Answer Man: Fair and foul in baseball

News-DemocratMay 3, 2013 

A. Please help me understand this: Are baseball catchers in fair or foul territory when they catch? And where is a batted ball foul or fair around home plate?

-- H.B., of Fairview Heights

Q. Did you ever ask yourself why home plate doesn't look like the other bases?

I mean, come on, those other three bags are just ordinary squares, 15 inches on a side and between 3 and 5 inches thick, according to sport's latest official rules. So why do they use this unusual, irregular pentagon for home plate?

Two reasons, according to baseball historians: It improves an umpire's ability to call balls and strikes while helping them determine whether a batted ball is fair or foul. So let me try to take you out the ball game with this word picture:

Apparently when baseball started, home often was circular in shape like a dish (or even a dish itself) -- hence, the time-honored designation as a "plate." Fashioned from whatever material was handy -- wood, iron, white marble, etc. -- it would have made for some rough landings for anyone sliding into it.

In about 1869, the bases were standardized and home plate became a 12-inch square -- with a twist. It was put into the ground such that one corner was directed at second base while the opposite corner pointed at the catcher.

Umpires and pitchers often complained that the small, oddly positioned target made it hard to pick up the strike zone, but it remained the sport's square beyond compare for 30 years. However, because it must have continued to pose a significant injury risk, the American Association mandated in 1885 that it be made out of rubber and the National League followed suit two years later.

Finally, in 1899, the baseball rules committee came up with the five-sided plate we know and love today -- 17 inches across its widest point and 17 inches from the top of the plate to where it comes to a point at the catcher's feet. The odd shape serves two critical functions:

First, the front half of the plate -- which, in essence is a 17 by 81/2 inch white rectangle -- makes it much easier for even the stereotypical blind umpire to rule on balls and strikes.

Now we get to the critical part of your question. As you probably know, a pro baseball field is a diamond (actually, a square) 90 feet on a side. Without going into some of the technicalities, generally any batted ball that lands within that square is fair.

But you've probably noticed that the chalk foul lines running from first and third base stop before they reach home. So how does the ump rule fair or foul if a batted ball lands in some of that bare ground around the batter's box?

That's where the strange shape of the plate comes into play again. You know those two sides that come to a point at the back of the plate? Those are actually extensions of the foul line, thus completing the 90-foot-square field. So, any ball landing on the plate itself or in front of those imaginary lines is fair while those landing behind are foul.

As a result, the catcher is the only player on the field allowed to regularly assume his position in foul territory, as News-Democrat Cardinal blogger Scott Wuerz smartly observed. Some left-handed first basemen may want to stand in foul ground so they can better scoop throws with their right hand at the base, but they are not permitted to do so (Rule 4.03), Wuerz said.

Hope this answer is a hit with you.

Q. A few of us are debating whether we to put out our hummingbird feeders yet. Please advise.

-- D.B., of O'Fallon

A. Don't let your fine-feathered friends keep winging it when it comes to finding their next meal. Get those feeders out now.

"The sooner the better," says Trudy Moore at Wild Birds Unlimited in Swansea. "They have arrived, and every day we're getting more and more reports -- and these are observations from people I trust."

Don't let the cool temperatures fool you.

"The warmth really isn't as much (a factor) as the length of the day," she said. "It's the sunlight more than anything. They are definitely here."

Q. How can I contact the Gateway East Artists Guild. Nobody seems to have a contact.

-- C.S., of Belleville

A. Guild treasurer Lisa Holthaus, who was ecstatic Friday about a chocolate-banana cream pie she had made from tofu, said she'd be happy to talk with you if you'd call her at 526-4331. You can find more contacts at geag.net -- and, if you're not doing anything today, members will be gathering at Michael Waligorski's house near Pinckneyville to paint. Of course, they'll probably have to use watercolors.

Today's trivia

A batter is out if an outfielder manages to snag a fly ball with his hat. True or false?

Answer to Thursday's trivia: In 1980, South Dakota decided it could not compete with Florida as the Sunshine State so it adopted Mount Rushmore State as its official nickname instead.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 239-2465.

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