Any time there is a close play at a base, umpires have a lot to focus on. This is especially true when there is a potential for a double play.
The base umpire often has to make multiple calls at different bases and it can become difficult to see everything. It is rare in softball to have a double play where at least one of the calls isn’t close. Often both ends of the double play are bang-bang and a lot of moving pieces are happening at once. This is when mechanics play a crucial role in getting the call right and making sure all action is ruled upon.
The most common place where this happens is at second base. Due to the nature of the small size of the softball diamond, everything happens in an instant and it is imperative there is a set of eyes on the action that happens. In a situation where there is a close play at second base — typically when the runner at first is off on the pitch, on a bunt situation where the defense tries to get the lead runner, or a ball hit into the hole at short — the base umpire must close down the distance to second base to about 18-21 feet to make sure to get an angle to see all the elements of the force play. The base umpire is unable to “cheat” toward the secondary call at first because the play at second requires total focus. On a routine out at second on a potential double play, the base umpire can signal and begin moving to the secondary play at first, but those situations are few and far between.
The base umpire needs to see if the baserunner going into second base does anything illegal and interferes with the fielder trying to make the throw to first on the secondary play. Once the throw goes toward first, the base umpire must then turn toward first and make a ruling on the play there. The base umpire rules initially on the slide of the runner into second base, but then must rely on the plate umpire to help clean up the play at second base. This is where crewness, trust and hopefully a solid pregame come into play.
A lot of times on these plays at second base, base umpires have turned their focus toward first base and may not see an infraction by the runner. While staying with the play long enough to see the release of the throw is key, a lot can happen once the ball is on its way to first. It is relatively easy to make the interference call if the runner does a pop-up slide and the ball hits her in the helmet, or she doesn’t slide at all and interferes with the throw. The less obvious calls are the ones where the runner raises her arms or slides wide of the bag or beyond the bag and the throw may sail on the fielder. Sometimes, the base umpire has already begun moving toward first base and misses these subtle, or sometimes not so subtle, actions that caused that throw to sail.
Having a strong partner who has come out from behind the plate and started trailing the batter-runner toward first is key in these situations. The plate umpire can stay with the initial play at second longer as help with a pulled foot at first isn’t imminent. The play at second becomes the priority and a plate umpire can save a crew in this situation if interference happens. Not ruling correctly in these situations can end up causing arguments with coaches or having to separate players who take exception to the contact created by the slide.
There are several things to be aware of on these plays. The first thing to look at is whether or not the runner slid into the base. While runners are never required to slide, if they do, they must do so legally. Examples of an illegal slide include: a rolling or cross-body slide into the fielder; a runner’s raised leg higher than the fielder’s knee when the fielder is in a standing position; a runner going beyond the base and making contact with or altering the play of the fielder; a runner slashing or kicking the fielder with either leg; or a runner trying to injure the fielder. In all of these instances, interference by a retired runner should be called and the runner closest to home should be ruled out. If there are no other runners, the batter-runner would be ruled out.
The second thing to process is, did interference occur? Just because there is contact does not mean that interference occurred. If the fielder gets the throw off cleanly, a minor bump or other incidental contact should not be upgraded to interference. However, if the runner raises her arms or goes beyond the bag, for example, and those actions caused the fielder to alter her throw, interference should be called.
The third thing to consider is if contact is made, is it malicious? A hard slide into a bag doesn’t necessarily mean it is malicious. If the runner stays on her feet and barrels over the fielder or she raises her spikes in an attempt to injure the fielder, then those need to be elevated and the runner should be ejected. In the two-umpire system, those spikes-up calls can be difficult for the base umpire to see if the throw is already on its way to first base. That is why it is crucial for the plate umpire to stay with the play at second.
It is extremely important to know the concepts of the rules regarding interference, illegal slides and malicious contact. All three of them come into play when dealing with double plays and it is important to know the intent behind the rules. But even more important than the rules are the mechanics to handling this situation. Conduct a strong pregame and have trust in partners to help with this situation and it will elevate the crew. Miss these calls and it can be a long day at the ballpark.
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