I’ve been announcing Major League Baseball since 1984, and I always seem to learn something new about this fascinating game. Often it’s something you see every day, but hardly notice.
Wednesday night against the Rockies, Nyjer Morgan beat out a fourth-inning bunt leading off, and we were all primed for an exciting inning with our “agitator” on first base. But, wait a minute, home plate umpire Mike Estabrook called him out for runner’s interference, claiming Nyjer was running on the wrong (or fair) side of the first base line, and thus interfered with the throw from third baseman Melvin Mora.
Replays showed the ump was right and Morgan was indeed not running where he should have been, and the correct call was made.
The next day, I visited with umpire supervisor Rich Riecker, a former major league ump who retired early because of a sore back, and we talked about the play. He was glad “his guys” got it right, and as we got to talking about the rule, some interesting things came to light.
The “45 foot line,” as the umps call the running box down the first base line, was instituted in 1882 because too many runners were intentionally running in fair territory to either impede pitchers and third-basemen from throwing them out, or trying to actually get hit by the throws and be safe at first base.
The line starts halfway between home and first, or 45 feet down the line, and extends to even with the bag. It is three feet wide and that includes the chalk, so if a runner is running on the chalk and gets hit by the ball, he’s within the box and not in danger of being called for interference.
It’s amazing to me that 128 years ago, the early architects of this game had the foresight to change a rule that stands to this day, and actually comes into play many times every season. So, the next time you go to Nationals Park and there’s a bang-bang play at first on a bunt or a chopper, watch the runner and see if he is running fair or foul. When the ump calls the runner out, you can be the smartest fan in your section as you explain it to those who are booing.
Up until 1887, the first and third base bags were half in fair territory and half foul, and that made for some difficult and interesting judgement calls for the base umpires. At the urging of the men in blue, the bases were put entirely in fair territory and remain there to this day.
I didn’t have the heart to ask Rich what in the heck is going on with the strike zone this year! Maybe next time...