In 2012, the infield fly rule was thrown back in the spotlight by baseball analysts after the National League Wild Card game between the Cardinals and Braves. Many called it controversial, saying MLB umpire Sam Holbrook erroneously ruled an infield fly on the play and costing the Braves the game. The fans at Turner Field threw bottles, cups and almost anything they could find onto the field in protest causing an almost 20-minute delay. The problem is, while Sam Holbrook was a bit late mechanically in calling an infield fly, the rule was applied correctly.
As an umpire who has worked high school baseball, high-level travel ball tournaments, and almost every level from 8-year-old kids to 18-year-old college-ready travel ball teams, I have applied the infield fly countless times. This is how I came to fully understand the infield fly rule and learned how to apply it properly. I take pride in fully understanding the rules of the game in both the Official Baseball Rules (OBR) and National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) rule sets.
So, what exactly defines an infield fly?
In NFHS, the infield fly is defined as the following: "An infield fly is a fair fly (not including a line drive nor an attempted bunt) which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort, (rule does not preclude from being allowed to attempt to make the catch) and provided the hit is made before two are out and at a time when first or second or all bases are occupied." NFHS 2-19
OBR states the same rule in 2.00: "An infield fly is a fair fly ball [not including a line drive nor an attempted bunt] which can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort, when first and second, or first, second and third bases are occupied, before two are out."
Reading the definition of the infield fly rule straight from the rules book, one can clearly see where the issue can arise.
While 99% of infield fly rule applications are standard, non-controversial situations the "ordinary effort by an infielder" portion of the rule is what causes the controversial issues.
Going back to the situation in the game between the Cardinals and Braves in 2012, the cause of the controversy was that exact portion of the rule. Also, many forget that the infielder does not need to be in the infield nor does an infielder even need to attempt to make the catch for the infield fly rule to be applied.
So what defines ordinary effort?
Essentially, if an infielder can in the judgement of the umpire make the catch without making a spectacular play. Examples of a spectacular play would be an infielder sprinting towards the ball in an attempt to make the catch, catching it over his shoulder with his back towards home plate, diving to catch the ball, etc. If an infielder is camped under the pop fly or jogging/stepping backwards while facing the infield this would be considered an infield fly and the rule should be applied. Also, there is a misconception as well that the infielder must be camped under it for the rule to be applied; this is not true. Remember, the rule is in place to protect the offense from the defense letting the ball intentionally drop and turning a double or even a triple play.
The biggest issues I have had with the infield fly while on the field are coaches complaining about the infielder being in the outfield grass or not being camped under the pop fly. While I attempt to educate the coaches on the exact terminology of the rule, some are so confused with "infield" being the name of the rule they forget or ignore what the rule actually states.
One of the best tools a coach can have is a copy of the rule book from the rule association that the league you are playing in uses along with a case book. When I was umpire coordinator, I handed out copies of the NFHS rule book to every coach at the coaches meeting before the season began. It significantly cut down basic rule issues and arguments regarding a variety of topics, and I urge every coach to buy a copy of whichever rule book your team plays under and learn it. It will make you a better coach and significantly cut down your rule discussions with umpires during games. However, do not ever bring a rule book onto the field.