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The MLB Fan Interference Rule Explained

If you’ve ever watched baseball or been to a baseball game you know that one of the coveted souvenirs a baseball fan can receive is a game ball. Even though it’s common for fans to take home a game ball, there is a fine line between when fans can try to catch a ball and when they can’t. If done incorrectly, umpires can rule that a fan illegally interacted with the baseball. What is the rule on fan interference in MLB?

The fan interference rule in the MLB, also known as the Spectator Interference Rule, occurs when a baseball fan illegally touches a baseball player or a baseball in the area of play. The result of the play is what the umpires believe the outcome would have been if the fan did not interfere.

Colorado Rockies fans gather in the outfield of Coors Field to watch a fireworks show after a baseball game in 2021

The spectator interference rule doesn’t happen very often, but there is always controversy whenever it does occur. Let’s look at some examples.

What is Spectator Interference?

According to the official MLB Rules, “when there is spectator interference with any thrown or batted ball, the ball shall be dead at the moment of interference and the umpire shall impose such penalties as in his opinion will nullify the act of interference.” (see Rule 6.01(e))

This rule also goes on to state that umpires are allowed to rule a batter is out if the spectator clearly prevents the fielder from catching a fly ball. It also goes on to clarify that interference is not called when a baseball goes into the stands.

In other words, spectator interference is called when a fan interferes with a live baseball that is still within the playing area of the field. The play is ruled a dead ball and the umpires use their best judgment to decide what would have happened if the interference were to never occur.

As an example, if the umpires reasonably believe a base runner would have scored if the fan did not touch the ball, then the umpires will rule the run counts.

Let’s cover the scenarios that are considered to be spectator interference as well as the scenarios that are not considered spectator interference.

Spectator Interference When Touching a Baseball That is in the Area of Play

Whether intentional or unintentional, spectator interference is called whenever a fan touches a ball that is still in the playable area of the field.

From the example video above, a fan reached over into the playing area to catch the foul ball, which also prevented the player from making the catch.

According to the rules, umpires will make a judgment call as to whether or not the player would have made the catch if the fan did not interfere with the play. If the umpire believes the player would have made the catch, the umpire will call the batter out.

From that video above, the umpire still ruled that the batter was out because he believed the player would have made the catch if that fan had not interfered with the play.

Here’s one more quick example of how a fan interference call resulted in an out:

Spectator Interference When Touching a Baseball Player During a Live Ball

Although it’s quite uncommon for a fan to grab a player, especially when a baseball is headed directly at a fan, a play can be ruled spectator interference if a fan were to grab a player during a live play.

If a fan were to interfere by grabbing a player, the play would be ruled dead and the umpires would make a judgment call as to what would have happened during the play if the fan did not interfere.

Fan Interference is Not When a Fan Touches a Baseball That’s Out of Play

There is a fine line between when a fan can try to catch a fly ball and when they can’t.

As a general rule, baseball fans are not allowed to reach onto the area of play to catch a ball. If a fan reaches over the fence and catches a baseball that is located within the diamond, an umpire could rule spectator interference if there was a player who could have made a play on the ball.

On the other hand, if the baseball is in the stands, fans have every right to try to catch the ball. If the ball is close enough to the fence, fielders can still try to reach into the stands to catch the ball for an out, but they will also be trying to catch the ball while fans are also trying to catch the ball.

It is not considered interference if a fielder and a fan interfere with each other while the ball is out of the playing area. This rule applies to both home runs and foul balls.

Fan Interference is Not When a Fan Touches a Foul Ball or a Dead Ball

On occasion, you will see fans reach over the fence to field a ground ball that is hit in their direction. In these instances, fan interference is not called if an umpire has already ruled the play a foul ball.

Foul balls are dead balls and once the play is ruled a dead ball, fans can try to field the ball if the ball is heading their way. Fans are just not allowed to jump onto the diamond to field a ball.

Fans are allowed to interfere with dead balls because a dead ball does not have any impact on the outcome of a play.

The video above was a quick example of a fan legally fielding a ground ball. It is not called interference because the play was already ruled a dead ball from the foul ball.

What is the Umpire Signal for Spectator Interference?

Steve Nelson demonstrates how umpires signal spectator interference with a hound dog in the background
Umpire Signal for Spectator Interference

Spectator interference is not something that happens regularly so even long-time baseball fans may be unfamiliar with how umpires signal they saw fan interference.

To signal spectator interference, umpires hold both hands above their head and grab their left wrist with their right hand.

Before umpires signal for spectator interference, they must call the play dead. So the order of events an umpire would take would be to call “time” as soon as a fan interferes with the ball, grab their left wrist with their right hand with both hands over their head, then make a ruling as to how base runners should advance based on what the umpires believe would have occurred if the fan did not interfere with the play.

What is the Penalty for Fan Interference in Baseball?

Due to how rare it is to see fan interference in baseball, there is often confusion around what the penalties are when an umpire signals for spectator interference.

The penalty for fan interference in baseball is the ball is ruled a dead ball and umpires will advance base runners to where they believe those base runners would have advanced to if the interference had not taken place. The fan responsible for the interference will usually be thrown out of the game.

There is also a common thought in baseball that fan interference results in a ground-rule double. Is fan interference a ground-rule double?

Fan interference is not considered a ground-rule double. When a fan interferes with a ball, it is at the umpires’ discretion as to where to place the base runners.

Sometimes umpires need to collaborate with other umpires to make a ruling and sometimes umpires are able to make the ruling right away.

Typically, if the fan interferes by catching a baseball before a fielder can make the catch, the umpire will instantly rule the batter out. If a fan interferes with a ground ball down the line, umpires will need to collaborate to decide what the outcome of the play would have been if that fan did not touch the ball.

Do Fans Get Kicked Out for Fan Interference?

There are a lot of reasons why fans can get kicked out of games, but one way that gets a lot of attention is when a fan interferes with a live ball. Do fans get kicked out for fan interference?

As a general rule, fans will get kicked out of the game for fan interference. While there is no rule that specifically mentions ejecting a fan for interference, most stadiums will remove a fan from the game for both intentional and unintentional interference.

As an example, watch this YouTube video of an MLB fan reaching over into the field of play to field a live ground ball. The announcer in the video below explains this fan interference ejection very clearly – “you’re not allowed to touch baseballs that are in play.”

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Steve Nelson

I'm the owner of Baseball Training World. I live in Denver, Colorado and I enjoy playing baseball in an adult baseball team in the surrounding area. Read more about Steve Nelson.