How often have you heard the following called out during your softball officiating career: “Break up the double play,” or “Blue, she’s got to slide!” As an umpire, how do you react when you hear these? First off, knowing the rules regarding interference is crucial. Secondly, placing yourself in the proper position to see and make the appropriate call is just as important. Third, having a great pregame can save the crew from any unnecessary trouble from either the offense or defense when a play blows up. When interference happens, it must be called and a strong crew will stay on top of plays and have the courage to make the right call.
Let’s work through some examples. Let’s start with common calls for the base umpire.
Play 1: With runners on first and third and no outs, B3 grounds the ball up the middle with runners moving on contact. F6 fields the ball, steps on second and makes contact with the runner from first as she attempts to make the throw to first. The runner from first made no attempt to slide or get out of the way. What’s the call?
Ruling 1: If your answer includes, “Time, the runner closest to home is out,” you’re correct. Seems simple and straightforward, right? The offensive team’s coach comes running out of the dugout to argue. Are you ready? The coach correctly states the runner can’t simply disappear. But if you use rulebook language, you can quickly explain to the coach a retired runner interfered with a fielder’s opportunity to make a play on another runner (USA Softball 8-7p; NCAA 22.214.171.124; NFHS 8-6-16c; USSSA 8-18h Note 2).
Play 2: With runners on first and third and no outs, B3 hits a ground ball to the second baseman, who steps into the baseline to make the play. The runner from first collides with the second baseman, who is in the act of fielding the ball, and the ball falls out of the second baseman’s glove and to the ground. What’s the call?
Ruling 2: However you’re going to adjudicate this play, your first action should be to raise both hands and call, “Time.” If you haven’t already decided, this momentary pause should allow you to consider how many outs you are going to declare on the play. If you deem the runner’s actions prevented a double play, you are going to call her out, call out the batter-runner and then return R3 to third base. If you deem the runner did not prevent a double play, you will rule her out, award B3 first base and place R3 back on third (USA Softball 8-7j; NCAA 126.96.36.199.5 Eff.; NFHS 8-6-10 Pen.; 8-18h Note 1).
Play 3: With R1 on first and no outs, B2 hits a ground ball to F4 who scoops it up, pivots and throws to F6 moving to cover second. F6 touches second, steps and throws to first. As F6 makes her throw one step past the bag toward the outfield grass, contact is made by R1 sliding into the base. What’s the call and who makes the call?
Ruling 3: As mentioned in the opening paragraph, this is where teamwork comes into play. The base umpire at the outset of the play should have made the effort to get in a good position to see the force at second base. When the shortstop touched second and began her throwing motion, the base umpire should be working toward an angle for the second potential play at first base while watching preliminary contact at second base.
The plate umpire has several responsibilities on this play. Clearing the catcher and moving up the firstbase line to see the entire play is crucial. The plate umpire can watch the play at second to determine if the slide was legal. Was there intent to injure or did R1’s slide cause the fielder to alter her actions in making the play? The plate umpire can assist with this call and if no interference is judged, the plate umpire must now focus at first base for a potential pulled foot, swipe tag or interference play there.
If the plate umpire does rule interference or an illegal slide on this particular play, time must be called, the plate umpire should point to the spot where the infraction occurred and announce, “That’s interference.” Then point to the runner who committed the interference, verbalize the runner is out and give the out sign.
If the runner was already out by force or tag out and then she interferes with a subsequent play, point to the runner closest to home and verbalize and signal that she is out as well.
A critical point to remember in all codes is there is no requirement for a runner to slide, however the slide must be legal if she chooses to slide. In all codes, a runner who remains on her feet and maliciously crashes into a defensive player is guilty of interference and shall be ejected (USA Softball 8-7q; NCAA 12.13.4 Eff.; NFHS 2-35, 8-6-14; USSSA 8-18d).
Runner’s lane. Another interference call that involves the umpires is determining whether a three-foot running lane violation occurred by the batter-runner. The running late starts halfway between home and first base and should be clearly marked with a white line, three feet from and parallel to the foul line and extend all the way to the base. In almost every case, the plate umpire should be the one making this call, but there are always exceptions. Once again, a good pregame is essential to getting the call right and avoiding controversy. Good eye contact prior to making any call on this infraction is key.
The determining factor is if the runner interferes with a fielder’s ability to make a play. When there’s a throw from inside the diamond or foul territory and it strikes the runner, a judgment has to be made if the runner was in the running lane or not. To determine if the runner is in her lane or not, you need to be aware of where her feet are. If either foot is completely outside the runner’s lane, in contact with the ground and, in the umpire’s judgment, she interferes with the fielder taking the throw, interference should be called. In USA Softball, where the ball hits the batterrunner is also taken into consideration. If the batter-runner is struck with the thrown ball in the arm that is over fair territory, she would be called out regardless of foot placement.
Some exceptions to this rule include the runner may run outside the runner’s lane: if she hasn’t reached the start of the runner’s lane; to avoid a fielder attempting to field a batted ball; or if she leaves the lane on her last stride in order to touch first base.
If the batter-runner is past the 30-foot mark and she’s outside the lane and prevents the fielder from making the play at first base, immediately raise both arms and call, “Time, interference,” followed by the out signal.
Two critical points to remember in making this call are a throw must be made and the runner has to actually interfere with the fielder. A throw sailing over the first baseman’s head is not interference. Neither is a throw wide of the mark if an umpire judges the runner’s actions to be inconsequential to the play. In both cases, it doesn’t matter if the runner was in the lane or not. Do not reward poor defense.
In all these examples, crewness can and often is the saving grace. A good pregame with the crew, knowledge of the specific rulebook you’re using and the ability to prepitch all the various scenarios can make the difference between a good game and one that leaves players, coaches, parents and even you scratching your head muttering, “What just happened?”
Joe Alfonse of Woburn, Mass., is a collegiate and USA softball umpire. He also officiates men’s and women’s collegiate volleyball and high school basketball.
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