This winter, I was approached by the leadership of my local high school umpires association about serving as a classroom instructor in preparing brand-new umpires to work the 2022 season.
My role, along with two additional instructors, is to drill down into the rulebook and give these “greenies” a solid foundation so when they step on the field, they will be prepared to make accurate decisions according to NFHS rules. Each week, we teach three one-hour classes about a different section of the rulebook and assign a 10-question homework quiz to be completed and returned one week later during the next class.
Expecting a brand-new umpire to digest everything included in the NFHS rulebook in 8-10 weeks and have a full mastery of said material when they first walk on the field is unrealistic. I first started umpiring baseball when I was a teenager and then, after a lengthy hiatus, became serious about the avocation 14 years ago. Even with all that experience, I honestly learn something new every time I open the rulebook and casebook. So I can only imagine what these new recruits are going through as they try to obtain at least a basic comfort level with the rules of the game.
There are two overarching lessons I have tried to impart on the students during their training. First, don’t try to sit down and read the rulebook like a novel, going from cover to cover, and expect to learn and retain everything you have just read. The rulebook is not designed to foster effective learning in this manner, as there are far too many examples of a particular action on the field requiring knowledge of multiple different rules scattered throughout all sections of the book.
Second, learn your definitions. As an umpire, these are your best friends. Rule 2 in the NFHS rulebook is titled “Playing Terms and Definitions.” More often than not, when an umpire gets hung up on the word salad that can sometimes crop up in another rule, the right answer can be reached by going back to rule 2 and understanding the basic building blocks of otherwise tricky concepts. This is also where umpires will find the proper language to use with coaches and players when finding themselves in the middle of a discussion about a particular play or ruling.
Let’s look at some examples and why what may seem to be an innocuous vocabulary difference to the lay baseball fan may instead carry a significant amount of weight when used by an umpire on the baseball field.
A catch is the act of a fielder in getting secure possession in his hand or glove of a live ball in flight and firmly holding it (2-9-1).
Simple enough, right? Well, yes, if the definition of a catch stopped right there. However, one look at the full definition makes it clear several additional factors play into an umpire’s judgment about whether a ball has been caught or not. So let’s take a look at those requirements.
- • The player cannot use his cap, protector, mask, pocket or other part of his uniform to trap the ball.
- The catch of a fly ball by a fielder is not completed until the continuing action of the catch is completed. A fielder who catches a ball and then runs into a wall or another player and drops the ball has not made a catch. A fielder, at full speed, who catches a ball and whose initial momentum carries him several more yards after which the ball drops from his glove has not made a catch.
- When the fielder, by his action of stopping, removing the ball from his glove, etc., signifies the initial action is completed and then drops the ball, he will be judged to have made the catch. This is what is commonly referred to as a “voluntary release,” and while this is universally recognized language, it does not actually appear in the rulebook.
There are several additional examples related to what is or is not a catch, such as when a fielder is attempting to make a double play, catching a ball and then falling into a bench, dugout or bleachers, a ball touched by a fielder that then contacts an offensive player and bounces back to the defensive player, and more.
The bottom line — knowing, by definition, what a catch is and is not will help you stay out of trouble.
Imagine this scenario: Tie game, bottom of the seventh, with a runner on first base. He attempts to steal second on the delivery of the pitch. His teammate swings, nicking the ball with his bat, and it’s caught by the catcher. The defense stops playing and the runner glides into second base. The coach of the team on defense goes apoplectic. “That’s a foul ball! He has to go back to first base!”
The coach is incorrect. By definition, it was not a foul ball. A batted ball that goes directly to the catcher’s hands and is legally caught by the catcher is a foul tip. It is a strike and the ball is in play (2-16-2). This distinction is extremely important, as it differs from a foul ball (2-16-1) that becomes dead when it touches any object other than the ground or any person other than a fielder, goes directly from the bat to the catcher’s protector, mask or person without first touching the catcher’s glove or hand, or becomes an uncaught foul (5-1-1d).
It may be hard to believe, but there are coaches even at the high school level who do not know the difference between the two. By knowing the definition of a foul tip, you’ll be able to explain why that baserunner legally remains at second base.
The offensive situations during which an infield fly (2-19) may be applicable are easily understood by most baseball aficionados. There must be runners on first and second bases or the bases loaded, and less than two outs, and a fair fly that does not include a line drive nor an attempted bunt is hit.
It’s the defensive half of the equation where the problems arise, because again, players and coaches often do not have knowledge of the full definition of the rule. The fair fly can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort, but the rule does not preclude outfielders from being allowed to make the catch.
Let’s break down the individual parts of that last sentence because, at first glance, there may appear to be contradictory information. Other than being a fair ball, the only additional requirement is the fly can be caught by an infielder with ordinary effort. Where the infielder is standing in fair territory is not relevant. He can be in the infield grass or the infield dirt. He can be well into the outfield grass. As long as an infielder can make the catch with ordinary effort that fly ball is, by definition, an infield fly.
Let’s take it one step further. Let’s say the fly ball is hit into shallow right field. The second baseman, who is an infielder, drifts out and is going to be able to make the play with ordinary effort. However, the right fielder runs in, calls him off and makes the catch. By definition, this is still an infield fly. All the infielder must prove is he can catch the ball with ordinary effort, but the infielder does not have to be the one who ultimately catches the ball. It’s a subtle, but important, distinction that you as an umpire must understand.
Finally, one more step. The infield is playing deep. The batter hits a fly ball just behind the pitcher’s mound. None of the infielders are going to be able to reach the ball and catch it with ordinary effort. By definition, this is not an infield fly. The fact the ball comes down squarely in the middle of the infield does not make it so, because the ordinary effort clause of the rule is not met.
These are just three of the 42 playing terms and definitions listed in rule 2 in the NFHS rulebook. As you partake in the ongoing rule study required of every good umpire, regularly check in on this rule and find new ways to expand your rules vocabulary. Trust me when I say it’s just a matter of time until having a grasp of proper rulebook language will pay off in a big way for you on the baseball diamond.
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