The peculiar role of spectators in baseball

I have expressed before my dislike of the fact that cheating in baseball by tricking the umpires is not only not punished, but the players and media gloat over their success in duping on on-field officials. That strikes me as disgraceful. Another thing I dislike is not cheating but involves the fact that spectators can, in some instances, interfere with the action. This can happen because spectators can sit right behind the wall that designates the boundary. So if a ball is hit over the wall, you can have a situation where the fielder leaps to catch it before, or even after, it reaches the wall, while spectators, rather than moving away and giving the fielder room to make the play, also try to catch the ball and interfere.

Here is one such incident that happened in a high-stakes playoff game yesterday and may have cost one team the win.

The astounding this is that this kind of thing is considered perfectly acceptable. If I were running the game, I would put a gap between the wall and the first row of spectators.

I am trying to think of other games where spectators can and do interfere with the play. In cricket, there is a huge distance between the boundary line and the spectators. So too in football and tennis and rugby. The only sport where spectators are so close to the playing area is basketball but I am not aware of fans trying to interfere with the game, though they could easily do so if they wanted. I suspect that they would be ejected from the arena pronto.

Adding to this problem is that in baseball, there is a peculiar mystique attached to catching a ball that goes into the crowd, and people who catch one seem inexplicably proud of having done so, even though what they caught can be bought cheaply in any sports store. They don’t do this just for (say) some record-breaking event but even for run-of-the-mill games. This has even resulted in ugly fights among fans over ‘ownership’ of a ball that falls among them. Adults will even snatch a ball away from small children and then gloat over doing so, as this video clip compiled by an Australian shows. (Language advisory)


  1. VolcanoMan says

    I agree with your perspective on this -- for some reason, the maxim “it’s not cheating if you get away with it” seems to apply in the realm of professional sports. I don’t typically follow baseball or basketball, but soccer/football has the reputation of being a place for professional actors, not athletes. The amount of embelishment is truly disgraceful, and it’s so commonplace now that people just dismiss it as part of the game. Ice hockey, to which I am partial, doesn’t have as big a problem with players taking a dive, but it still happens all the time. It hasn’t gotten to the point of indifferent acceptance by fans and players yet, but because the incentives are so misaligned, I can see it going in that direction if not stamped out.

    Then there’s the peculiar case of what happened in the sport of cycling, in the London Olympics. Team GB formulated a plan, entirely within the letter of the rules (if not their spirit) to intentionally crash in the first 1/2 lap of a race, if they felt they had a bad start. Any crashes or incidents that take place before a half lap is completed trigger an automatic re-start, according to the rules. And wouldn’t you know, a cyclist did this, got a re-start, and ended up sharing a gold medal for his troubles. And then, when asked about it by the media, he openly admitted to the intentional nature of the crash, and the premeditation involved by him and his team.

    So I’m of the firm opinion that cheating doesn’t have to be against the rules, it just has to be unethical. Just like the morons intentionally disrupting baseball players from catching would-be home runs. For whatever reason, this is totally fine (unless you happen to interfere with the home team’s home run -- whatever your allegiance, if any -- in which case you will probably be assaulted by multiple fans)…sports tend to make even smart people do stupid things for stupid reasons.

  2. Sunday Afternoon says

    Another cycling incident -- it is relatively common for crashes to be caused by spectators in road racing as there is minimal protection for the racers (just think of the logistics involved in erecting temporary barriers for 120 miles!).

    In this case, Nibali cracked a vertebrae, but still completed the stage (in case the injuries weren’t too serious) before receiving medical attention and the break being detected.

  3. DonDueed says

    It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a ballgame, but when I did go I always thought that if I ever caught a foul ball or home run, I’d immediately look around for a kid to give it to. I mean, it would be fun to catch one, but it would also be fun to see a kid light up when she knew she could keep it.

  4. mnb0 says

    @1: “people just dismiss it as part of the game”
    You didn’t make clear which people you meant, but schwalbes do get punished -- if the ref is not fooled. Enjoy this Dutch top 10 (and the first two are by my favourites):

  5. Mark Dowd says

    So I’m of the firm opinion that cheating doesn’t have to be against the rules, it just has to be unethical.

    What is “ethics” in a game that is more than following the rules as they are written? If the rule allows an exploit that people dont like, it’s the rule’s fault, not the players. “Gentleman’s agreements” about these things are dumb.

    For example, I can think of two quick rule patches that would fix the “deliberate crash reset” exploit instantly.

    1) No reset on crash. Might not be desirable if the rule exists for safety reasons.

    2) Lap is reset on crash, but the player/team that crashed is DQed from that run.

    With either of those fixes, there would be no more deliberate crashes because you would gain no advantage from them (indeed, you would get a significant penalty for crashing). The problem is fixed, and doesn’t require guilt tripping players into an arbitrary unwritten rule or making judgment calls about “was that crash intentional?”

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