The phrase,”the tie goes to the runner” is thrown around a lot in baseball leagues from tee-ball to the majors. Every time there’s a bang-bang play a first this phrase is repeated like gospel. It’s a cold hard fact of baseball life to every/most Little League dads. And, it’s wrong. There are no ties according to baseball.
Rule 7.01 in Major League Baseball’s rule book states, “A runner acquires the right to an unoccupied base when he touches it before he is out.” Therefore, a base runner should be called out unless he reaches base before he is tagged or forced out. Conversely, and just as explicitly, Rule 7.1 indicates that a runner should be safe if they reach the base before being put out. What’s interesting is that while baseball’s rules leave no room for mistake about when a base runner should be out or safe they make no mention of what should happen if there is a tie. None. It’s completely omitted.
Many schooled umpires are left to make the only clear assumption one can draw from these rule definitions, there is no such thing as a tie in baseball. The argument becomes that the ball either beat the runner or it didn’t and a player is either out of safe. More accurately you could say that the argument is, because a player is either out or safe, the ball either got their first or he did. Laying the justification out this way sheds some light on the topic. Baseball doesn’t recognize a tie. But, ties are a real thing. Even if it is extremely rare that a runner’s foot touches the bag at the exact same nanosecond the baseman tags him. It can and does happen. When you look at the scenario this way you can begin to understand where the folklore comes from. Umpires need some rule of thumb to guide them, or at least Little League coaches and dads do. Okay, and major league announcers. Let’s not forget them.
Picture a situation where you’re a base umpire and there’s a close play at first. From what you can tell, there is no clear winner. What do you do? You make a call and explain it to the angry coach (one of them will be angry no matter what you do).
While there is no documented story or explanation of where “the ties goes to the runner” line came from one can probably safely assume it was birthed to defend or justify a close play and call. The real interesting thing is that in just about every umpire school I’ve come across the rule of thumb is the opposite. If it looks like a tie, the runner is probably out. I guess that’s the benefit of living in the instant replay era.