Tie Goes to the Runner?

It’s surprising how frequently this issue comes up: Tie goes to the runner. I get emails through the web site, or I’m approached by people who know I’m an umpire, and the thing people want to vent about are the close plays at first base: the runner’s foot hits the bag and the ball hits the fielder’s glove in what appears to be the same instant. The umpire calls the runner out and all hell breaks loose.

Once upon a time, we all played by this rule. We played this rule in our youth, on school playgrounds and sandlots. It was the rule and it served us well. There were no umpires on the sandlots, and close plays at first base were (and remain) the cause of most disputes. So when consensus and arguments failed, the rule (that rule) helped settled the arguments. In those days, on those ball fields, ties went to the runner.


Not on the big field. Not in “real” baseball

Nope, ties do not go to the runner. Not on the big field. Not in “real” baseball. Not where there’s an umpire making the call. Rather, the prevailing interpretation is that the runner must beat the throw; if he doesn’t, he’s out. That’s the right call. And that’s where the arguments begin.

The discrepancy between the sandlot rule and the Big League rule is interesting, because to a certain extent, the discrepancy exists in a vacuum. The fact is, there is no rule in the Official Baseball Rules (OBR) that offers any guidance in cases where both events (runner’s foot touching the base, and the ball reaching the fielder’s glove), when they occur at exactly the same time. The prevailing (but still controversial) interpretation, that the runner must beat the throw, has but shadowy standing in the OBR. Part of the problem is that there’s no rule covering this situation; at the same time, however, there are rules, three of them, that surround the issue, and the three don’t fully agree. Therein lies one of the several shadowy seams whose ambiguous threads wind around the OBR like the stitching on a baseball.


There are three rules

The fact is, three rules apply, but none of them apply directly to the case of a tie, so you end up with a Bermuda Triangle of rules that surround the issue, and between them all is a foggy interpretation that relies more on tradition than rule.

Here are the three rules. I’ve trimmed them to their essentials (click the links for the full text):

Rule 5.09(a)(10)
[formerly 6.05(j)]
A batter is out when … After a third strike or after he hits a fair ball, he or first base is tagged before he touches first base
Rule 5.09(b)(6)
[formerly 7.08(e)]
A runner is out when … He or the next base is tagged before he touches the next base
Rule 5.06(a)(1)
[formerly 7.01]
A runner acquires the right to an unoccupied base when he touches it before he is out

It doesn’t take too close of a reading to see the contradiction. The first two [5.09(a) and 5.09(b)] make it quite clear that a runner is out if he or the base (when a force) are touched before the runner reaches the base. However, the third rule we cited [5.06(a)(1)] is equally clear that a runner is safe so long as he reaches a base before he or the base (when a force) are tagged.

What we have from the rules, then, is this: On one hand, the runner must beat the throw or tag to be safe, while on the other hand the defense must beat the runner to the bag to get the out. It appears that when the two events are simultaneous, the umpire should flip a coin to determine which of the rules to apply. The mind boggles.

In all of the OBR, the only mention of a tie is in connection with handling a tie score, for example, when a game is suspended. There is neither mention nor guidance of the case of simultaneous events (ties), and because of this, there exists a great black hole at the center of the baseball galaxy that we orbit, day after day, game after game, play after play, argument after argument.


There are no ties in baseball

As ingrained as tie-goes-to-the-runner is in sandlot and playground baseball, an equally time-honored expression among baseball insiders (and umpires in particular) is the axiom that there are no ties in baseball. The axiom was likely spawned, at least in part, by the black hole we’ve just discovered.

Clearly, though – if we’re honest with ourselves – it is not true that there are no ties. The fact is, there are ties on the base path not infrequently. Let’s stay with the play at first base for a moment. Among the many perfections of baseball, the length of the base path (90 feet) has proved an enduring testament to man’s ability (every now and then) to get things right. Legendary sports writer Red Smith said it well: “Ninety feet between home plate and first base may be the closest man has ever come to perfection.” What he means is, the balance between offense and defense is nearly perfectly balanced by those perfect 90 feet.

A batted ball to the infield will almost always produce an out if the defense plays the ball cleanly, without a bobble or an error. Add a bobble to the play and you probably have a close play (bang-bang), and even a small chance that a fast runner will beat the throw and be safe at first. (Ichiro did this in Seattle on a regular basis.) Misplay the ball more severely than a simple bobble, and the runner is safe close to half the time. Misplay the ball entirely and the runner is almost always safe.

The point is, the balance between the defense and the offense on a batted ball to the infield is nearly perfect, so much so that almost all plays at first base are relatively close, and a great many are so close they’re a challenge to call, as well as a good many very close plays (the bang-bang plays).

The upshot, then, is that this perfect balance between offense and defense leads necessarily to a large number of nearly simultaneous events, and some unknown number of truly simultaneous ones. Given all of the tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of close plays at first base in a given baseball season, it’s only natural that some number of them result in dead-even ties.  In other words, there are plenty of ties at first. And by the prevailing convention, these ties  normally result in the runner being called out.

What we have, then, is an alternate axiom – one that’s not written, nor spoken, but exists nevertheless: Tie goes to the fielder.


Umpires weigh in

There are two authoritative sources of case law (if you will) and rules interpretations: Jaksa-Roder and Wendelstedt. All umpires with salt know both of these resources. Both are oft-used authorities for untangling thorny rules issues, of which there are no shortage in baseball. Let’s see what they have to say about this black hole.

Nothing. Nada. Niente. Nothing but silence.

Both discuss the rules (the three rules we’ve framed), but neither source addresses the issue of the simultaneous events, the tie at the base. Neither of these honored reference texts even has the word “tie” in their index.

Tim McClelland

Interestingly, on MLB.com, in a section entitled Ask the Umpire, veteran umpire Tim McClelland does address the issue in a Q-and-A. Here’s both question and answer.

I am an umpire for Little League. The coach told me that ties go to the runner. I said the batter has to beat the throw to first because there are no such thing as ties. Who is right?
– L.M.F.

McClelland: That is exactly right. There are no ties and there is no rule that says the tie goes to the runner. But the rule book does say that the runner must beat the ball to first base, and so if he doesn’t beat the ball, then he is out. So you have to make the decision. That’s why umpires are paid the money they are, to make the decision on if he did or if he didn’t. The only thing you can do is go by whether or not he beat the ball. If he did, then he is safe.

This is interesting, because McClelland is saying he’s going with 5.06(a)(1) and leaves it at that. His comments about “you have to make the decision” is really just a smokescreen to cover the ambiguity that’s he’s elected to ignore. But he’s in good company; this interpretation (that the runner must beat the throw) is the view that pervades, particularly in the Major Leagues. And umpiring conventions tend to filter down from there.

But that interpretation is not accepted universally. This subject comes up time and again on umpire chat rooms and discussion boards and the debates are intense and passionate. There’s McClelland’s view, that the runner must beat the throw. Then there’s the opposite view, which falls on 7.08(e), arguing that if the ball fails to reach the base before the runner touches it, the runner is safe. In other words, tie goes to the runner.

And then there are the umpires who (stupidly, in my view) try to have it both ways. They claim that on truly bang-bang plays at first they’ll judge by circumstances. If the defense was sloppy, they’ll call a runner safe. Same thing if a slow player shows extraordinary hustle. A runner who dogs it, on the other hand, is getting called out. This is the worst of all possible approaches to resolving the ambiguity.

Interestingly, a great many umpires assert that literal ties (true simultaneous events) are near impossible. One commentator claimed to have umpired for 50 years and in that span had never seen a tie on the bases. Our new world of super slow-mo and instant replay is slowly undermining this view. The fact is, ties happen.

Sadly, there’s no real conclusion to the story. Ties at first are a fact of life, and they’ll continue being called in a manner consistent with the umpire’s religion, so to speak. And it’s not really so big a problem as it may appear. It’s definitely not so big an issue as the variability in the strike zone. But don’t get me started on that can of worms.



The Trucks Family Tree

We start with a rather obscure major league pitcher named Virgil Trucks, whose career ended sixty years ago.

Virgil Oliver “Fire” Trucks, born in 1917, pitched in the major leagues from 1941 through 1958, starting with the Tigers and finishing his career with the Yankees. Twice an all-star, his line is impressive:  177–135 won-loss record with 1,534 strikeouts and a 3.39 ERA in 2,682 innings pitched over a seventeen-year career. He was known as a strikeout pitcher with an overpowering fastball – hence the moniker, Fire Trucks. Ted Williams commented that Trucks was the hardest throwing pitcher he ever faced. Trucks lost two years of his prime to service during WWII and once commented that, had he gotten those extra 20-25 wins, and if he’d played his entire career with the Yankees, he’d likely be in the Hall of Fame.

In 1952, Fire Trucks pitched two no-hitters – one of only five pitchers in MLB history with two no-hitters in a single season (Johnny Vander Meer, Allie Reynolds, Nolan Ryan, and Roy Halladay are the others). That’s pretty heady stuff for a kid who started out playing for company teams like the Stockham Pipe Company in Birmingham, Alabama. Spotted by scouts, Trucks signed with the Detroit organization in 1937 (with a $100 signing bonus) and the following year notched his reputation as a strikeout artist while playing for the Andalusia Bulldogs. It was then that a Birmingham sportswriter coined his nickname, “Fire” Trucks.

I stumbled on Fire Trucks in the oddest (and non-baseball) of ways. I was working my way up the Trucks family tree, starting in the present day. It’s with Virgil’s great grand-nephew that I started – one Derek Trucks.

Trucks (Derek) is front-man and slide guitar virtuoso in my (these days) favorite band, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, in which he partners with wife and front-woman, guitar player and bluesy vocalist extraordinaire, Susan Tedeschi. Their band is a twelve-piece freight train of soaring blues-rock fusion of the Delta-meets-the-Coast variety.

This is an umpire and baseball blog, of course, but sometimes we need to branch out. Keep things interesting. We’re going to loop back to baseball, Fire Trucks, and umpiring soon enough. But first, here’s a nice appetizer – a three-song stand at one of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts. And if you like that and would like a bit more, here’s one of several versions (all of them extraordinary, but no two quite the same) of their exquisitely beautiful song, Midnight in Harlem.

Back to the Trucks family, there’s another branch on the family tree. In between Virgil and Derek, Virgil had a nephew named Butch – Butch Trucks. And Butch Trucks is a name that fans of Southern Rock pioneers, the Allman Brothers Band, should recognize. Not only is Butch Trucks Virgil’s nephew and Derek’s uncle, but he’s also (and better known as) the drummer for the Allman Brothers Band.

Virgil threw his last pitch in 1958, but he remained in baseball as pitching coach and scout until he retired to his home in Alabama in 1974. The scion of this star-studded family tree died in 2013 at the age of 95.

I don’t know this for certain, but I think Virgil probably liked the Allman Brothers Band. And I suspect that he knew and loved Derek’s work as well.


I love this band because of their virtuosity, their beautifully written songs and their always exciting arrangements, their big, driving sound, and because of the way their music honors the roots and traditions of blues and rock (with a little Eastern flavor thrown in), but then overlaces the sound with a promiscuous embrace of jazz at one edge, and country rock at the other. They really are magicians of their matter.

But I love this band most of all because they are all about the music, and only the music, and totally the music — not the glitz, not the marketing, and not the showy crap that gets you on the radio. That sets them apart, and it ensures the integrity of their special sound. From Virgil, through nephew Butch, through nephew Derek, the Trucks family tree stands pure.

And now back to baseball, where my home team Seattle Mariners are off to a 1-6 start. Aarrgghh. Will somebody please start the music.



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.)


The Theory of Umpire General Relativity

Only slightly toungue-in-cheek . . .

I worked a game recently in which there was a close play at first base. I was working the plate so I had trailed the runner up the first base line and saw the play clearly. The umpire at first called the runner out (correctly). It was close, but not that close, and there is no question the call was correct.

Behind me, though, from the stands near the batter’s dugout, we heard more than just the typical groans. There are always groans from the fans on a close play, from one side or the other, but this was different. These were loud complaints: “How could he miss a call like that!”  That sort of stuff. Clearly, the umpire at first base (and me, too) saw one thing, but the spectators for the team on offense saw something completely different.

This happens all the time, of course, especially at first base, because that’s where the greatest number of close (bang-bang) plays occur. And yet, the more I thought about it, the more it got me thinking there might be more going on than simple bias for your home team.

So just how do you explain this common phenomenon, where one person sees one thing, and someone else in the same place and at the same time sees something entirely different? How do you explain this?

Well, there are several pieces to an explanation, but let’s start with the easy stuff:

  • First off, those spectators who are complaining are much farther away from the play than is the umpire who made the call. That, on the face of it, helps explain their different views of the play.
  • Then there’s the matter of angle. We all understand that angle is even more important than distance when you’re getting position for a call, and clearly the spectators’ angle was very poor when compared to that of the umpire. His vantage point was perfect.

Okay, so those are the easy and obvious points. And they work okay, up to a point. But I think there’s more to it. There’s a human factor, too. When the stakes are high, we tend to see what we want to see, and hear what we want to hear, regardless of what actually happens. That’s human nature.

This is not particularly subtle. All of us know this happens. It’s one of the reasons witness testimony at trials is so unreliable, and why you often have several eye-witnesses give conflicting versions of the same event. We frequently see (and hear) what we want to see (and hear). It happens with memories, too. The more distant the memory, the more closely it morphs into what we really want to remember, whether we know it or not. Time, it seems, is less of a long and winding road than it is a murky pond. But I digress.

But wait; let’s stay with memory for a moment.

Do you remember how, as a kid, you’d calculate dog years. You’d convert a dog’s age to its equivalent human age by multiplying the dog’s age by some number – seven, I think. Supposedly, this helps dog owners appreciate the maturity of their six-year-old mongrel. As though, somehow, 42 human years is a more difficult concept to grasp than six dog years. Go figure.

Well, just as with memory and time and dog years, umpires on the field experience space and time differently than spectators do. It sounds crazy, I know, but it’s true. To see the difference, you have to apply a conversions factor, just like when calculating dog years. But this calculation deals with space, not years. It calculates the difference between spectator views and umpire views of the same event.

The conversion factor is something like six-to-one. In other words, two inches to a spectator is equivalent to about 12 inches for the umpire on the field. So on a bang-bang play at first base, if the separation between the runner’s footfall on the bag and the time of the catch is minuscule, the umpire sees a gap. And sees it pretty clearly.

And that’s why, when there’s a really close play, and the aggrieved team’s fans and coaches and players groan and complain, the umpire is mystified. He’s thinking something like, Why in the world are they complaining? Hell, the ball beat him to the bag by a mile. And he actually means a mile.

There is something mysterious at work, because it appears that for umpires on the field, space can expand, or dilate, and time can contract. It’s been shown that such things actually do happen in nature.

This brings us to Albert Einstein  (yes, that Albert Einstein). In 1915, over a century ago, Einstein introduced the concept of four-dimensional space-time.
He formulated the concept to capture his theory of general relativity. What the concept means is that three-dimensional space, as we know it, is linked with passing time; and then, wrapped together, space and time form a single, four-dimensional space-time. Space-time, according to Einstein, is the fabric of the physical universe on the cosmological scale. Whew!

Well, according  to Einstein, one important effect of this is that events that appear simultaneous to one observer are, in fact, very different for someone else who is observing from a different frame of reference. (That’s relativity in a nutshell.) In other words, the disconnect between the view on the field and the view from the bleachers creates a space-time hiccup (if you will), such that two observers can literally see two different events.

It appears to be true, then (with only a small stretch), that in fact there does exist a special, four-dimensional umpire space-time, a dimension in which space expands and time contracts, such that ordinary events on the field take place one way for some observers, and entirely differently for others. They don’t appear different; they actually are different.

I believe that baseball relativity and umpire space-time are real. The evidence supports it. So groan if you have to, fans. Shout at the umpire if you must. But do not doubt the call of the umpire who is fixed in space and time on the very axis of the events on the field; and then go home, grumbling if you must, and satisfied that, although your view was pure, it was almost certainly wrong.

And all of this we capture in The Theory of Umpire General Relativity.


My First Game, and then some . . .

It was about fifteen years ago that I umpired my first game. I was one of those dads who was pulled out of the stands for my eight-year-old son’s pee-wee game. But then, like some few others who share this same experience, I discovered it wasn’t so bad and I stuck with it. Most don’t, but a few do.

Enzo … in the beginning

A lot of new umpires come up this way – they get started accidentally, they discover that it’s not as bad as they thought it would be, and they end up sticking with it. They discover that it’s an avocation and a commitment, and one that rewards and repays. There’s some money in it, but not very much, so it’s a rare Blue that does it for the money. I can also tell you from experience that there are few things more thrilling than having a hard-breaking slider come screaming right at your face.

In the early days, while still newbies, we learned our first lessons by seeking out advice from more experienced umpires. That helps with picking up the basic mechanics, start learning the convoluted web of baseball rules, and begin, ever so  slowly, to start feeling comfortable on the field.

And if really committed, the newbie starts attending formal training. They attend classes and workshops. Soon, they probably enroll in an extended school – one of the week-long or multi-week sessions. If they’re young and ambitious, after about three or four years of this, they go to the Pro school.  By then they understand (we hope) that the learning never ends. Some experienced umpires talk a lot, but good umpires listen more and talk less.

Not everyone who umpires goes all the way. Most stick with a local league and plateau when they have the basics: they learn the start positions and basic rotations, and learn how to work with a partner; they grasp the difference between interference and obstruction, foul ball and foul tip, and they’re comfortable with fair and foul, safe and out, catch, tag, and the infield fly. But that’s about where they settle.

And that’s not a bad thing. Not at all. Because the younger kids need experienced, competent umpires, too. Far too many umpires get a taste for high-quality ball on the big diamond and forget that there are a lot more games (and a vastly greater need for umpires) on the small diamond for kids 12 and under. It’s a good thing, in my view, for umpires who came to life on the small diamond to later, after graduating to higher levels, give a little back by volunteering some time for the kids.

Federal Field, Bellevue, Washington

So here’s the field on which I umpired my first game. Federal Field in Bellevue, Washington. Bellevue East Little League. I had come to the game to watch my eight-year-old son play his first ever baseball game, but then got pulled in to umpire (kicking and screaming, I might add). I used a balloon protector (it’s what they had in the gear box at the field and that was good enough for me). I wore jeans, and I had my hat on backwards. I had zero instruction, even less confidence, and almost certainly I sucked. But the kids were eight years old, the parents were cool with it, and there were no complaints.

Now, fifteen years on, I have games in the summer college league and work the local semi-pro summer league. That’s a big arc, from eight to twenty-three. Fifteen years in fifteen years. And on fields just 25 miles apart.



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.


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.



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.