Thursday, May 13, 2010

Where's Your Strike Zone?

Fellow Umpires: Have you ever had a game where you just couldn't get comfortable with your own strike zone? I know we all admit to missing a pitch here and there, but for some reason yesterday, I just couldn't get in my own zone.

I usually don't hear much about my behind-the-plate calls. I must have developed a zone where it was agreeable enough for the pitcher, the batter, the coaches and the fans. I'm smart enough to know not to get too pleased with a good inning or a good game. You can build up some credibility but it only lasts so long if you're not paying attention.

During this game yesterday I just started second guessing. There was a pitch that I called a ball that I could have gotten away with calling a strike. The defense team “wanted” it but they were not very disappointed. I had a tough time seeing the outside corner of the plate so I started questioning my consistency – maybe I wasn’t inconsistent but it just felt that way. I even got a “don’t start squeezing us now” comment from a fan which I can optimistically translate into meaning that up until then I’d been OK. I didn’t buy that one, honestly.

All-in-all there weren’t many walks and I only had two called strike outs – one for each team. That wasn’t by design, it just happened. The game ended 5-2 so it wasn’t notable in any way.

Throw in some errors, passed balls and well-timed hits and I probably went unnoticed. Like someone who knows what’s going on behind the scenes, though, some things are not what they appear.

How to get back on track? More games, work "slower" and don’t beat myself up.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Circus Arrives

There are three things that come to mind whenever someone asks me about the strangest thing I’ve ever seen while umpiring. I was reminded of one during a game just last weekend so here you go:

A pop-up where we invoke the Infield Fly Rule AND THEN the ball isn’t caught: There have to be at least two runners on for this so when the ball goes up, you have to be very aware. The runners, even though you yell that the batter is out, look for the ball to be caught. When it’s not, they always seem to stutter-step there way off the base and when coaches and parents start screaming instructions (some correct, some not so), it can become a bit of a circus. Since I officiate games with players as young as eleven, the Infield Fly Rule isn’t usually understood. What really kills you here is that when the kids start running, the defense starts throwing and sometimes they don’t do much catching.

When the play is over and the dust clears, it always seems to get very quiet. You can feel the eyes on you, as if to say, “Are we OK? Do they need to go back? Can they stay where they are? What just happened?”

I like the Infield Fly Rule because when we call it correctly, it indicates to everyone that we know what we’re doing. It’s not something that is seen during every game and when it works, it’s good baseball.

Dropped third strike when the batter does not have the opportunity to acquire first base: I’m the home plate umpire with bases loaded with one out when the batter swings and misses as the pitch hits the ground before the catcher grabs it. I give the out sign and say, with some authority, “Batter is out!” With that, the batter takes off running as his coach is imploring him (quite loudly) to do so. Why? Who knows?

Two coaches are hollering instructions at the catcher – one telling him to throw to first base, the other telling him to hold the ball. He holds the ball as he stands just to the left of me, a foot up the third base line. Why is that important? Because the runner from third is in a light jog heading home. This runner knows the batter struck out so even I’m a bit perplexed at his casualness. I say again, “Batter is out” and provide the mechanic. The runner from third walks right up to the catcher and stops. The catcher simply tags him. “He’s out!”

Inning over, three outs, right? Wrong. A defensive coach begins yelling again for his catcher to throw to second base. Why? Who knows? I yell “That’s three!” and the lone defensive coach who knew what was going on yells out to me, “Thank you!”

A rundown, any rundown: The guideline in baseball regarding rundowns is that the defense should throw the ball twice before retiring the runner. That’s the goal, I guess, but it never seems to work that way with younger players. In fact, as the rundown progresses, the throws seem to get longer and the runner doesn’t move very much.

At this age, the defensive players seem to know a few things. They should all yell, “Pickle!” (and they all do), and they run to either side of the rundown. If the runner can keep himself from being tagged, it takes about seven seconds before the field umpire finds himself and ten players (!) between one base and another. You’re looking for interference and obstruction, who is in the baseline, where your partner may be, all the while listening to coaches and fans get very loud. If the play continues too long, everyone actually begins to laugh, including the players. Oh, that’s just with one runner.

As always, let me know about your strangest plays!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cast of Characters, Version 2.0

There was an umpire at our park that showed up a few years ago. I was coaching my son, maybe we were in the 10U age group. This guy began umpiring many of our games and he would even come up to the park when he wasn’t working, just to see how our team and a few others were doing. He didn’t have any kids of his own playing ball at the time and he really enjoyed the baseball atmosphere. His name was Tom Hutton and we all called him “Hutt”. I had never considered becoming a youth baseball umpire before I met Hutt.

That first season ends and my son moves on to play football. I’m on the sidelines as a coach and who do I see running down the sidelines after a play, wearing the “zebra” outfit (shorts and all) but Hutt. “You referee football, huh?” “Got to keep busy,” he told me. I came to find out that he also dabbled in a little basketball as well.

A season or two later, Hutt was asked to accompany a local team to Cooperstown and serve as their official umpire. Sometimes a team is simply looking to fill the responsibility but in this case, the players really wanted Hutt to travel with them. He could not have enjoyed the trip more, being among fellow umpires and youth baseball, and the parents from the team made him feel like one of them.

It came as a shock to everyone when one day Hutt, who was 47, died unexpectedly from cardiac arrest. He was a guy that, when he was gone, left a void. For a long time umpires would scratch out his name in the dirt before they began a game and coaches, after lining the field, would use the white chalk to write “Hutt” near an on-deck circle.

A few folks at the local youth athletic association decided to do something about the void. Field #2 at our local park, the field where Hutt worked most often, was dedicated this year to Tom Hutton and renamed “Hutton Field”. Those that were able to get this done would tell you that it was a small token of appreciation but it’s a lasting tribute to a guy that really loved being at that park.

Just yesterday a 12U player noticed that I was wearing my green “Hutt” rubber bracelet on my wrist. “You still have yours, huh?” he asked. I told him I did and that I had another just in case I lost this one. “You know that field over there?” he asked me, “that’s named after him.” I nodded and smiled, thinking of my friend Hutt.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Toughest Call -- Your Phobia

Among my umpire group, each of us has admitted to having a “toughest call” -- the calls that are difficult for each of us, for whatever reason. Think of it like a phobia where I’m not scared of snakes (and you are) but I can’t be anywhere near a clown but you aren’t bothered at all by them.  By the way, clowns and I are A-OK.

One of my colleagues fights with the low inside pitch. Another really dislikes making the catch/no-catch call on shoe-string attempts. Mine is a tricky one: In “B” or “C” position, with the throw to 1st from SS or 3B. It may be something about the runner going from my right-to-left while the ball is coming from behind me, over my shoulder.  That seems to be one of the times where I get most of the grief from players, coaches and fans.

I find myself hoping to get more of my “phobia” situations because that’s the only way I’m going to get comfortable – and more confident. In one recent game it seemed as though I got banger after banger after banger. Another game, nothing was close at all. You take what the game gives you.

Let me know about your toughest call…

UPDATE: After a game this weekend, I've now tried to change the angle of this call.  Rather than simply hold my position and allow the throw to come from behind me, I was able, on a few plays, to shift to my left, almost taking me back to the "B" position.  This gave me a better look.  I find it to be a tough call but that helps.

Monday, April 19, 2010


One of my favorite aspects of umpiring is the camaraderie. During my son’s high school game the other day, four umpires (just us dads sitting in the stands as fans) began a “what would you do” discussion that continued into the week, creating a very long email string. It really helps keep you sharp.

For those that are not umpires at the youth level, I’ll let you in on a secret: We’re not all experts when it comes to the rulebook. Have you ever read the real, unabridged baseball rulebook? It’s packed with information, written in an odd type of legalese and it sometimes contradicts itself. We read it, we know it but we don’t know it all, completely.

I believe that since we know so much about the rulebook, we understand how much we don’t know – if that makes sense. In my experience I can tell you that we know it better than many of the coaches out there. I say that with a bit of humility because when I coached, I thought I knew the rulebook. That’s why we talk to one another...often.

We do more than our fair share of research. We peruse websites, take online tests and read the rulebook for fun…for fun! In our small group, we actually have access to a MLB umpire who has encouraged us to email him with questions. He’s a great guy that instructs at an annual camp we attend and loves the game.

My umpiring relationships remind me of something I learned in college. You can study all you want but study groups can really help. It’s such a benefit for a fellow umpire to arrive and say, “I had a situation yesterday…”