The Error in Baseball and the Moral Dimension to American Life – The New Yorker

To enter the world of baseball’s official rulings on the error is to
place yourself at the center of sprawling garden labyrinth; it can take
days to think your way out. Section 9.12 of Major League Baseball’s
Official Baseball Rules begins simply enough:

(1) The official scorer shall charge an error against any fielder:
(a) whose misplay (fumble, muff or wild throw) prolongs the time at bat of a batter, prolongs the presence on the bases of a runner or permits a runner to advance one or more bases, unless, in the judgment of the official scorer, such fielder deliberately permits a foul fly to fall safe with a runner on third base before two are out in order that the runner on third shall not score after the catch.

Notice how the rule, even in its simplest iteration, contains an
immediate exception to itself: the fielder who deliberately permits a
foul ball. It’s like beginning the statute on robbery by providing a
quick example of an act that isn’t robbery.

The comment that follows the rule—baseball rules include commentary,
just like the Talmud—confuses rather than clarifies. Slow hands, mental
mistakes, and miscommunication between players cannot cause errors. The
scorer must believe “the fielder could have handled the ball with
ordinary effort.” But how do you define “ordinary effort”? Stephen
Utter, a former official scorer for ten years for the Toronto Blue Jays,
believes the epistemology of ordinary effort emerges from experience.
“You got to see a lot of it to say what is ordinary,” he told me. One of
the most charming features of baseball is that there are certain plays
that anyone should be able to make, catches a twelve-year-old boy should
be able to field. Those ones are obvious. But the definition of
“ordinary effort” surely has to be expanded at the élite level. “These
are the big boys, these are the professionals, they are supposed to be
making plays,” Utter said.

In practice, “ordinary effort” describes, as Bill James wrote, what
should have happened. What should have happened in a piece of fielding
can have nothing to do with the play of the fielder. Utter offered me a
case: The runner hits the ball into the outfield, the fielder baubles
the ball, and the runner advances to second. Is that an error? It
depends. “What we would have to look at is—is it a single or is it a
double? Or is it a single and advance on an error or on the throw?” The
way that the scorer determines whether that bauble is an error or not
has less to do with the action of the fielder than with the action of
the runner. “Was the runner going all the time? Did he never think about
stopping at first? Or was he running and looking at the play and then
slowed down a little bit and then took off when he saw the little
bauble?” If he paused, noticed the misplay, and ran to second, “That
becomes the error.”

It’s like the spooky action at a distance in quantum mechanics: another
player’s movement determines the meaning of the fielder’s action. And so
far we have really only approached the most basic aspects of the error
rule. Rule 9.12 (a)(7) opens a whole other wing to the maze:

The official scorer shall charge an error against any fielder whose throw takes an unnatural bounce, touches a base or the pitcher’s plate, or touches a runner, a fielder or an umpire, thereby permitting any runner to advance.

Errors can happen by accident rather than misplay, and the comment on
the rule makes its own unfairness explicit: “The official scorer shall
apply this rule even when it appears to be an injustice to a fielder
whose throw was accurate.” What’s the reason for the injustice, or, to be
more accurate, what the rule describes as the appearance of injustice?
“Every base advanced by a runner must be accounted for.”

Rule 9.12(a)(7) means that it is entirely possible to make an error even
though you have made the correct play. Utter gave me another example, a
local one this time: “Bautista’s in right field. Guy’s tagging up on
third, and he throws a laser, a one-bounce laser, to the catcher. And
that’s what the catcher wants, a one-bouncer. He doesn’t want it on the
fly,” Utter explained. “But that bounce the catcher can’t handle. It
gets through him, and if you got to call an error, you got to call it on
Bautista—who did exactly what he was supposed to do.” Doing the right
thing means risking an error. And making an error can be evidence of the
right decision.

The vision of justice is absolute; the error records an imagined
baseball utopia, not some mere assessment of accomplishment. It is about
what should have happened—a vision of a better world than the one that
exists. The record reflects responsibility, which matters more than any
player’s intention.


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