It’s surprising how frequently this issue comes up: Tie goes to the runner. I get emails through the web site, or I’m approached by people who know I’m an umpire, and the thing people want to vent about are the close plays at first base: the runner’s foot hits the bag and the ball hits the fielder’s glove in what appears to be the same instant. The umpire calls the runner out and all hell breaks loose.

Once upon a time, we all played by this rule. We played this rule in our youth, on school playgrounds and sandlots. It was the rule and it served us well. There were no umpires on the sandlots, and close plays at first base were (and remain) the cause of most disputes. So when consensus and arguments failed, the rule (that rule) helped settled the arguments. In those days, on those ball fields, ties went to the runner.

Not on the big field. Not in “real” baseball

Nope, ties do not go to the runner. Not on the big field. Not in “real” baseball. Not where there’s an umpire making the call. Rather, the prevailing interpretation is that the runner must beat the throw; if he doesn’t, he’s out. That’s the right call. And that’s where the arguments begin.

The discrepancy between the sandlot rule and the Big League rule is interesting, because to a certain extent, the discrepancy exists in a vacuum. The fact is, there is no rule in the Official Baseball Rules (OBR) that offers any guidance in cases where both events (runner’s foot touching the base, and the ball reaching the fielder’s glove), when they occur at exactly the same time. The prevailing (but still controversial) interpretation, that the runner must beat the throw, has but shadowy standing in the OBR. Part of the problem is that there’s no rule covering this situation; at the same time, however, there are rules, three of them, that surround the issue, and the three don’t fully agree. Therein lies one of the several shadowy seams whose ambiguous threads wind around the OBR like the stitching on a baseball.

There are three rules

The fact is, three rules apply, but none of them apply directly to the case of a tie, so you end up with a Bermuda Triangle of rules that surround the issue, and between them all is a foggy interpretation that relies more on tradition than rule.

Here are the three rules. I’ve trimmed them to their essentials (click the links for the full text):

Rule 5.09(a)(10)
[formerly 6.05(j)]
A batter is out when … After a third strike or after he hits a fair ball, he or first base is tagged before he touches first base
Rule 5.09(b)(6)
[formerly 7.08(e)]
A runner is out when … He or the next base is tagged before he touches the next base
Rule 5.06(a)(1)
[formerly 7.01]
A runner acquires the right to an unoccupied base when he touches it before he is out

It doesn’t take too close of a reading to see the contradiction. The first two [5.09(a) and 5.09(b)] make it quite clear that a runner is out if he or the base (when a force) are touched before the runner reaches the base. However, the third rule we cited [5.06(a)(1)] is equally clear that a runner is safe so long as he reaches a base before he or the base (when a force) are tagged.

What we have from the rules, then, is this: On one hand, the runner must beat the throw or tag to be safe, while on the other hand the defense must beat the runner to the bag to get the out. It appears that when the two events are simultaneous, the umpire should flip a coin to determine which of the rules to apply. The mind boggles.

In all of the OBR, the only mention of a tie is in connection with handling a tie score, for example, when a game is suspended. There is neither mention nor guidance of the case of simultaneous events (ties), and because of this, there exists a great black hole at the center of the baseball galaxy that we orbit, day after day, game after game, play after play, argument after argument.

There are no ties in baseball

As ingrained as tie-goes-to-the-runner is in sandlot and playground baseball, an equally time-honored expression among baseball insiders (and umpires in particular) is the axiom that there are no ties in baseball. The axiom was likely spawned, at least in part, by the black hole we’ve just discovered.

Clearly, though – if we’re honest with ourselves – it is not true that there are no ties. The fact is, there are ties on the base path not infrequently. Let’s stay with the play at first base for a moment. Among the many perfections of baseball, the length of the base path (90 feet) has proved an enduring testament to man’s ability (every now and then) to get things right. Legendary sports writer Red Smith said it well: “Ninety feet between home plate and first base may be the closest man has ever come to perfection.” What he means is, the balance between offense and defense is nearly perfectly balanced by those perfect 90 feet.

A batted ball to the infield will almost always produce an out if the defense plays the ball cleanly, without a bobble or an error. Add a bobble to the play and you probably have a close play (bang-bang), and even a small chance that a fast runner will beat the throw and be safe at first. (Ichiro did this in Seattle on a regular basis.) Misplay the ball more severely than a simple bobble, and the runner is safe close to half the time. Misplay the ball entirely and the runner is almost always safe.

The point is, the balance between the defense and the offense on a batted ball to the infield is nearly perfect, so much so that almost all plays at first base are relatively close, and a great many are so close they’re a challenge to call, as well as a good many very close plays (the bang-bang plays).

The upshot, then, is that this perfect balance between offense and defense leads necessarily to a large number of nearly simultaneous events, and some unknown number of truly simultaneous ones. Given all of the tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of close plays at first base in a given baseball season, it’s only natural that some number of them result in dead-even ties.  In other words, there are plenty of ties at first. And by the prevailing convention, these ties  normally result in the runner being called out.

What we have, then, is an alternate axiom – one that’s not written, nor spoken, but exists nevertheless: Tie goes to the fielder.

Umpires weigh in

There are two authoritative sources of case law (if you will) and rules interpretations: Jaksa-Roder and Wendelstedt. All umpires with salt know both of these resources. Both are oft-used authorities for untangling thorny rules issues, of which there are no shortage in baseball. Let’s see what they have to say about this black hole.

Nothing. Nada. Niente. Nothing but silence.

Both discuss the rules (the three rules we’ve framed), but neither source addresses the issue of the simultaneous events, the tie at the base. Neither of these honored reference texts even has the word “tie” in their index.

Tim McClelland

Interestingly, on, in a section entitled Ask the Umpire, veteran umpire Tim McClelland does address the issue in a Q-and-A. Here’s both question and answer.

I am an umpire for Little League. The coach told me that ties go to the runner. I said the batter has to beat the throw to first because there are no such thing as ties. Who is right?
– L.M.F.

McClelland: That is exactly right. There are no ties and there is no rule that says the tie goes to the runner. But the rule book does say that the runner must beat the ball to first base, and so if he doesn’t beat the ball, then he is out. So you have to make the decision. That’s why umpires are paid the money they are, to make the decision on if he did or if he didn’t. The only thing you can do is go by whether or not he beat the ball. If he did, then he is safe.

This is interesting, because McClelland is saying he’s going with 5.06(a)(1) and leaves it at that. His comments about “you have to make the decision” is really just a smokescreen to cover the ambiguity that’s he’s elected to ignore. But he’s in good company; this interpretation (that the runner must beat the throw) is the view that pervades, particularly in the Major Leagues. And umpiring conventions tend to filter down from there.

But that interpretation is not accepted universally. This subject comes up time and again on umpire chat rooms and discussion boards and the debates are intense and passionate. There’s McClelland’s view, that the runner must beat the throw. Then there’s the opposite view, which falls on 7.08(e), arguing that if the ball fails to reach the base before the runner touches it, the runner is safe. In other words, tie goes to the runner.

And then there are the umpires who (stupidly, in my view) try to have it both ways. They claim that on truly bang-bang plays at first they’ll judge by circumstances. If the defense was sloppy, they’ll call a runner safe. Same thing if a slow player shows extraordinary hustle. A runner who dogs it, on the other hand, is getting called out. This is the worst of all possible approaches to resolving the ambiguity.

Interestingly, a great many umpires assert that literal ties (true simultaneous events) are near impossible. One commentator claimed to have umpired for 50 years and in that span had never seen a tie on the bases. Our new world of super slow-mo and instant replay is slowly undermining this view. The fact is, ties happen.

Sadly, there’s no real conclusion to the story. Ties at first are a fact of life, and they’ll continue being called in a manner consistent with the umpire’s religion, so to speak. And it’s not really so big a problem as it may appear. It’s definitely not so big an issue as the variability in the strike zone. But don’t get me started on that can of worms.