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Baseball is unlike the other major American sports, especially in terms of its field of play. Whereas football, basketball and hockey are played within definitive rectangular confines — and even NASCAR mostly fits into its oval-shaped pattern — baseball has its foul-ball lines at a 90-degree angle with no set limit for their distances to outfield fences.
But, is the 90-degree opening from foul line to foul line, from home plate through the infield diamond into the ever-expanding outfield grass, really the limited area for baseball plays? Why do we see so much play in areas supposedly out of bounds?
Youngsters new to the game might be prone to ask, Can you foul out in baseball? Or, How can a player touch the ball while standing out of bounds and have it still count? Perhaps more often, Can a batter be called out for fouling off too many pitches in an at-bat?
Foul Balls and Foul Outs
Let’s first examine the latter question, whether there is a limit to how many balls a batter can hit into foul territory in an at-bat. The answer is there is no limit. A batter cannot “foul out” for too many foul balls. There is one exception, however.
When there are two strikes on a batter, he cannot bunt a ball foul. If so, it is ruled an automatic strikeout and the batter sent to the dugout. This rule exists to prevent batters from bunting balls over and over again with hope that he or she might get a pitch they can hit hard; and also to stop batters from bunting foul over and over to wear down a pitcher’s stamina.
A batter swinging the bat regularly can hit an unlimited number of foul balls — if none are caught by a fielder in the air before the ball touches the ground.
Baseball players cannot “foul out” like players can in basketball. There are no player fouls in baseball to be counted. Baseball players might be warned for foul, aggressive or offensive play or verbal abuse, and possibly ejected from games by umpires. But they cannot foul out.
Foul Ball vs. Fair Ball
Some baseball enthusiasts say the lines should be called fair lines instead of foul lines, because if a hit ball lands on the line it’s considered in fair play territory. Those lines, along with foul poles at the ends of outfield fences, denote where fair territory exists. That is, on and between those lines.
Major league baseball rules can be convoluted to read regarding rulings for fair or foul balls:
- A foul ball can be any ball that is batted that first makes contact with a fielder, while the batted ball is in foul grounds.
- A hit ball that makes first contact with the ground between a home base and a corner base are foul balls, if they do not eventually bound over or strike either base, or perhaps fly over either base while still in fair territory.
- Exception: if a ball is softly struck and stops rolling while in fair territory, even if not past first or third base, such a hit is ruled a fair ball.
This last rule is why you sometimes see fielders letting bunted or softly hit balls roll while fair, with hope that it will eventually roll to foul territory before reaching first or third base.
Fly balls that pass over the outfield fence between the foul poles, or even hit a foul pole above the fence line, are fair-ball home runs.
Strange Foul Rules for Infield and Outfield
Some consider baseball’s rules regarding foul balls that start fair and trickle foul before the bases as peculiar. Yet, there is a reason for it.
In the 1870s the rules changed often, but one of them was that a ball that first struck the ground in fair territory was a fair ball no matter where it rolled or bounded thereafter. Same with a foul, if the ball bounced in foul territory first, it was ruled a foul ball. There was no difference between the foul line for its entire length.
But savvy batters learned to bunt or even swing at pitches, especially low ones, to create crazy spins or bounces so the ball would strike fair territory first then whiz away deep into foul territory. The batter then hustled to first base as fielders raced to retrieve the ball.
Some teams on defense even began positioning fielders in foul territory to prevent the practice. At which point the batter might hit regularly and target spots vacated by the shifted players. It was a cat-and-mouse game like this for years, and did not make for good baseball-viewing.
What was called a “fair-foul bunt” became extinct when baseball moved the batters boxes into foul territory, but also mainly by the 1877 rule that states the ball must remain in fair territory past first or third base to be ruled a fair ball. That rule stands today.
More Information About Foul Outs
- Fly balls caught in the air before touching the ground in any area of a baseball field whether in the field of play or even in the grandstands, is ruled an out. However, fielders cannot begin an at-bat stationed outside the official field of play, such as the grandstand. After the ball is hit they are free to dive or jump into the stands to catch balls.
- Any ground ball that strikes first or third base is a fair ball. Makes sense, since those bases (and home plate today) are positioned in fair territory.
- During the World Series and, depending on the season, most post-season games, MLB adds two umpires to stand midway between the infield and outfield fence to monitor the foul lines.
- During the “fair-foul bunt” era, batters were allowed to instruct pitchers where to locate the pitch, that is, high or low, inside or outside. Fair-foul but experts would request low pitches then swing downward to create the bounces or spins they needed.
If a fly ball hits an outfielder’s mitt in fair territory, but the ball is not caught and bounds into foul territory, what’s the call?
Fair ball, if indeed the ball would have landed in fair territory if not caught. Where a fielder is positioned does not matter in baseball — they can freely straddle a line, unlike in basketball or football. Umpires are trained to call fair or foul depending on where it lands, or if impeded as in this example, where it would have landed.
On a bunted ball barely still rolling near the foul line be “blown” out of bounds by a fielder?
No. While such scenes of fielders on their knees blowing with their mouths to shoo a ball out of fair territory look quaint, it is not legal to alter the course of the ball in such a way.
If a ball first touches foul territory and then bounces into fair territory, is it a fair ball?
A.: No, since the ball passed first or third base. By the way, such a play is very uncommon unless the ball strikes a foreign object like a rock. Most foul balls landing in such a manner spin the ball to bounce in the other direction, away from the field of play.