First Base Bites

Yep, first base bites. It really can. First base is like the dog you’ve had for years – old faithful, your best friend – who suddenly goes and bites a neighbor kid and then all hell breaks loose.

First base is like that.  It’s familiar. Cozy. For the umpire working the field (on a two-man crew, or U1 on a three- or four-man crew), first base is where most of the putouts are made. But, of course, almost all of these putouts are easy to handle. Almost all of them. A couple of steps inside the line, then a slow, drawn-out fist to signal the out. Piece of cake.

You have nearly five times the number of plays at first base than at second, and the ratio over putouts at third is over a thousand-to-one. But again, you could easily make almost all of these calls from the cheap seats. That’s your old dog. And the bang-bang play? That’s the neighbor kid. And then, as I said, all hell breaks loose.

We’re going to come back to the bang-bang play in a bit, but first let’s check my claim that first base is where most of the putouts are made. Is it really true that first base is action central for fair batted balls? Common sense, along with familiarity with the game, suggests that it is, but impressions are not facts (except in politics), so let’s ask again, what am I basing my claim on?

We all know that baseball is the most data-centric sport on the planet. It’s an outcome of the nature of the game, wherein every play (except steals and pick-off attempts) begin with a single, discrete action: a pitch. And upon each pitch, a specific outcome occurs – a ball or strike, a foul ball or a fair batted ball; a caught fly ball, a base hit, ground-rule double, putout at first base, double-play, a strike out, base on balls … the list goes on. And each of these events is recorded in its special code on the score sheet – an ancient, humble page with an array of arcane scribbles that grows, over the life of a nine-inning game, into a vast pool of data. And all of those pools from all of those games drain into a gigantic ocean of data. That’s how we know that, while third base may be the hot corner, first base is action central.

Baseball stats are abundant. If you doubt, check out a site like Retrosheet. And while most published baseball stats track player performance (batting average, RBIs, ERA, and all the rest), the immense reservoir of game data is available for other investigations as well. And the data is available to any creative analyst out there. All you have to do is download it.

One such analyst is Chris Ford, the owner and proprietor of a sporting blog called All My Sports Teams Suck. While I was researching this post, Googling for data about where putouts are made, I stumbled on Chris’s blog. It was there that I came across Chris’s fascinating blog post entitled A Look At Every Out Made Since 1952. Wow!

Every single out made in Major League Baseball since 1952. If that doesn’t rev your jets, you’re one of those caught snoring in the bleacher seats. So, from Ford’s analysis, we learn that, over the past 64 years, through the 2015 season, Major League Baseball has recorded 6,377,594 outs. Not only that, but we know exactly where each and every one of these outs was made.

Here’s the first really interesting thing we learn (I was flabbergasted): the data captures over a thousand put-out scenarios. If you’d asked me before this how many different defensive scenarios could lead to an out, I’d have answered something like, oh, a couple hundred. Nope. In fact, over these 64 years, the data tracks 1,228 different put-out scenarios.

That said, roughly 96% of these six-million-plus putouts are captured in just the top twenty putout scenarios. These twenty also represent all putout scenarios whose frequency is greater than or equal to one half of one percent. So, except for oddities like six-throw rundowns, these twenty putout scenarios pretty much have the action covered.

Here’s a table that tabulates these six million (plus) putouts since 1952. Putouts made at first base are highlighted:

Scoring Description Raw count Frequency
K Strike out 1,455,075 22.80%
8 Catch, center fielder 650,819 10.20%
43 4-3 putout (first base) 509,106 8.00%
63 6-3 putout (first base) 502,374 7.90%
9 Catch, right fielder 499,270 7.80%
7 Catch, left fielder 488,288 7.70%
53 5-3 putout (first base) 387,082 6.10%
3 Catch, first baseman 339,636 5.30%
13 1-3 putout (first base) 218,715 3.40%
4 Catch, second baseman 198,778 3.10%
6 Catch, shortstop 195,575 3.10%
5 Catch, third baseman 156,198 2.40%
31 3-1 putout (home plate) 97,566 1.50%
64 6-4 putout (second base) 88,775 1.40%
2 Catch (pop up), catcher 73,045 1.10%
643 6-4-3 double play (first base) 58,058 0.90%
54 5-4 putout (second base) 56,829 0.90%
463 4-6-3 double play (first base) 47,213 0.70%
46 4-6 putout (second base) 43,315 0.70%
543 5-4-3 double play (first base) 32,185 0.50%
 TOTAL 6,097,902 95.6%

Adding up all of the putouts made at first base (1,754,733), we see that these account for 27.5% of all putouts, nearly a third, outpacing the next most frequent, strikeouts, and the third most frequent, catches in center fielder. Putouts at second base represent just under six percent of all putouts. The ratio of putouts at first over putouts at second is nearly 5:1. You have to go all the way to the 38th most frequent play to get a putout at third base (a 1-5 putout, pitcher to third baseman); the frequency of putouts at third base is just two-hundredths of a percent (0.02%). It’s not even close to making the list.

Okay, so it’s abundantly clear: first base is where most of the putouts take place. But again, almost all of these are easy. But let’s not forget about the old dog.

Let’s get back to the bang-bang play

A bang-bang play is a play that is so close, the events so nearly simultaneously, that only the most astute observer, using both eyes and ears, can make a judgment on whether the runner is safe or out. When you make this call, there are three reference points: Ball in glove (securely), the runner’s footfall on first base, and the fielder’s contact with the bag. And you’re using two senses – both vision and hearing (seeing the footfall and hearing the pop of the catch), although crowd noise can complicate hearing the pop.

What you have, then, are intersecting events that are described by the trajectories of both the runner and the ball; and then we have three reference points; and finally, we have sensory inputs from both vision and hearing. And then, on top of that, we have all of these coming rapidly together at a point in time that’s about the width of a water molecule, and then a lot of crowd noise to boot. Who can possibly judge this?

And then there’s this. There is a play at first base even tighter and closer than a bang-bang play; a play where events are in a range (it’s in the hundredths, maybe thousandths of a second) in which (like Schrödinger’s cat) it is impossible to know with certainty whether a runner is safe or out. (You can solve this with super slo-mo cameras, but only the pros have super slo-mo, and we’re not talking to the pros, so just let that drop.)

What we’re talking about here is the play that’s so close, so perfectly simultaneous, that even the term bang-bang doesn’t describe it. What we have, here … wait for it … what we have here is the b-bang play. B-bang!

And that’s the play that bites. This is your old dog biting the mailman in the ass. This is all hell breaking loose on a warm summer day. This is the unwinnable dilemma, where it’s entirely possible (and not that uncommon) for you, the umpire, to see one thing (correctly), and yet for the base coach (again correctly) to see the same event entirely differently. Both are true, and both are correct. And good luck with that!

(And there’s more where this came from … that is, about the mysterious quantum physics of simultaneity in baseball. If you like mysteries like this, you’re going to like my post, The Theory of Umpire General Relativity.)



Here’s a sequence of games that I worked recently. Most of you will recognize the dilemma:

  • Saturday afternoon: 14U Pony game
  • Saturday evening: College summer league game
  • Sunday morning: Adult men’s league game – older division (old farts, like me)

On all three I had the plate (long story why). Saturday’s Pony game went well. No arguments, no problems, only a few groans. That evening, however, I had the plate on a college summer league game. On the very first batter I called a high strike. Not very high, but high for this level. And I sure did hear about it. That’s the thing about calling college ball – the guys know their shit. High strike and everyone (but everyone) sees it. And “comments.”

The thing is, that strike call would have been just fine in my Pony game earlier that day. It was about a ball under the letters, definitely the top of the zone at any level 12-and-over, but acceptable. Except when you get to 17-, 18-year-olds. That’s where the top of the zone goes down to about a ball above the belt (maybe half a ball), although get two umpires together and it’s hard to get agreement on this.

So I called a high strike on the first batter, heard plenty about it, recognized my error (and it was my error), and of course I adjusted. Because that’s what we do. We adjust.

But this kind of adjustment is not always that easy. Let’s stay with pitching for a moment. Saturday evening I had awesome pitching from the college players. Great control, tremendous velocity, wicked movement on the breaking balls. Two of my pitchers that night were hitting upper 80s, low 90s. They popped the catcher’s glove like gunshots. But once I had them dialed in, calling the game was (relatively) easy.

Next morning I’m on the plate again, this time for the senior division of an adult baseball league. In this case, “senior” means the old guys – as I say, like me. These games are fun to work because the old guys are out there having fun, making fun of one another, not taking anything but their own mortality very seriously. They’re striving to win, but not that hard. They don’t run fast, they commit a lot of errors, and the pitching is … well, lets call it spotty. For the most part, the pitches are floaters, coming in like a 12-6 curve ball, but they aren’t actual breaking balls. They’re just slow tosses that gravity brings over the plate like falling water.

Judging these pitches is more difficult than calling the vastly more competent college pitchers. Sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but it’s true. The trajectory
of a well-thrown pitch makes tracking the pitch from release point to catcher’s mitt much easier than that of a floater that cuts into the strike zone from … well, from altitude. And making that overnight adjustment from bullets to puff-balls is difficult.

But probably the biggest difference between the play of college kids and that of mere mortals is the speed of the game. Not only do pitchers often have tremendous velocity, but runners are extremely fast (really fast), and defensively the ball moves around the infield like a rocket. Stay focused, Blue, or you’ll lose the ball. And if you lose the ball, you’re screwed. (Been there, done that.)

The speed of the base runners can really test you. This is most noticeable when, with no runners on base, you’re in the “A” position (on the foul line but back of the first baseman). If the first baseman is playing deep, you’re a long way from the bag. And then, on a ball hit to the outfield, you need to break to the infield, pivot to see the base touch, and then stay with the runner if he goes for second. (Take a look at the rotation here.)

The challenging part is the first phase – the foot-race to get inside and pivot before the batter-runner gets to the bag. When the ball is hit you go suddenly into motion. It’s a long run, and a fast one, because you’re effectively racing the batter-runner (a nineteen-year-old college athlete) to get position at first base. And if the hit turns into a triple, get ready to really run.

We do this all the time, don’t we … adjust to what the game brings us. Every game. All of it. The whole wide frickin’ world of it. Adjust, adjust, adjust. Adapt or die.


MLB’s “Chase Utley” Slide Rule & Demise of the “Neighborhood” Play

I used a lot of quotation marks in the title of this post, and that’s telling. Much in baseball (in all sports, I’m sure, but especially in baseball) lives on the periphery of the rules. This is especially true at the professional level. Amateur associations (NCAA, high school, most select and travel leagues, and most definitely Little League) long ago inserted safety rules to protect defenders from malicious acts on the part of base runners. Only recently is Major League Baseball following suit. And not everyone agrees this is a good idea.

Let’s start with Buster Posey

Buster Posey following take-out by Cousins

MLB began in earnest to own up to malicious actions during the 2011 season, when Giants’ catcher Buster Posey had his clock cleaned (and the ligaments in his ankle torn to shreds) by Scott Cousins, who scored from third after tagging up on a shallow fly ball to right field. He took Posey out at a dead run with a lowered shoulder. It was the game-winning score in the 12th inning. Posey was on the ground, writhing in pain, and was finally helped off the field. And he was out for the season. Have a look at that incident, HERE.

At all other levels of baseball, Cousins’ deliberate action (lowering the shoulder and plowing into the catcher) would be deemed “malicious contact” (also known by other names in various rule books). The runner would be automatically ejected from the game. If the action took place before the runner touched home, he’d be called out and the run would not count. If the contact occurred after touching home, the run would count, but he’d still be ejected from the game. As I say, at every level of the game, except for the pros.

The Posey incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Catchers are extremely vulnerable on plays at the plate, so a lot of catchers have endured season-ending (if not career ending) injuries inflicted by 210-pound base runners head-hunting at a dead run, shoulder first. Bigger, stronger, faster players in the modern era can do a lot of damage to a catcher on his knees at the plate.

The outcome of the Posey incident came in the 2014 with the implementation of the infamous “Posey Rule” – otherwise known as Rule 6.01(i). The rule was controversial, as you’ll recall, and was not applied consistently. The rule wasn’t very well written. On top of that, hard-liners argued that 6.01(i) has turned baseball into a game for wimps. Most who argued that are Trump supporters, I suspect, because he said as much about modern football: that he laments the “good old days” when defensive ends could take the quarterback’s head off once he broke out of the pocket. It appears to some that taking actions to forestall grave injuries is somehow unmanly. I thought we’d gotten past that, but evidently not.

What about middle infielders?

If catchers are the most vulnerable, then the next most vulnerable defensive player is the middle-infielder (the shortstop and second baseman) while in the act of turning a double-play and with the runner from first bearing down at full speed, intent on breaking up the double play. This is the position Ruben Tejada was in when Chase Utley took him out. It was a brutal take-out slide in which Utley slides so far wide of the bag, and with such obvious disregard for reaching the base, that it’s a virtual felony assault. We’ve got photos.

At every level of baseball (except the pros), what Utley did to Tejada is an egregious infraction that gets a runner thrown out of the game. It’s a special case of interference in which two outs are called – one out on the runner at second for interference (if not already out on the play), and another out on the batter-runner because his teammate interfered with the opportunity to complete the double play.

NCAA force-play slide rule. © NCAA

This type of interference is supported by what is generally known as the “force-play slide rule.” Every level of baseball (except the pros) has a version of force-play slide rule. In the NCAA rule book it’s Rule 8-4. In the FED (high school) rule book it’s Rule 1-32-1, 2. In Little League (all levels) it’s Rule 7.09(e, f). And every amateur league that I know of (and all, I suspect) that use the Official Baseball Rules (OBR) have a force-play slide rule in the supplementary league rules.

The NCAA has the most comprehensive rule, and they even give you a diagram to illustrate. But almost all force-play slide rules follow the same or a similar pattern. In short, a runner can slide directly into a base, or slide within arms-length to either side of the base, but not on the side of the base that a defender is on. Nor can the runner, after sliding, do a pop-up move to affect the throw, or hook a defender’s leg, or in any other way impede the defender’s opportunity to retire the batter-runner at first. In fact, in the high school rule book, simply sliding beyond the bag at second can get you called out.

So now, starting with the 2016 baseball season, professional baseball has its own force-play slide rule – Rule 6.01(j). And from this week forward, it will forever be known as the “Chase Utley Rule,” forever joined at the hip to the play in last year’s Dodger’s-Mets NLDS game in which Utley’s rolling block on Ruben Tejada broke the latter’s leg, ending his season and impairing the Mets’ chances of making it to the World Series.

Utley is well outside a line to the base and, worse, beyond the bag when he slides

Again, some consider this to be just part of the game. But have a look. Utley’s take-out of Tejada was a brutal move. I felt at the time (and still do) that the second-base umpire in that game erred in not calling interference, for even without a force-play slide rule the Official Rules on interference cover such blatant behavior.

Tejada upended and out of control, falling to the ground with a broken let

It takes only these two photos of the incident to make the point. In the first, Utley is well outside the direct line to the bag, and clearly intent upon taking Tejada out. But worse, look where he begins his slide: he’s beyond the bag and he’s not even trying to touch the base. In the second photo you see the result. Tejada is upended, completely out of control, at the mercy of gravity and luck. And it certainly wasn’t his lucky day.

Okay, so what’s the price? What’s the trade-off?

It’s a big one. It’s a trade-off that upsets a generations-old tradition in baseball: the neighborhood play, in which the middle-infielder is given the benefit of the doubt on whether he actually touched the bag, or if he touched it, did he have the ball at that instant, while hustling to turn the double play. The neighborhood play is another of those cases where umpires willfully turn a blind eye to the letter of the law in deference to a tradition of the law (if you will), so that infielders can defend himself from the type of vicious take-out that Utley delivered.

MLB took something away from the offense with the new force-play slide rule. In an attempt to re-balance the playing field, they have decided to eradicate the neighborhood play by making it reviewable. It hasn’t been, prior to this. Jayson Stark, in his piece on, puts it well: “There goes the neighborhood.”

It’s going to be interesting seeing how the elimination of the neighborhood play works out. After all, it’s a hallowed part of the culture of the game. Sometimes, killing off one thing in an ecosystem has unexpected side effects, and this is likely no exception. It will just need to play out. The force-play slide rule and the demise of the neighborhood play are now bonded atoms in a complex molecule. Not much of a metaphor, I’ll admit.

In the meantime, there is no shortage of commentary on this new move by MLB. Reactions run everywhere from your basic “sky is falling” hysteria, to reasoned (but cautious) support. Do a little Googling if you’re curious. But ultimately, the answer will play out on the field.


Training Day

Late winter of the new year means a few things. It means football is finished and March Madness is on the horizon. It means golf is in Hawaii and that the NBA is at full throttle, and it means that pitchers and catchers have reported. And it means the start of the 2016 baseball umpire season, as all across the country umpire training days get underway.

February marks the unofficial official start of the new umpiring season. While in more southerly states, this may mean actually working baseball games, for most of us who are still under the blanket of winter, it means training days in classrooms, gyms, auditoriums, and anywhere else we can spread out for drills. Pivot drill. First-to-third. Take the runner to second. Going out. Covering home. Rotating up. Cage work. Scrimmages. Seeing balks. Rules, rules, rules. Weird situation. Game management. Handling hostility. On and on and on. If you’re lucky.

“If you’re lucky” because, let’s face it, while it’s true that many umpire associations offer quality training to new and journeyman umpires, on the whole, training for umpires is pretty weak. And sometimes completely nonexistent. And umpire training tends to be worst where it’s needed most – in small leagues hosting lower-level youth baseball. We’re talking about Little League primarily, but not exclusively.

There aren’t many truths in life, but here’s one of the real ones: There is always a shortage of competent umpires for amateur baseball. If it’s not true where you live, then you’re very lucky. Truth is, youth leagues tend to accept just about any warm body. This is sometimes a dad or mom out of the stands, or its other well-meaning adults in the league, or it’s kids in a junior umpire program. These are umpires by accident, and far too often they have little or nothing in the way of training and support. And that’s a problem.

Why is this a problem? And why is the problem important? Because this is where most of the journeyman umpires come from. From well-meaning adults who get dragged kicking and screaming onto a field to help umpire their eight-year-old’s Little League game. But then (with some support and training) they learn that umpiring baseball is not half bad; and then, with even more support and training, they actually begin to enjoy the experience. That was my path.

For the argument’s sake, let’s say that over the course of a season you get ten dads (or moms) out of the stands to umpire a handful of games. Well, roughly one of those ten is going to surprise themselves and discover it’s not so bad. And of that ten percent who actually take to the experience, about ten percent of those will start to pick it up and get involved – IF, that is, there’s a way to harness their early interest. That is, if there’s leadership, support, and training.

What’s wrong with a lot of umpire training?

On the other side of the coin, there’s the issue of the quality of the training. On this front, too, meaning well doesn’t always translate into doing well.

What’s wrong with a lot of umpire training? PowerPoint, that’s what. The umpire education slide deck. I’ve sat through several of these sessions. I’ve even presented at umpire training sessions using the same stupid slide decks that others used on me. Dozens and dozens of slide on the rules, mechanics, rotations, reverse rotations, game management – all that crap and a lot more of it rolled up into a 100-plus slide-deck of death. Ghastly. The training session lasts three, maybe four hours. And of those 100-plus slides, the student umpires retain (actually learn) … what? The substance of maybe three or four slides? What a colossal waste of time.

Here’s what I’m talking about. On the right you see an example of a typical umpire training slide. This is your basic first-to-third rotation. There’s a runner on first (R1), so at the time of the pitch the base umpire (U1) is in the B position. Now there’s a fair batted ball to the outfield – line drive to the gap, let’s say – so U1 is responsible for the catch/no-catch as well as touches, tags and plays at first and second. At the same time, the plate umpire (PU) is moving up the third base line so that, IF R1 tries for third base, the PU can easily step into position and take the call at third.

Basic stuff, not complicated. And one of the most common umpiring scenarios there is. The slide takes, at most, two minutes to cover (remember, we have 100 more slides to cover). But wait. Can you, reader, close your eyes, now, and read back the rotation we just covered? If you can it’s because you’ve done the first-to-third rotation before, so it’s second nature. If you’re a beginner, however, once they’ve moved on to the next slide, you’ve probably completely forgotten most of the details, and ten slides after that it’s completely gone.

It’s a waste of time, and it’s boring. And if you’re small league that’s struggling to find, seduce, and train (and then retain) umpires, the last thing you want to do is lock your prospects in a room and boor them to death for four hours with a forgettable PowerPoint presentation. And get almost nothing out of it.

Some elements of umpire training lend themselves to classroom treatment. But these are discrete subjects like recognizing and calling balks, interference, obstruction, and a few other discrete subjects. But even these classroom sessions can’t rely on a slide deck, unless the deck is stocked with photos or videos that demonstrate the actions you’re talking about. These are one-off clinics, really, and they don’t need to last more than one hour, and usually less. In short, the classroom is your enemy.

So where does the training take place? It takes place on the field. When I (once upon a time) ran a junior umpire program and took responsibility for training, I started out the way I’d been taught — with those stupid slide decks. But I learned very quickly that I could accomplish a great deal more in 30 minutes on the field, hands-on, than I could in four hours in a darkened room. And out on the field, no one snores.


An Umpire in a Coma

You have probably seen the YouTube video of the play in the girl’s softball game where the base runners advancing to home are knocked to the ground by the catcher, who is not only not in possession of the ball, but is also blocking the plate. That’s obstruction, of course, but that’s the least of the problems with the play. First, though, in case you haven’t seen it, here’s the clip. Watch the catcher.

This is clearly unsportsmanlike conduct (“malicious contact”) and the umpire should have ejected the catcher on the spot. Why didn’t he? That’s difficult to say. In the first instance, he was clearly looking at the play. He even turned his head to see the runner fall to the ground. But he did nothing. On the second instance, we do not see the umpire in the frame but we can assume that, with a runner scoring, he was in a position similar to the first instance.

Let’s count the ways the umpire blew this one big-time. We might learn something.

  1. First off, he’s out of position. He’s on the first baseline extended when he should be on the third base line extended. This is a high school game, so it’s surprising that an umpire at this level would make such a rookie mistake. Had he been in position, the play would have been coming right at him (and the runner falling at his feet) rather than the play passing him.
  2. The umpire fails to note or signal the obstruction. It was right in front of him, so it’s hard to believe he didn’t see it. The runner scored without a play on her, so he would have waved off the obstruction regardless. Nevertheless, he should have signaled it.
  3. He failed to react to the blatant malicious contact. This is not a difficult call. The elbow is conspicuous, as is the blocking of the plate. The base runners go flying, for crying out loud.
  4. Finally, he appears to have fallen into that mysterious umpire coma that some blues fall into for inexplicable reasons. (I once heard a story about an umpire who went down to his partner on a checked-swing appeal, but then didn’t see his partner where he should have been near first base. He noticed him then, over at the fence, trading pins.)

While we can rail at the catcher’s poor behavior (which is what most of the public shouting is about – some of the shouting revoltingly crude, I should add), in my view this cluster-flip lies squarely on the umpire, and on the catcher’s coach as well. While the latter are to blame for the first instance, the umpire is to blame for not fixing the problem, ejecting the catcher, and getting the game back on track.

But no matter, I suppose, The video clip has gone viral so not only is the catcher probably suffering a social penalty far greater than an ejection, but the umpire, too, whomever he is, has landed smack-dab in the bull’s eye of every umpire critic on earth (and then some).


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.


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.


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.