so much the umpires can keep their eyes on when there are only 4 eyes to cover the entire field at any time during the game. If, however, a coach sees the offense and is concerned, then they should bring it to the attention of the umpire so that the first baseman can be reminded of the rule.
Enjoy the game! Michael Leavitt
SEE OTHER "MAKING THE RIGHT CALL" RULINGS