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10 Obscure Rules from the World of Sports

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An obscure baseball rule made headlines recently when minor league baseballer Vinnie Catricala of the Midland RockHounds (the Oakland A's farm team) fell victim to a never-before invoked statute—he struck out after only one pitch.

It's good old rule 6.02(c), whereby the ump can call strikes on recalcitrant batters who step out of the batter's box and “refuse” to re-enter in a timely and sportsman-like manner. In Catricala's case, he took his sweet time arguing the strike call outside the chalk lines and was awarded two more strikes for his effort. Moral of the story: If you're going to go at it with the ump, make sure you're inside the batter's box. 

Good sportsmen (and women) play by the rules. Even the rules you've never heard of. Here are a few other obscure regulations that gave way to some remarkable calls in recent sports history.

1. Football: The Fair Catch Kick

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When a return man gives a fair catch signal, the player foregoes his opportunity to run back the ball in exchange for not being touched while trying to catch it. Usually, the receiving team then sends its offense onto the field to start a drive. They don't have to, though. If the receiving team asks for a fair catch kick, they can use the next play to attempt a free kick. These fair catch kicks are field goal attempts, but they're undefended. Rather than lining up on the line of scrimmage, the defense has to stand 10 yards downfield, and instead of having a long snapper fire the ball back to the holder, the holder simply starts the play holding the ball for the kicker.

Why would any team try for an uncontested field goal? Usually fair catch kicks only come at the ends of halves; if a team makes a fair catch with 0:00 showing on the clock, its captains can request a free kick, which gives them a chance (albeit a very slight one) to pick up a few points.

Still, it's fairly uncommon for a half to end with a punt or kickoff. Only a handful of fair catch kicks have been attempted in NFL history, and the last successful attempt came off the toe of Bears kick Mac Percival in 1968. Packers kicker Mason Crosby tried one at the end of the first half of a game against the Lions in 2008, but the 69-yard boot didn't quite make it.

2. Golf: The Towel Foul

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Good old golf rule 13.3 maintains that a golfer must not “build a stance.” Apparently, the only person who knew what that meant was a random golf fan in Iowa, who saw pro golfer Craig Stadler violate the statute on TV in 1987 at the Andy Williams Open that year, and called the oblivious Professional Golfer's Association to complain about it. The offense? Stadler put a towel down on the green to avoid getting his pants dirty as he took a hairy shot from his knees. Stadler didn't put the penalty down on his scorecard, and was later disqualified for submitting a falsely tallied card ... but only after the PGA officials realized it was a penalty in the first place, thanks to the nit-picky civilian.

3. Basketball: Block that Free Throw

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There's a reason they're called "free" throws. If a basketball player goaltends or attempts to block a freebie, he's probably a jerk, and he's definitely getting tagged with a technical foul. Goaltending a free throw is good for a T, but it can also be a strategic weapon. During a 2008 game against Georgia, much-reviled former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie was staring at a 3-point deficit with only a few ticks left on the clock at the end of a game. A Georgia player was about to shoot his second free throw, which Gillispie ordered Perry Stevenson to goaltend. The Cats drew the T, but Gillispie decided he'd rather gamble on Georgia missing both free throws for the technical to ensure that his team got the ball back. Like Gillispie's career in Lexington, the ploy was an epic failure, but it was worth a shot.

4. Fencing: The Filibuster

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A controversial ruling following a technical mishap during the women's epee competition at the London Olympics left loser Shin A-lam of South Korea stuck on the piste. She and her coaches launched an appeal refusing to accept the ruling that ultimately cost her a medal. Due to an International Fencing Federation bylaw [PDF], she had to remain on the piste while the appeal process was carried out. While not a rarely enforced bylaw, the fact that the appeal process took 75 excruciatingly long and tearful minutes, and that security had to forceably remove A-lam from the piste, makes it quite a unique circumstance.

5. Tennis: Hats off

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If your hat falls off in the middle of a match, your opponent can call for a let on the grounds that it's a hindrance (an illegal disturbance to the opposing player), which if granted will require the now hatless, offending party to replay the stroke. This happened to French tennis player Nathalie Dechy during a Round 2 match at Wimbledon in 2008. She was playing young Serbian star Ana Ivanovic in a heartbreakingly close match that was verging on three-and-a-half hours in length. It was a long and tight match, and the unseeded Dechy fired off a winning point just as her hat fell off. The ref called a let, negating the point, and Ivanovic was able to turn it around and end it with a win. 

6. Baseball: Substitute Baserunners

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Here's one from MLB's rules that came into play back in 2005. Red Sox infielder Tony Graffanino belted a homer with outfielder Gabe Kapler standing on first base. As the players did their home run trots, Kapler blew out his Achilles tendon rounding second base. Graffanino had to freeze a few paces behind his injured teammate; if he'd passed the downed man, the homer wouldn't have counted. Eventually, the umps determined that the Sox were entitled to substitute a baserunner for Kapler since he was already entitled to make the full run home.

7. Baseball: Nailing the Umps

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According to MLB's rule 5.09(g), if a pitched ball lodges in the umpire's or catcher's mask or paraphernalia and remains out of play, all runners advance one base.

8. Basketball: Non-Unsportsmanlike Technical Foul

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While the lengthy moniker leaves a little bit of a semantic question (does the “non” negate the “un-”?), this pro-hoops foul (and accompanying $500 fine) is called when an offensive player “deliberately” hangs on the hoop after a slam dunk. It's also called if a player shatters the backboard. And in the case of a Montana high school team in 2009, shattering the backboard (or causing damage to it in general) during pregame warmups is grounds for a forfeit. The boys team from Harlem High had to give up a divisional championship that year after a guard destroyed the backboard during the warmup, violating a no-pregame-shattering rule set by the Montana High School Association punishable by automatic forfeit.

9. Baseball: Taking a Plunk While Stealing Home


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What would happen if a pitcher threw at a baserunner who was trying to steal home? According to rule 5.09(h), if any legal pitch touches a runner who's trying to score, all runners advance.

10. Football: The Doug Flutie Drop-Kick

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More fun with the kicking game! In 2006, Patriots backup QB Doug Flutie did something strange in a game against the Miami Dolphins: He converted an extra point after a touchdown ... by drop-kicking the football. The Patriots lost, but Flutie got an A for effort with the first successful drop-kick for points since 1941, when Chicago Bears QB James “Scooter” McLean busted the move to beat the Giants in the championship.

The drop-kick conversion rule (Rule 3, section 8 of the NFL rulebook) allows a player to drop-kick the ball to convert an extra point, provided he's behind the line of scrimmage when he attempts it. It's a risky move, especially given the modern football's prolate spheroid shape, and thus is not often attempted or successful when attempted. The drop-kick rule was invented prior to 1934, when footballs were a little rounder.

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Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing

INGREDIENTS

1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.

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