On a hot August afternoon in 1984, NL rivals San Diego and Atlanta faced off in an important late-season contest. The trouble began when Braves pitcher Pascual Perez hit Alan Wiggins with the first pitch of the game. Things went downhill from there. By the time the game ended, there had been four retaliatory attempts by Padre pitchers to hit Perez, which resulted in four bench-clearing brawls. Eventually, both managers and 12 players and bench coaches were ejected. Describing the game temperature in that contest as being high would be an understatement.
Every official at some time faces circumstances where the pace of play, a long-standing rivalry or action of a player dials up game temperature. Recognizing those changes and taking appropriate steps to maintain game control is a success factor for officials in every sport and at every level. The actions officials take can influence the behaviors of players and coaches and in effect reduce the game’s negative intensity.
Consistency in rule interpretation and application can reduce conflict, but clear communication remains the biggest single key to maintaining game control. Recognizing when and where to intervene in order to check acceleration of tension is generally acknowledged to be more art than science. It is a “feel” skill developed over time. Experienced officials have trained themselves to keep eyes and ears open, looking for both overt and subtle indications a game may be heading toward conflict. Once signs of trouble appear, it is best to take action to address the symptoms immediately. Determining what and how to speak with players could have its own manual.
Watching players during dead-ball periods, listening to player chatter and observing body posture can yield clues to accelerating tension. Intervening with words or acknowledging the fact you saw a particular action could make a difference when talking a player out of a potential confrontation. Slowing the pace of play (as allowed within the rules) or relying on captains and coaches to urge them to control team members before having to take more dramatic punitive action should be a priority.
A lopsided score can jeopardize game control. When a dominant team continues to press its advantage, hard feelings can develop among the defeated team. Recognize the signs of trouble, such as contact beyond the norm of the sport, aggressive body language and a general frustration manifesting itself in language or gestures. A quiet word with a disappointed player can work wonders, such as, “I know it has been a tough game for your team, but let’s finish on a positive note, OK?”
Cover potential problems in pregame meetings. Maintaining effective in-game crew communication and focused concentration (particularly during dead-ball periods) can stop trouble before it starts. Remember officiating is a people business. Knowing how and when to enforce the rules is only a part of the equation
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