Photo Credit: Bill Greenblatt/UPI

Early in my umpiring career I took a cavalier approach to the rules. I got by because I had played the game and knew the basics, but I didn’t know much beyond that because I hardly ever opened the rulebook. Then, in a big game, I blew a rule and would have cost a team a victory except my partner fixed things. I vowed not to be embarrassed like that again, and from then on I studied the rules in depth, as I still do as an instant replay official in college football.

I want to offer some tips for maximizing rules study that have served me well. But first, a few words about the rules themselves. Some are straightforward. Batters get three strikes and four balls. Games are nine or seven innings. Learning these is a matter of memorization and there’s no wiggle room when it comes to enforcement because they’re black and white.

But some are more complex; the NCAA balk and force-play-slide rules are two that come to mind. Rules like these can be hard to deal with because their subject is difficult to capture in words and situations arise that the words don’t explicitly cover (hence so many approved rulings in the NCAA book). I know about drafting problems first-hand because I had a hand in writing college baseball rules for years. It’s not easy.

When we study these kinds of rules we should focus on their intent as well as their wording. We’ll confront situations where the letter, but not the spirit, of the rule is violated and the advantage-disadvantage philosophy tells us not to be hyper-technical because neither team was disadvantaged by what happened. When a play arises that the applicable rule doesn’t specifically cover, we need to apply it in light of its intent.

Now, to rules study. A mistake people make is thinking they’re studying something when they read it. In my college days, a professor taught me the two words are not synonymous, and he suggested an approach that resulted in high grades and that I applied to rules study with positive results.

First, don’t wait until a couple of days before the season starts, or you have an exam, to crack open the book. Although I can procrastinate as well as anyone, I force myself to start about three months early so I can limit my study to an hour a day, if that. Any more and my retention isn’t what it should be.

Take the book one section at a time. Read it straight through, without stopping, to get a feel for the landscape. Then, go back and carefully work through the words. Don’t highlight anything until the second run-through, for then you’ll highlight much less. I see books that are 90 percent highlighted, maybe in various colors, but if you do this you essentially highlight nothing. Be more sparing; for example, if a rule says action is illegal only if it’s intentional, highlight that word because it’s the key part of the rule. In the end, maybe 10 percent of the book should end up highlighted, if that.

Don’t consider the words in abstract; visualize them in action. Take the balk rule. Instead of just reading the list of can’t-dos, I would see, in my mind’s eye, pitchers making various moves and think about what should be called and ignored under advantage-disadvantage and given the intent of the rule. Then I’d put the book down and say, “OK, a pitcher can do so-and-so but not thus-and-such.”

I’d imagine players sliding this way, fielding that way, etc. Runners not sliding directly into second base — how much latitude is permissible? Fielders bobbling a ground ball who are contacted by a runner — interference, obstruction or nothing? Runners trying to score with a catcher taking a throw and a collision. Who’s at fault? What if he’s up the line? This visualization process makes the material come alive and stick with me. When I face that play on the field I can rule properly because I have, in effect, already seen and thought about it.

Next, try to articulate the rule to a friend, or to thin air if no one is around, without looking at the book. You’ll probably miss a few things, but you should be able to grasp its essence; if you can’t, you didn’t absorb it, so start over. The best way to learn something is to teach it, and that’s what you’re basically doing.

Once you’ve finished this process with a section, go to the next one and start over again. Time-consuming? You bet. Productive? Yes.

If you can find exams with answers, go through them. Dealing with rules as applied in specific situations is better than trying to understand them in the abstract. Form study groups. If several people tear the book apart they’ll gain insights from each other, especially if some have encountered situations involving the rule in question.
Watch video, games and plays on YouTube and ask yourself how you’d rule on situations that happen. Maybe you can’t quote the applicable rule verbatim, but do you know it well enough to apply it properly? If you were the umpire, could you explain your ruling to a coach?

Finally, you can’t stay sharp if you only study rules before the season starts. I suggest focusing on at least a couple of the more complex ones each week during the season. You can do this when you’re in the bathroom or on an elliptical machine at the gym.

In sum, reading rules only gets us so far. We’ll understand them and how to apply them only by dissecting a few at a time; visualizing plays; seeing, via video, interpretations, and exams, how they should apply in specific situations; and batting them back and forth with other folks. Digging deep below the surface, in other words, instead of skimming it. That’s what rules study means.

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