Mystery of a Little Yellow Line

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25, 2008

Surely you have noticed the little yellow line, a few feet to the left of the big yellow line (which is to say, the foul line) in the left field corner at new Nationals Park. Surely you have wondered what is the purpose of that little yellow line, what quirky ground rule governs its little yellow existence -- isn't that right, Wily Mo Peña?

"What yellow line?" said Peña, the Washington Nationals' starting left fielder.

And you, Willie Harris? "I have no idea what you're talking about," said Harris, who, entering this weekend, had made six starts for the Nationals in left.

If the players aren't even aware of the strange ground-rules issue in left field, it should come as no surprise that when the rule finally came into play for the first time this season -- on Wednesday night, when Nationals catcher Jesús Flores ripped a one-hopper into that corner during the fourth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies -- almost nobody (including neither the radio nor TV broadcasts) noted the significance, nor seemed to realize that the umpires blew the call.

The little yellow line, made necessary by the convergence of three walls (the outfield wall, the left field wall and the facing wall of the left field bleachers) at a point just left of the foul line, is the lone ground rule at Nationals Park -- which is otherwise "one of the cleanest parks in the game" in terms of potentially confusing (and controversial) boundary issues, according to Rich Rieker, one of Major League Baseball's umpiring supervisors.

"You've got that nice three-foot buffer between the fans and the field of play all the way around the outfield -- there's a flower bed in left and the scoreboard in right -- so there's almost no chance of [a fan] interference call," Rieker said. "Believe me, we like that."

Rieker, along with MLB Vice President Bob Watson and a representative from the players' association, made several visits to Nationals Park in the late stages of its construction to make sure the park conformed to the rules and to head off any issues pertaining to ground rules. The left field corner situation was the only issue.

And technically speaking, the little yellow line (let's just call it LYL) is not even a ground rule; it's a universal "book" rule, since the rule book says any ball that bounces over a fence (such as the part of the fence that extends beyond the foul line in left field) becomes an automatic double. A ball that bounces in play then hits to the right of LYL, since it goes over a wall, is an automatic double. If it hits to the left of the LYL, it's in play.

By the time the season started, Rieker had placed a large, annotated photo of the corner in the umpires' clubhouse beneath the stadium, and before the start of each series with a new umpiring crew, Rieker or another supervisor leads the crew on a brief field trip out to the corner to inspect the LYL and its environs.

"The thing is, it's hard to see from the naked eye," said Nationals third base coach Tim Tolman, who is entrusted with the task of carrying the lineup card to home plate, at which point the ground rules are typically discussed. "You have to go out there and see it up close. From home plate, you see that line, and it's like, 'Why is that there?' "

Despite all that prep work, Flores's ball Wednesday night -- which struck to the right of the LYL and, thus, should have been an automatic double -- was incorrectly ruled in-play by third-base umpire Phil Cuzzi.

Flores wound up with a double anyway, so even the knowledgeable among the Nationals' contingent (such as Tolman) did not raise a fuss, while the oblivious players went along as if nothing had happened -- even though, we're here to tell you, something surely did.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company