There was a fun controversial play in last night’s baseball game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros in the American League championship series involving two of the best and shortest players in baseball. The Astros’ Jose Altuve, last year’s MVP, hit a long flyball that was coming down in the stands. The Red Sox’s Mookie Betts, likely this year’s MVP, leapt above the wall, but there his glove ran into the hands of Astros fans trying to catch the homer hit right at them.
The umpire called the hitter out due to fan interference and sent the baserunner back to first. If he’d called it a homer, that would have scored two runs, which wound up being how many the Astros lost by to fall behind 1 and 3 in best of 7 series.
My view is the umpire was mistaken. The fans were not flagrantly reaching into the field of play to interfere where they did not belong, they were sticking their hands out to try to catch the ball and keep it from whomping them in the groin. I’ve only rarely have had a hardball hit near me in the stands at an MLB park, but it’s pretty terrifying, if it gets past your hands toward your body or face it will hurt. The fans in Houston were engaging in perfectly reasonable self defense against the ball that had been hit 400 feet and was coming at their bodies in the stands..
So I would not have called fan interference. But then what? Was it a homer or was it just a ball in play, probably a double? Baseball does not have a rule like in football where a touchdown is scored the moment the nose of the football touches the imaginary plane rising up from the front of the goalline stripe. If Betts had leaned into the stands and caught the homer, it would have been an out even though the ball had crossed the line between the field and the outfield bleachers and into the promised land of the homer. But it appeared that the ball struck Mookie’s glove, which had been inadvertently closed by his glove slamming into the hands of fans trying to catch the ball so it wouldn’t hurt them. The ball seemed to mostly bounce off Mookie’s glove and back down onto the field.
So I’d say: no interference, no homer, a live ball, probably a double for Altuve.
But what do baseball rules say about the plane of the wall? Baseball isn’t like football where once the nose of the ball in possession of an offensive player penetrates an imaginary plane rising straight up from the front of the goalline, it’s a touchdown.
Baseball highlight reels are full of clips of outfielders snagging balls over the wall thus turning homers into outs.
On the other hand, baseball rules might imply that the plane of the wall matters when it comes to fan interference. If the fans aren’t reaching over the wall, then no interference.
I might allow fans to reach forward toward the ball, even sticking their hands over the plane of the wall, to protect themselves from being hit by the ball on the body or head, which might have been the case here.
But fans should be penalized for reaching outward toward a ball that wouldn’t have hit them except for their reaching. For example, a hooking line drive is hit fair over 3rd base and it’s right to left spin causes it to roll toward the stands in foul territory in left. The leftfielder positions himself for the carom off the low fence, but a fan leans over the wall and touches the ball, causing it to carom in an unexpected direction, allowing the hitter to get an extra base. The ump should send the runner back to whichever base he figures the runner would have reached if the ball was fielded cleanly without fan interference.)
But, finally, what do you do when the ball crosses the plane of the wall, hits the fielder’s glove, and then the ball bounces off the glove back onto the field of play? I’d lean toward: live ball, play continues.
What if it bounces off the fielder’s glove and the fingers of a spectator back onto the field of play (which might have happened to Betts). I don’t want to encourage home fans to try to touch the ball to guarantee it being a homer, so I’d say: live ball, play continues.
The fans in Houston’s bleachers were at risk of being hit by two fast-moving objects, the hard baseball, and Betts’ glove and hand. Their reactions — stick their hands out — were natural and not strategic. So, I’d say, live ball and let the players play.
The umpire would have done best not to make a call and instead just let the players play.