The Phillies were batting with two out in the 9th inning of their game with the St. Louis Cardinals, May 29, 2019, when Andrew McCutchen lofted a fly ball down the right field line. The ball drifted away from the field of play and into the stands when a fan reached up and touched the ball. Cardinals’ right fielder, Dexter Fowler, raced to the wall, reached into the stands and caught the ball for the last out of the game. Since the contact was incidental and the fan did not change the flight of the ball, the umpires did not see the contact at game speed, so they ruled it a catch and the game ended.
After the game examination of the play with slo-mo video revealed the fan did make contact with the ball. It was too late for the Phillies to appeal but it spurred a lively discussion regarding the legality of the Fowler catch. Should the catch have been nullified because the fan touched the ball?
If a fan reaches into the field of play and impedes a fielder attempting to make a catch an umpire can call fan interference and rule the batter out. Unless the fan reaches into the field of play, no interference can be called. In other words, balls that travel away from field of play and into the spectator area are open game to players and fans.
Can a fielder reach into the stands and catch a batted (or thrown ball) that has been touched by a fan? The answer: no. If a batted or thrown ball touches a fan in dead ball area (spectator area) it is considered a dead ball. Fans are treated like stadium seats or railings for this purpose.
Every umpire I interviewed said the same thing without allowing leeway for further discussion. So, that’s that…