For many years, an umpire changing a call was considered a sign of weakness. The current thinking at all levels of play is that getting the decision correct must prevail over any consideration of umpire pride. In fact, the NFHS made the subject of umpires asking for assistance a point of emphasis for the 2017 season. The expectation that a decision may be reversed, and the blessing to do so, doesn’t mean umpires have carte blanche to change any and all decisions. Here are some of the guidelines for changing calls. Except where noted, the material applies equally to NFHS, NCAA and pro rules.
Umpires are prohibited from criticizing or interfering with another umpire’s decision, unless asked by the one making it (NFHS 10-1-4; NCAA 3-6g; pro 8.02c). However, if there is a possible misinterpretation of a rule, it should be brought to the attention of the umpire-in-chief. Common rules issues include the base from which to make an award as well as the amount of the award.
Plays involving the umpire’s “timing” judgment are not subject to reversal. A frequent occurrence is the “bang-bang” play at first. If the only issue is whether the runner beat the ball or vice versa, the call cannot be questioned or changed unless a video replay review is permissible. The same is true for a steal play if the issue is simply whether the tag or the touching of the base came first. Allowing appeals of those types of plays would be inviting anarchy.
Asking for assistance makes sense in certain plays and situations
There are plays and situations where asking for assistance makes sense. Here are some of them and the procedure that should be used.
Batted ball hits batter in box.
This one should be on automatic pilot. When a batted ball goes straight downward, rolls into fair territory and the plate umpire points fair or makes no call and the base umpire is certain the ball hit the batter (most likely his foot) in the box, the base umpire should immediately call “foul ball.” If the base umpire remains silent and the batter is thrown out at first, the coach may ask the plate umpire to get help. In response, the plate umpire has a choice: explain that if the base umpire had seen the ball hit the batter, the base umpire would have called it foul, or the plate umpire can simply confer with his or her partner and tell the coach the play stands. The latter is likely to be the quicker resolution and apropos.
Foul tip or foul ball?
On a possible third strike when a foul tip is dropped or trapped by the catcher and the plate umpire does not immediately call it foul, most umpires prefer to have the base umpire immediately make the call without request. It’s a definite topic for the pregame discussion.
Probably the most routine and visible example of an umpire getting help is the checked swing; NCAA refers to it as a “half swing.” When the pitch is called a ball, the defense may request the plate umpire get help from a base umpire as to whether or not the batter swung. NCAA and pro rules require the plate umpire to get help if asked to do so. In NFHS play, although seeking assistance is not required by rule, it makes sense to do so. Refusing to cooperate will make the plate umpire appear obstinate and possibly encourage further protesting (NFHS 10-1-4a; NCAA 3-6f; pro 8.02c Cmt 2).
In cases where the pitch is a possible third strike and the batter is entitled to run to first, the appeal should be made instantly by the plate umpire without a request. But if the plate umpire doesn’t do so immediately, the base umpire should voluntarily call a strike if he or she is going to reverse the call. This will give the batter the immediate opportunity to run.
The mechanics for this situation vary depending on crew size and the level of play, but for NFHS and NCAA play, the base umpire should immediately seek assistance if he or she has the ball beating the runner and there is doubt as to whether or not the fielder pulled his foot from the base before receiving the throw. Of course, if the runner beat the throw then foot position is irrelevant. If the base umpire calls the out and is then requested to get help, that is permissible.
Steal plays were previously mentioned, but there is another dimension to those — the ball is dropped or juggled without the calling umpire’s knowledge, most likely because his or her view was screened. If another umpire sees the ball on the ground or a juggle, he or she should approach his or her partner with that information. In all likelihood, a member of the offensive team will protest before the umpires can confer.
Catch or not.
Umpires can confer and correct a call on plays in which there is a question about a catch or a trap if the ball is foul or if there are no runners on base and the ball is fair. It might also make sense to correct a call if there is a lone runner regardless of the base occupied. However, reversing a call with multiple runners is apt to create a larger problem.
Fences and foul poles.
If the calling umpire has a poor angle or is blinded by the sun, it is permissible to rectify a call if the questions involve whether the ball left the playing field fair or foul or whether it bounced over the field or left in flight.
An umpire should seek help when his or her view is blocked or the umpire’s position is such that his or her view of critical elements of a play may have been blocked. Umpires should also seek help when they have any doubt and they believe a partner may have additional information that could result in getting the play right. Umpires should not seek help on plays in which they are 100 percent confident of their judgment and view of the play.
As a general rule, an umpire should not offer assistance unsolicited; he or she should wait until asked. If umpires offer unsolicited opinions, it will open a can of worms. Once managers or coaches see that happening, they will start asking for second opinions on everything close. Once asked, however, an umpire should offer his or her best judgment.
When an umpire seeks help, he or she should do so shortly after making the original call. He or she should not have a lengthy discussion with the coach or others and then ask for help. If the calling umpire seeks help, he or she should include other umpire(s) who would likely have the best position to see the elements of the play. That conversation must take place away from players or coaches. Such meetings should be infrequent and not become a substitute for umpires seeking proper angles, exercising sound judgment and having the conviction to stay with a call that an umpire believes was properly made.
The ultimate decision to change a call always rests with the calling umpire.
A coach may ask the calling umpire to “get help” on a play where there is no possibility another umpire will be able to assist. Rather than trying to explain that to the coach, the umpires should briefly confer and then tell the coach the ruling stands.
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