Mud, Coaches, and Ejections

I’ve had a very busy couple of weeks at work (plus four to six games a week), so I’ve been somewhat neglectful of the UBBlog. That’s a shame because a lot has happened, but I’m back. There has also been a fair amount of rain over the past few weeks, so there’s also a fair amount of mud. This is the Pacific Northwest, after all. Rainouts are a way of life.

But we got some good games in, too. Last weekend I worked a  double-header where my partner and I ended up ejecting two assistant coaches – both from the same team, one in each game. That’s a first.

But first let’s talk about the rain. Teams from California sometimes come up to the Pacific Northwest to play in tournaments, and, if there is some rain, they’re always a bit shocked that we don’t quickly suspend the game, and at the wet conditions in which we play. Around here, playing in wet conditions is the norm. We wouldn’t get any Spring baseball played if we played only in perfectly dry conditions. On turf fields, particularly, we’ll push the limits. On dirt infields, however, the play/no-play boundary is defined by mud.

Mud comes in many forms. There’s that sandy, caked mud, which isn’t too slippery and drains water fairly well; you can play on this mud until the ground saturates and the rain starts to form puddles. At the other end of the spectrum there’s the evil mud. Evil mud starts as a dusty dirt and turns to a slippery pudding, particularly around the bases and on the pitcher’s mound. So when pitchers’ plant foot begins to slip, or when runners start to slip or even fall when rounding first, then it’s time to stop the game. I had this situation last week, although we did manage to push the limits a bit and get in an official game (four and a half with the home team leading). There was a light but steady rain and the parents were all in ponchos and everyone was huddled under umbrellas. The kids were all muddy, the coaches dour, the score was not close, so nobody complained when I called the game.

I hate to say it, but not all baseball coaches are good coaches. The same can be said of umpires, of course, but we’ll save that for another post. But the truth is, some coaches, like some umpires, get into the game for the wrong reasons – reasons, I fear, that revolve around power and control. Or maybe these guys just don’t have an aptitude for social interaction and the boundaries described by the rules of the game. Or maybe they’re just ass holes. Whatever the case, coaches sometimes behave in ways that are inconsistent with what’s generally known as sportsmanship.

So let’s get back to that insane game where my partner and I ejected two coaches from the same team in successive games of a double-header.

For starters, let’s remember that, by rule, only the team manager can legally leave the dugout to confer with umpires. Assistant coaches, as well as players who are not currently on the field, at bat, or on deck, are not allowed to be out of the dugout. The only exception for coaches is when they are acting as base coaches. That notwithstanding, assistant coaches and players are not allowed to engage with umpires. That’s the manager’s (and only the manager’s) job.

So I have a play at the plate and the catcher is set up in a partially blocking position while he calls for the ball as the runner approaches home. There’s grounds for obstruction, but the runner scores standing up (he zigs around the catcher then zags to touch home), so I ignore the obstruction. However, because of the catcher’s position, there is light, incidental contact as the runner zig-zags around the catcher to touch home.

Well, that just set things off. The manager of the team on offense, along with one of his assistants, are advancing down the third base line toward me hollering “you’ve got to eject him!” (referring to the runner); “He didn’t slide; he stiff-armed my catcher.” Over and over as they approach me at the plate.

I should have stopped everything right there and sent the assistant back to his dugout, but I gave them a bit of a leash. There’s no such thing as a “must slide” rule, I tell them (this is a common rules myth); furthermore, there was incidental, not “malicious” contact, so I have nothing. And your catcher was blocking the plate anyway, I finish with. We’re done here.

But I do them the courtesy of conferring with my partner (I’m an accommodating guy – sometimes too much so), and my partner confirms my view that there was nothing malicious in the contact. I return to the plate.

“We’re done here,” I tell them again. But they’re slow to relent (particularly the assistant coach) and they start disparaging me: “Learn the rules” and trash like that, so at that point I eject the assistant coach. So he gets belligerent and says he’s not going anywhere.

Well, that’s a pretty easy problem to solve. I clear the field, check the time, and tell the manager that he’s got five minutes to get his coach to the parking lot or I forfeit the game. I cite Rule 7.03(a)(6), which is a bit of a stretch since the rule applies to players, not coaches, but he doesn’t know this and I’m comfortable with the stretch. Of course, the manager complies and we get on with the game.

The second ejection was not dissimilar. We’re in the back half of the double-header, now, and I’m on the bases this game, and this time it was about a balk call.

It’s a complicated scenario that I won’t go into (it’s not relevant) except that it revolved around the simple question of whether the pitcher disengaged from the pitching rubber before attempting a play on a runner stealing second. I saw him disengage, so no balk call. My partner also saw him disengage, so we’re in accord. However (you know what’s coming) another of the team’s assistant coaches starts bellowing “That’s a balk! You gotta call that!” On and on until my partner forced the assistant back into the dugout. But, as before, the coach had a parting shot, and at that point my partner tossed him, too.

That’s unusual. I’ve ejected fewer than a handful of players and coaches in my many years in the game and to have two from the same team in successive games is … well, it’s just plain funny.


Night Games, War Stories, & Stump the Ump

Double-header on Thursday and the back half was my first game of the season under the lights. It was cool, but clear, and the field shone like … well, like sharp green grass under bright lights. We’re at a beautiful ballpark in Kirkland, Washington, named Lee Johnson Field. It’s a gem that lay right in the center of downtown Kirkland. The photo is not Lee Johnson, but it’s not far off.

There is nothing quite like a ball field under the lights. The bright light from the stanchions captures objects on the field very differently than daylight does. It’s not better or worse, just different. And delightfully so. Everything is in sharper contrast – the players, the cutout of the grass, the pitcher on the mound, the foul lines, the batter – and the action seems sharper. It’s an optical illusion, of course, but it’s optical none the less.

The teams were Pony 13U, but the play was pretty good. In the first game of the double-header, the pitching on both sides was decent, but one team was bigger and hit much better and the game ended on the mercy rule after just four-and-a-half innings. Normally, it’s a welcome event when a game ends quickly (you can’t wait to get onto the field, and then can’t wait to get done).

When you have a double-header, however, you pay a price. We finished so early that, instead of the standard thirty minutes between games, we had nearly and hour and a half. That’s a daunting interval when you’re tired and sweaty and have nowhere to go and not much to do. So what happens is you pull up your camping chairs at the back of your vehicle, pull out a half sandwich and banana or maybe a power bar, and you shoot the shit. My partner last night, Mike Carter, has been at this for 45 years, he tells me, so he has a pretty big bucket of war stories.

We spent most of the time talking about screw-ups we’ve faced when working with partners who don’t know what they’re doing. It’s not too uncommon to meet umpires who’ve been poorly trained. That’s a shame, but it’s a fact.

Most rookie umpires start out when their kids are in Little League. They come out of the stands (kicking and screaming, quite often) to help out because the coach has asked and because the kids need someone to ump the game. About one in five of these (maybe more) discover that umpiring their kid’s ball game isn’t half bad, so they make an effort to do a decent job. And then about one in five (maybe more) of those end up getting hooked and stay with it after their kids have done with baseball. That’s my story.

I was geographically fortunate in this. I live in a neighborhood whose Little League is joined to a district (District 9, for you movie buffs) whose umpiring organization is well run, and which provides really good training. Geographical serendipity could have treated me poorly in that department. But I was lucky.

So Mike and I are on the same page about working as a team – knowing that the key isn’t so much knowing what we (each of us) will do in a given situation (that’s in muscle memory). The key is knowing what your partner is going to do under any set of circumstances. This is crucial, particularly when you’re working two-man (which is what most of us do most of the time), where even under the best of circumstances there are blind spots.

If you’re unlucky you get an assignment with a new partner and he turns out to be one of those “I do it my way” guys. You don’t get this very often, but it happens. It can be painful because their not knowing what they’re doing creates enormous pockets of unknowns. And it’s not because they’re Cretans, because they’re not. It’s just that they … well, they just had bad geographical serendipity.

So we’ve still got about 30 minutes to game time but it’s time to start gearing back up. The war stories are wearing thin so Mike turns to another distraction we turn to when there’s time on our hands – stump the ump. It’s not that hard to stump an umpire, because there are so many tiny holes and edge cases in rules interpretations. Mike has one, and it’s a good one, and he stumps me. He asks me, “How can you have a swinging strike without having a swing?”

I think for a few seconds but quickly give up. I just can’t picture it. There are swinging strikes and there are called strikes, but I’m stumped at the prospect of a swinging strike without a swing?

The answer is pretty good and a true edge case. On the pitch, you have the batter start, but then check his swing. However, on pulling back the bat the pitch just barely grazes the bat and then goes sharp and directly to the catcher’s glove and is legally caught. “And that,” Mike gloats, “is not a foul ball; it’s a foul tip.” And, as it turns out, a foul tip is technically a swinging strike (scorekeepers will tell you that), and yet a checked swing is not a swing either. Hence, you have a swinging strike without a swing. Good one, Mike.

The second game came off without a hitch, and again we ended in five full. A short game on a lovely night with the bright lights framing the field and the players like a set piece in a gilt frame. I love this game.



Interference by a Non-Runner: Who’s Out?

When offensive interference is called on a player who is not a base runner, who do you call out? For example, the on-deck batter could interfere with a fielder’s attempt to catch a pop-up, or on some fields pitchers warm up in live ball territory (on foul ground, of course), and can sometimes interfere with a fielder attempting to catch a fly ball.

This scenario came up on one of the umpire discussion boards this morning and it’s a really instructive exchange. This scenario is just rare enough to be unfamiliar, but not so rare that you won’t see it once or twice a season. Thanks go to Dave DeRosa (WA District 12) for the scenario.

Here’s the scenario

We have fewer than two outs and we have runners on second (R2) and third (R3). We have a wild pitch/passed ball and the runners attempt to advance – R2 advances toward 3rd and R3 is attempting to score. The catcher (F2) sprints to the backstop for the ball while the pitcher (F1) runs to cover home. F2 tosses to ball toward F1 to make a play on R3 who is coming in standing. R3 crosses the plate, but just then F2’s throw goes right to the runner who instinctively catches, then immediately drops the ball, which F1 goes to retrieve.

So what do we have?

Let’s start with what we know

  • We know we have interference. Definitions of Terms (interference)(a) gives us that.
  • We know that interference is an immediate dead ball, so the instant R3 touched the ball, the play was over.
  • We know someone needs to be called out for the interference. However, an offensive player who is not a batter or base runner cannot be put out, and R3 is no longer a runner because he crossed the plate before he interfered.
  • Once interference occurs, no runner may advance beyond the base they last touched prior to the interference. This puts R2 back on third base (probably).

Now what?

So now we actually have two decisions to make. First, does the run by F3 crossing the plate score? And second, whom do we call out?

  • Does the run score? Yes, it does. The interference occurred after R3 crossed the plate, so the run scores.
  • Who is out? Well, for this we turn to Rule 6.01(a)(5), where we learn that “Any batter or runner who has just been put out, or any runner who has just scored, hinders or impedes any following play being made on a runner. Such runner shall be declared out for the interference of his teammate.” Therefore, you call R2 out.

In other words, there is a presumption that had the interference not occurred, the defense had a play on R2, but that the opportunity was impeded by the actions of R3.

A caveat

During this morning’s discussion of this scenario, the rulings that I present were not unanimously held. A couple of those on the discussion board felt that the “catch” by R3 was probably inadvertent. We know from Rule 5.09(b)(3) that a runner struck by a thrown ball is not out for interference (unless the runner intentionally touched the ball), and some felt that our scenario falls more into the category of a runner struck by thrown ball than runner interfering. Everyone agreed that more information would help clarify, and that one really had to be there and seen it themselves to be 100% certain of their call. Nevertheless, I stand by my ruling that the “catch” and “step” by R3 is a determining factor in ruling interference.


One-Man Sucks!

First game of the season yesterday and here in the Seattle area the skies from an otherwise rainy week cleared completely and graced us with a 70-degree day, blue skies, no wind – perfect day for a ball game. It was a Pony game, 13-year-olds, and both teams were playing their own first games of the season (after multiple rain-outs).

Baseball in the spring in the Pacific Northwest is tough. March and April are typically very wet months, and May is frequently not much better (although May can go either way). So when you get sunshine and 70 on March 26th, you’re having a good day.

One downside, though. I was scheduled to work solo. One-man. And one-man sucks.

It’s not so much the extra work. I don’t mind the extra work. What I hate most about working solo is that you can’t give a good game. Not really. You can’t call a close play at second base. You can’t get the pick-off play at first base if the tag is behind the runner. So when there is a close play and the tag is behind the runner, which you cannot see, then your only option is to go by timing. And when you go by timing … well, sometimes you get it right and sometimes you get it wrong. It’s a coin toss.

Complicating the issue is that the first base coach has a perfect view of the pick-off play at first base. So if you get it wrong, the base coach knows it. You’ll get that look. But he’d better be smart and just keep his mouth shut and eat the call. That’s what he should do.

And that’s the main reason that working one-man sucks. It’s impossible to get close plays when the tag is on the far side. You can’t get all of your base touches if there are multiple runners, and you can’t get all of the tag-ups on deep fly balls. You can’t get obstruction away from the ball, and you’re screwed if there’s malicious action going on behind your back. So while the league gets an umpire on the cheap, the kids have a high likelihood of getting a crappy game. Not because the umpire is crappy (although that can happen, too, doubling the damage), but because one umpire can’t do it all. Even with two umpires there are compromises. But one just sucks.

And of course you cover this at the plate meeting. You meet with the managers at home plate and exchange lineups; you go over ground rules, you touch on special league rules (mercy rule, time limits, and so forth), and then you give your one-man-crew speech. You make it clear:  if I miss a call because of my position, because I’m judging on timing because I’m blocked, well, I don’t want to hear about it. If you want to appeal a missed base, you’re probably wasting your time. If there was an illegal slide at second while I was getting the call at first, then just save your breath.

But yesterday’s game went smooth as silk. One team was overmatched and we ended on the mercy rule after five full with a score of 17-1. But that’s okay. It was 70 degrees and sunny in March in Kirkland, Washington, and we had no booted calls, no arguments, and everyone seemed genuinely grateful to be playing baseball in the sun.


Strike Zone, Part I

Baseball is unique in that one of the central and most important features of the field of play is completely invisible. There are no lines that mark it, no buzzers or bells that go off when it’s touched. There is a five-sided plate in the ground beneath it, but that’s more for the purpose of having a base to touch when a runner scores than to define the strike zone itself. Although it does, of course, contribute to the definition of the strike zone.

How wide it the strike zone?

You may know that home plate is 17 inches wide. So if you’re at a bar with friends and someone bets you a beer if you can answer this question, you may be tempted to reply (maybe smugly): “seventeen inches.” Bzzzzzz. Wrong. You owe your buddy a beer.

Let’s start with the obvious:  the rule book: Definitions of Terms (strike zone) (OBR 2016):

The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

So the strike zone is a three-dimensional area over the plate (a rectangular prism for you geometry geeks), and it extends from the hollow at the bottom of the knee to a point “at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants.” Discussing the top and bottom of the zone is a discussion all to itself (because it fluctuates depending on many factors), so let’s save that for another post. For now, let’s concentrate on the “over the plate” part of the definition. But wait. First, we have to ask what it means to be “over the plate.”

To answer this, we turn again to rule book definitions, but this time we’re looking for the definition of a strike, which we find in Definitions of Terms (strike), where we learn, among other things, that a pitch is a strike “… if any part of the ball [in flight] passes through any part of the strike zone.” In other words, if any part of the ball touches any part of the strike zone, it is, by rule, a strike. (Note that I added that the ball must be “in flight”; that is, a pitch cannot be a called strike if it first touches the ground then bounds through the strike zone.)

So here’s what we know:

  • Home plate is 17 inches wide (Rule 2.02)
  • A regulation baseball is just a shade under three inches in diameter (Rule 3.01). (In deference to the geeks among us, the diameter is actually 2.9443 inches; but what’s sixty-six hundredths of an inch among friends. So let’s just call it three.)
  • If any part of the ball in flight touches any portion of the strike zone, it’s a strike.
  • Therefore, we see that the strike zone is 23 inches wide.

Note that the black on the edge of the plate is not part of the plate.

In truth, the “over the plate” part of judging balls and strikes is the (relatively) easy part. The top and bottom of the zone, on the other hand, is a hotly contested, furiously debated, and nearly impossible to pin down aspect of the game. While defined by rule, it is adjudicated by eye, and we all know where that leads: arguments and ejections. I saw a spring training game earlier this week between the Yankees and Braves in which the Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was ejected by home plate umpire Dan Iassogna for arguing a ball call on the game’s very first pitch. Holy guacamole, Batman! (And by the way, Gonzalez was right. It was a strike.)

We are going to talk a lot more about the strike zone over the coming months and years. We’re going to discuss the perilous subject of the top and bottom of the zone, as well as the mysterious art of calling balls and strikes. We’re going to talk about Pitch f/x data, on variations among umpires, differences for left- and right-handed hitters, differences related to the current count (how does an 0-2 strike differ from a 3-0 strike, for example), and a great deal more.

So stay tuned. The strike zone is a marvelous (if invisible) part of the game of baseball, and there is no end to trouble we can create by discussing its mysterious contours.


Booting Calls & Getting Help

We all make mistakes. We might get blocked at the last second on a key play, or miss a pulled foot or a bobbled ball, or maybe we just zone out and miss something. The fact is, there are a hundred ways to err as an umpire. When we do, and if we’re lucky, we can fix the mistake and move on.

Unfortunately, some errors can’t be fixed. If you call “Foul!” and play stops, then you see your partner wince and notice, oops, the ball was on the line or hit the bag, or whatever. Well, when this happens everyone’s just SOL. You’re embarrassed, your partner is looking at the ground, the offended manager is hollering, but there’s nothing you can do. That’s baseball. Play on.

You may be tempted to think that you can fix things later with a “make-up” call – fudge something later to try to even the score – but don’t do it. If you do, then rather than half the people at the game convinced you’re an idiot, you’ll have everyone at the game convinced you don’t know what you’re doing.

The good news is, many of our mistakes can be fixed. And I believe emphatically that when we err we should swallow our pride, uncover the mistake, and, if possible, fix it. Not all umpires agree with this, particularly some of the old-timers, but, from the MLB on down, baseball has moved in the direction of getting the call right, whatever the cost. Super slo-mo replays and the new replay rules are helping drive this, but the upshot is, we’ve come a long ways from the days when an umpire could look a coach in the eye and say “it is what it is because that’s what I said it is!” And that’s a good thing.

Here’s something else that umpires argue about. It is my deeply held belief that the majority of ejections (the vast majority of ejections) result from a chain of events that begin with an umpire error. Now, I’m not saying that umpire errors cause ejections. I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying that the umpire error kicks off a chain of events that can lead a player, a coach, or a manager to cross that invisible line that gets them ejected. When someone is ejected, they’ve gotten themselves ejected.

What do we do when we think we’ve erred?

The best way to avoid trouble is to adhere to some guidelines. You should discuss these at your pregame meeting. For the record, most all of the following is covered in Rule 8.02.

Error on a judgment call

By rule, no one is allowed to argue judgement calls. That said, there is a small window through which a team manager (not player, not coach, but only the manager) may approach an umpire and ask for “clarification” on  a call, or that he “get help” – that is, consult with your partner. You normally wouldn’t agree to this in the case of a close play, for example, in which the manager thinks the call should go the other way. Instead, comes up in cases where there might have been a pulled foot or bobbled catch − situations in which the calling umpire may not have seen something important and decisive.

And if, in a case like this, you think you may have erred, then do it. Go to your partner. Here are some guidelines:

  • By rule, no umpire can overrule another umpire [Rule 8.02(c)]. This is a critical first principle, so I’ll say it again: No umpire has the authority or the right to overrule another umpire. When you watch baseball on TV and you see the umpires come together to conference over a call and then change the call, you often hear the TV commentators say that the umpire’s call was “overruled.” But that’s not true. The commentators don’t know what they’re talking about. In the points below you’ll see how this really works.
  • If you are challenged on a questionable call (the manager, and only the manager, requests time and respectfully address you), and IF you think there might be merit to the coach’s issue, then you can (and should) conference with your partner and ask if he has information that could lead to changing the call. It’s okay for a manager to ask an umpire to ask for help, but it’s up to the umpire whether or not he will do so.
  • If you do go to your partner for help, your partner should simply tell what he saw on the play. That’s all he does − describes what he saw, if anything at all. He should not try to advise you on handling the call. What you do, then, is consider the new information (if any) and then do what’s right. If the new information means reversing your original call, then that’s what you should do. But if the new information does not fully support such a reversal, then let the call stand.
  • After you conference with your partner, announce your decision. If you decide to let the original call stand, do not let the manager argue further. You’ve done the manager a courtesy by conferencing on the call, and if he tries to then argue further he is in peril of being ejected. On the other hand, if you decide to reverse your call, the opposing manager is entitled to an explanation. He’s sure to come out, so let him ask, then give him your reasoning on changing the call, but do not engage in a discussion or debate. Just explain, then get the game started again.
  • If, on the other hand, you opt not to get help (which is your option), your partner should never (never, under any circumstances) engage with the manager about the call. Any umpire who makes a call owns the call. If you’re the partner in this scenario, never let a manager approach you after he’s gotten his explanation. Put up your hand and stop him dead in his tracks. Be clear and firm: “I’m not going to talk to you about this, coach.”

Error on a the application of a rule

Umpires do make mistakes. This sometimes happens by incorrectly applying a rule. For example, when there is an overthrow out of play, an umpire may award bases incorrectly. Or a batter might be hit by a pitch while he is swinging and the umpire incorrectly awards the batter first base. There are many examples of rules batting out of order that can trip up an umpire.

These are not judgement calls. These are errors in the application of a rule. In such cases, the team manager (and again, only the manager) may, by rule [8.02(b)], appeal the decision and request a remedy.

When this happens and the manager appeals, the umpires must come together and conference to consider the appeal, discuss the rule in question, and then make a determination and ruling. All umpires on the field have a say, but it’s up to the calling umpire to alter or reverse his call, or to let the stand. If the umpire opts not to let the call stand, or if he modifies his ruling in a way that does not fully satisfy the team manager, the manager has the option of playing the remainder of the game under protest. If the manager elects to play under protest, then have it so noted in the official score book and then play on.

This situation is handled differently in tournament play. In tournament play, protests must be addressed on the spot and play cannot continue until they are. If the initial umpire conference doesn’t resolve the appeal, you typically need to call in the tournament director. This can vary from tournament to tournament, but normally you receive printed tournament rules that outline the protest policy and process.