Thursday, April 1, 2010

Looking For A Few Good Loopholes

The story goes that W. C. Fields, on his deathbed, received a visit from an old friend named Gene Fowler. Fowler knew that there was more to Fields than the misanthropic sot he so often played in his movies, but also that Fields was neither an angel nor likely to find himself in the vicinity of one. Thus Fowler was shocked to see Fields, with his energy obviously flagging, using some of it to hold open a Bible he was clearly investigating. When Fowler asked what he was doing, Fields simply told him "looking for loopholes".

I thought about that yesterday when someone sent me the "Official Rules Regarding Ambidextrous Pitchers," a set of guidelines which might come into play in the foreseeable future if Yankees prospect Pat Venditte makes it to the majors. It could happen. There have been several ambidextrous pitchers in major league history, most notably Tony Mullane in the 1880s and most recently Greg Harris in the 1990s. When one of these freaks appears, it seems like a dream come true if it works. Not only could such a pitcher have an advantage over hitters who hit from only one side of the plate, but he would also have increased stamina from putting less strain in either arm.

The rules have been created to avoid the kind of farce that has occasionally accompanied a both-sided pitcher. The pitcher gets ready to pitch right-handed, and as he winds up the batter jumps into the left-handed batter's box. On the next pitch, the pitcher waits until the last second to reveal that he'll throw left-handed. The batter tries to jump again, and there ensues a series of feints, pump-fakes, and misdirections that would make Michael Jordan smile. So here are the rules that MLB has come up with:

Official Rules Regarding Ambidextrous Pitchers
1) The pitcher must visually indicate to the umpire, batter and runner(s) which way he will begin pitching to the batter. Engaging the rubber with the glove on a particular hand is considered a definitive commitment to which arm he will throw with. The batter will then choose which side of the plate he will bat from.
2) The pitcher must throw one pitch to the batter before any "switch" by either player is allowed.
After one pitch is thrown, the pitcher and batter may each change positions one time per at-bat. For example, if the pitcher changes from right-handed to left-handed and the batter then changes batter's boxes, each player must remain that way for the duration of that at-bat (unless the offensive team substitutes a pinch-hitter, and then each player may again "switch" one time).
3) Any switch (by either the pitcher or the batter) must be clearly indicated to the umpire.
4) There will be no warmup pitches during the change of arms.
5) If an injury occurs the pitcher may change arms but not use that arm again during the remainder of the game.

I read these and thought, "Gee, they thought of everything, didn't they?" But a louder voice said, "Nah, they always think they thought of everything, and inevitably something comes along that twists the rules into a big, dry, inedible pretzel."

Baseball history is full of innovators who find the loopholes in rules, dive through them, and change the way the game is played. It happened all the time in the 1800s as the game gradually matured. One early rule said that if a batted ball's first bounce was in fair territory, it was a fair ball no matter where it went after that. So batters perfected a cricket-like swing which would send that second bounce way into foul territory where no fielder could fetch it in time to record an out. So the loophole was closed up, and now a ground ball has to go past first or third base in fair territory to be fair.

It took until the 1910s for the rulebook to contain the useful requirement that the bases be run in order. Nobody thought about it until a goofball called Germany Schaefer stole second on a botched hit-and-run play, then "stole first" on the next pitch so they could work the hit-and-run instead. It happened a few times, and in came the rule saying you can't run the bases clockwise. Who knew it had to be spelled out in the rules? But it did, because the loophole-leapers have always been a part of baseball.

I know Bill Veeck--the man who used a midget as a pinch-hitter, necessitating an alteration of the rulebook--must be turning over in his grave. "I don't break the rules," Veeck famously maintained. "I merely test their elasticity." In that spirit, managers have sat up nights studying the rulebook in search of the slightest opening which could be expanded into an opportunity to get some advantage during a game, or at least screw with the people who make the rules.

Three managers who thrived from the 1960s through the 1980s come to mind. Gene Mauch was a fiendish innovator who delighted in challenging umpires by following the letter of the rules but not the spirit. Managers today have Mauch to thank for the rule that a manager can only visit his pitcher once in an inning, with the pitcher coming out on a second visit. Then there was Earl Weaver, whose machinations when the designated hitter was introduced in 1973 were so perplexing that the DH rules were soon rewritten. Finally, we have Billy Martin, whose warping of the rules reached its zenith in the "Pine Tar" game in 1983. I'm not even talking about his original contention that George Brett should be called out because the pine tar on his bat extended past the 18 inches allowed by the rules. I'm thinking of the ninth-inning replay weeks later, when Martin greeted the umpires (a different crew from the original one) with a protest that Brett had failed to touch second and third base the first time around. Martin's thinking was that since these umpires had not even been there to see Brett round the bases, they would be unable to rule on his protest, and the replay would be stymied. What he didn't know was that someone had tipped off the league office about Martin's intended ploy, and the umpires came prepared to squelch his protest by producing affidavits from the original umpires attesting that Brett had touched the bases.

That's the thing about loophole lizards who slither around the rules whenever possible. You have to try to stay one step ahead of them. That's why the rules about ambidextrous pitchers outline a rather strict set of procedures for making at bats expeditious and fair. But you know some manager will find an opening. I can't, but someone will. Venditte uses a six-fingered glove with two pockets. Will an opposing manager concoct an interpretation that this glove is illegal? Will he find some way to use pinch-hitters within an at-bat to confound Venditte or take him out of his comfort zone? Will Venditte's own manager show him how to stand on the mound without giving away his intended pitching hand? After a foul ball, will he take off the glove, rub up the new ball, and hurry onto the rubber to quick-pitch the batter who doesn't have time to jump over to the other side? Will step-offs, step-outs, and time-outs be used to turn the procedures into precisely the kind of farce the rule-makers tried to avoid?

Yes, somewhere, this will happen. Looking around the majors, I don't see the wide array of loophole-conscious managers who flourished in the majors 25-50 years ago. There are a few, however (Tony LaRussa comes to mind), who are not above finagling the rules just to aggravate the people who are trying to enforce them. And it only takes one.

I hope Venditte makes it to the majors. It would be cool to witness, suspenseful to see whether he'd be successful, and fascinating to watch all those managerial brain cells being fried in the search for a loophole that would provide an advantage for even one pitch.

1 comment:

Robin said...

These kinds of things have happened in all the major sports. From rules about not being able to take a running start for free throws, to the most recent rule in hockey that prohibits Sean Avery from waving his arms in front of the goaltender to distract him. It takes a special kind of person sometimes to find these loopholes, and often leagues are quick to try and close them up.

And it is not always guys who are gimmicks that bring these loopholes to the attention of the public. There is an old story that Joe Dimaggio is the reason for the rule about tagging up being allowed as soon as the fielder first touches the ball, not as soon as the fielder possesses the ball. It was said that in a game, Dimaggio more or less juggled a ball from the outfield all the way to the infield, to prevent a runner from tagging up and scoring on a sac fly. A few websites make mention of this. Maybe with the access at the Hall that story is verified.

As a question, do they so explicitly mention the rules for ambidextrous hitters? From the reading on the pitchers, it seems like they make the pitcher decide first, then the batter. Why not the batter first?