f umpiring were simply confined to ball/strike, fair/foul and safe/out rulings, it would still be a game fraught with disagreements about arbiter judgments, but one of routine procedures.
However, as any umpire with any experience knows, the routine is not how we earn our paychecks nor burnish our reputations, good or bad. That happens when we are forced to deal with the unexpected — in other words, any sort of distraction that requires our attention and takes the focus off the three basic judgments around which the game is built.
As bad luck would have it, COVID-19 foisted a new distraction upon many umpires who were fortunate enough to see the field at any point beyond mid-March during the 2020 season and continuing into the current 2021 campaign: the use of masks. Whether one comes down in favor of or against mask use by umpires in an effort to help stem the pandemic, there is no argument they pose the possibility of distraction on several fronts.
There is the possibility of impaired vision should a mask get too close to one’s eyes, or by causing fogged-up sunglasses any time an umpire exhales. There is the possibility of impaired breathing should an umpire have to use a quick burst to get a look at a catch/no catch in the outfield, or rotate up from home plate to take a bang-bang play on R1 coming into third base. And there are myriad communication issues caused by having fabric over the mouth of both the crew and coaches (and sometimes players).
None of these create an ideal situation for umpiring a baseball game. Then again, we face plenty of less-than-ideal situations every time we walk on the field. In some instances, we have specific rulebook language that allows us to either take care of possible distractions before they even surface, or to administer the game once they become a part of it. In other scenarios, we must employ some basic common sense and good communication to solve an unforeseen problem.
One of the beautiful things about a baseball diamond compared to any other sports facility is that almost no two fields are designed the exact same way. Yes, they are all 90 feet between the bases and 60 feet, six inches from the pitching rubber to home plate. But almost everything else is fungible — the outfield dimensions, the location of the dugouts and bullpens, the amount of foul territory, the fencing (or lack thereof). It’s important during each game to identify any areas that may become problematic and to have them addressed by the home team’s coach/manager during the pregame plate meeting, and to make sure that any ground rules that are agreed upon are not in violation of rulebook language governing a particular level of play. If you or one of your partners is aware of a possible distraction that is specifically forbidden by rule — for example, a team drawing chalk lines to extend its dugout toward home plate — take care of it before the game starts so it does not become an issue once play has commenced.
Another possible distraction related to the playing field is the weather. Remember, the home team’s coach gets to make the call on whether a field is ready to begin play. But once the game starts, the decision-making falls on the umpiring crew. Sometimes it’s easy to decide to pull players off the field due to heavy rain or snow that suddenly erupts over the field. Many other times, it’s a tough call about whether to continue play. If the weather causes any sort of unfair distraction to either team or to the umpires trying to do their job, don’t be afraid to suspend play.
In an ideal world, every baseball game would include a functional, easy-to-read scoreboard — accompanied by a functional scoreboard operator. However, many times, even when we have the former, we do not have the luxury of the latter. If the scoreboard ceases to be a helpful tool for whatever reason, recognize it as an umpiring crew and adjust. As the plate umpire, you may have to announce the count more frequently than usual. Every member of the crew may need to answer more queries from the defense or base coaches about the number of outs. The crew also must remain in contact with the official scorekeeper regarding the score, especially in situations where an adopted game-ending procedure (i.e. a 10-run lead after five or seven innings) is imminent.
A knowledgeable, vocal crowd can add a great deal of enthusiasm and buzz to any sporting event. However, spectators can also cause distractions in two very important yet different ways during a baseball game.
The first is fan behavior toward players, coaches and umpires. While we do not want to be fan police, there are going to be times when we need to curb certain behaviors for the welfare of all participants on the field. It is important for umpires to understand what is acceptable jocularity and commentary, and tune it out so that we can focus on our work, and what crosses a line and must be addressed at an administrative level.
The second area of concern is spectator interference with the course of play, as seen in the PlayPic on the previous page. Each level of play has rules in place to help umpires deal with possible distractions caused when players, fans and a live ball all coincide with one another. Make sure to know those rules and how they should be enforced when they rear their unfortunate head.
We’ve all seen old film footage of photographers mere feet from the action in live-ball area in an effort to capture images of players in action. Those days are long gone. Each rulebook now makes clear where media are allowed to congregate and do their jobs, and never does the answer include “in live-ball territory.” Do not allow photographers or videographers to encroach on live-ball territory in order to get a better angle for their shot, and therefore create a distraction for players or your crew. Remember, the media have a job to do, just like you — but they need to do so within the rules and in areas where they are allowed by rule, as shown in the MechaniGram below.
Our own gear
Don’t be your own worst enemy by becoming distracted from doing your job by faulty equipment.
If you’re a plate umpire, remember your protective cup, your plate brush and your indicator. Nothing is worse than the pitch caller on a crew being distracted from that essential job for fear of being hit in an unprotected part of the body, or losing focus because of trying too hard to remember the count on each hitter without use of the one tool specifically designed for helping us do so.
If you are going to wear sunglasses on the field, make sure you can see everything the same way you would without the fancy eyewear. Missing a call because your sunglasses did not provide an optimal look is never acceptable. By the same token, squinting into the sun while having a pair of shades perched on top of your hat is a bad look as well.
Finally, don’t allow yourself to become distracted because you are not dressed appropriately. If it’s cold, wear a jacket — there is no need to be a hero who spends the next seven or nine innings shivering and thinking about the temperature instead of focusing on the next pitch or play. If it’s sweltering, make sure you have lathered on the sunscreen and have plenty of water available so that you aren’t worried about a nasty sunburn or dehydration.
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Note: This article is archival in nature. Rules, interpretations, mechanics, philosophies and other information may or may not be correct for the current year.
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