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Obscure Rules Can Leave Fans Perplexed

NOTE: THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN THISWEEK NEWSPAPERS IN EARLY-JULY 2007. I MADE A COUPLE MINOR CHANGES TO IT AFTER READING IT AGAIN.


Watch enough sports and you'll find that all the rules were not created equal.

Some rules are enforced as strictly as Julio Franco's legendary dietary routine; others, more like John Kruk's. Consider the balk in baseball: big league umpires will call a balk for movements so imperceptible that they actually can't be seen without HDTV. Often, it appears a pitcher just thought about flinching and got called on it.

In the 1961 All-Star Game, Stu Miller of the San Francisco Giants was called for a balk after a particularly strong gust of wind blew him out of his set position. Obviously, Miller wasn't trying to deceive anyone, but technically, he balked.

So why do other rules get enforced so rarely? The reasons vary, and some can be frustrating, but it seems that these all fall into one of three categories: rules that involve a liberal time limit, rules that get bent but rarely broken or rules that are just weird or outdated.


Time Limits


To keep the pace of the game up, several sports have limits regarding how much time players can take to perform certain tasks while the clock is stopped. While these rules do, by their mere presence, generally keep the game moving along, players can often get away with violating the time limits fairly consistently.

In tennis, players are supposed to be limited in the amount of time they can take to serve after the previous point ends. The limit is 20 or 25 seconds, depending on which federation is running the event.

Rafael Nadal in particular has been shown to take over 30 seconds on average between points, often to the disdain of his opponents. Still, officials rarely penalize Nadal, or any player, for this.

All levels of basketball limit players to 10 seconds between foul shots, but it's been proven that most fans can leave their seats when a foul is called, take a bathroom break and grab a couple hot dogs, and San Antonio Spurs center Tim Duncan will still be on the line staring at the rim when they sit back down.

In 2007, Major League Baseball reduced the legal amount of time between pitches from 20 seconds to 12 seconds, with the penalty being an automatic ball. The rule is so infrequently enforced that when it was called on Cleveland Indians pitcher Rafael Betancourt earlier this year, manager Eric Wedge argued the call and ended up getting ejected.


Bend, But Don't Break


From the time certain rules were put in place, players have slowly been able to stretch the point at which officials will actually enforce them.

These situations can draw the ire of geeky fans who start screaming at the umpire because an opposing batter had one foot out of the back of the batter's box, even though every player on their team had been doing the same thing throughout the game.

Soccer has perhaps the most instances of rules of this type. Goalies are supposed to be restricted to three steps from the time they control the ball to the point where they punt or throw the ball, but it's not uncommon to see five or seven steps with no repercussions.

You often see players along the sideline scooting farther and farther up the field for a throw-in well past the point where the ball went out. On penalty kicks, the goalie isn't supposed to move off the goal line before the ball is kicked. This one was notably violated by United States goalie Briana Scurry, who moved forward early before making the final save in a shootout in the 1999 Women's World Cup Final (without that, would we even have the famous shirtless picture of Brandi Chastain after her winning kick?).

To be fair, I did see this called twice in a row in an intramural playoff soccer game -- in the A-League, no less -- in what wound up being one of the most controversial plays in Wake Forest intramural history.

These type of rules exist in other sports, too. It's no secret that coaches from the high school level and above encourage players to lean into already tight pitches. (Once you get hit, as we all know, "don't rub it").

At the end of basketball games, officials rarely whistle players for an intentional foul even though the fouls to stop the clock are blatantly intentional. The NCAA basketball rulebook specifically states that "pushing or holding a player to stop the clock" constitutes an intentional foul, and that time remaining in a game should be irrelevant when calling an intentional foul.

In football, quarterback sneaks are often successful because of a well-placed shove in the back from the running back (see Southern California's Reggie Bush against Notre Dame in 2005).

Of course, Amanda-Clearcreek will never forget this rule after it was actually called for "aiding the runner" in the final minute of Division V state championship in 2003 against Columbus Academy.


The Obscure


Some rules aren't enforced often simply because they just don't come into play very often.

Baseball, which arguably has the most complex rules of any major American sport, has at least two such examples of odd rules. Although balks are generally associated only with the pitcher, there is one circumstance referred to as a "catcher's balk" (in the Major Leagues only).

Catchers must stay inside the catcher's box (the OHSAA has no catcher's box) until the ball is pitched, with the penalty being a balk. Occasionally, catchers will leave a split-second early to receive a pitch-out on an intentional walk, but Major League umpire Tim McLelland said in an interview on mlb.com that he has never seen this called in his 20-plus years as an umpire.

The other rule that comes into play very infrequently involves how a pitcher must take signs. According to baseball rules from the high school level and above, pitchers can only take signs from the catcher while in contact with the rubber. There is no specific penalty in OHSAA rules for a violation of this, but in the big leagues, a violation can be shockingly costly for something that seems so trivial.

The first offense gets only a warning, while a second offense will actually get the pitcher ejected.

For me, however, there is little question about what is the most obscure, outdated and flat-out weird rule in sports. Referred to as the fair-catch kick, a team has the option of taking a free kick from the spot after making a fair catch.

In that situation, the kick plays out essentially like a kickoff, with the defense lining up at least 10 yards back. The key difference from a kickoff is that the kicker can in fact score the three points on a successful field goal.

The last successful instance of this in the NFL was in 1968 by Mac Percival of the Chicago Bears, although it has been attempted unsuccessfully eight times since, including a 58-yard attempt by Rob Bironas of the Tennessee Titans in 2005.

So the next time your favorite team drops a close game because of a late-inning catcher's balk, remember that you can always get revenge next football season with a game-winning fair-catch kick.


Anders Larson Archive