Connecting Strange Baseball Rules to Taxes

I can find connections to taxes in strange places, such as baseball.

I’m a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, so I watched their one-game, winner-take-all, postseason matchup with Atlanta on Friday night. In the 8th inning of that game, there was a play where it appeared that the Cardinals had bungled a popup and left Atlanta with the bases loaded.

But the umpires ruled that the Atlanta batter was out on the “infield fly rule.” After a lengthy delay, the call stood and the Cardinals held on to win the game. You can read more, and watch a video of the play, here.

St. Louis fans will say the umps got it right. Atlanta fans will say the umps got it wrong.

And it’s entirely possible that both groups are right.

I won’t get into a deep discussion of the infield fly rule here. It took me 5 to 10 minutes to explain it to my wife, and while she eventually said she understood, I’m not sure if she really understood or if she just said that to get me to stop talking.

The issue at debate on this call is: the baseball rulebook says an umpire can only call an infield fly on a popup that “can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort.” The rulebook goes on to say that, as soon as the umpire determines that the infield fly rule will apply, he must “immediately declare ‘infield fly'”.

Atlanta fans could make a solid argument that, because the shortstop had to run into the outfield to get under the ball, the play was not routine, and thus not “ordinary.” They could also argue that the umpire did not “immediately” make the call.

St. Louis fans could counter that the play was ordinary because such plays occur routinely at least once in almost every game all year long. They could also argue that the rulebook says the umpire must make the call as soon as it becomes apparent to him that the infield fly rule will apply — in this case, that happened when the shortstop ran to the outfield and waved his arms as if to indicate that he was going to make the play. At that point, the umpire made the “infield fly” call.

What in the world does this have to do with taxes? Well, the oddities of the infield fly rule remind me of navigating tax law.

Five-thousand pages of tax code, 20,000 pages of regulations, and tens of thousands (or maybe even hundreds of thousands) of pages of IRS revenue rulings and procedures, IRS notices, court cases, etc. make some tax situations more complicated than the infield-fly rule could ever be.

Two competent, ethical tax pros can look at the same situation and reach two different conclusions. And if audited, different IRS auditors may have different viewpoints on the situation.

Now that I think about it, a good project would be to compile a list of all the different parts of tax law where a person could make multiple compelling arguments over how a particular item should be treated for tax purposes and make a series of blog posts about that topic. Hmm….

That’s just my (lengthy) takeaway from a strange baseball play.