As novice or veteran umpires, we all look forward to the exciting catch, tag or play at the plate that has us standing in perfect position ready to render our judgment to all waiting in breathless anticipation. We show our confidence in the call by using impeccable timing and strong mechanics to indicate whether the player was safe or out. But what if a play that looks like it’s going to be decided by a hair’s breadth isn’t as close as it first seemed? The throw is a little off the mark, the runner is a little slower than anticipated. This is when our experience needs to kick in, and we need to know when to tone down the call.
By the judicious use of the “sell” can we up our game to the next level? We’ve all watched our fellow umpires at various levels, whether it be at the local park or the Women’s College World Series. We all take notice either consciously or unconsciously of the way our colleagues sell their calls. We can’t help but compare what we see to what we do ourselves on the field. Softball is played on a small field and close plays happen all the time. It’s cliché, but to use the analogy of the Boy Who Cried Wolf, nobody is going to believe us if we sell every play.
Being in the right spot at the right time is 95 percent of our job. The other 5 percent though is convincing people of the accuracy of our calls. We accomplish this by being consistent, accurate and keeping a low profile during the game. Coming up big or selling every call is never a good way to keep a low profile. It takes away from our credibility on those calls where everyone else in attendance thinks we got the call wrong, but we know with certainty our call is right on the button.
Umpires have two tools they’re allowed to carry on the field in their toolbox. The most important tool we carry is our consistent use of solid mechanics. But a tool that some of us don’t realize we carry is the use of our voices to support and sell our calls. Some will say the rules are the most important tool we carry, but rules are the foundation we build on when we use our tools. A lot of us overlook the use of our voices in making those close calls. Too often, we loudly verbalize routine calls when everyone on the field already knows the outcome. In some instances, fans ask, “What was that? Does he or she think this is the World Series?” Or worse yet, “It’s not about you, Blue!”
For those calls, and only those calls that require something extra, we should take it to another level. When the time comes for a call where we know that of the people in the stands, half will love it while the other half questions our mental well-being, our use of our voice should help convince everyone of the conviction and accuracy of the call. By displaying an immediate strong mechanic and using a strong verbal safe or out call, we can show we know what we’re seeing and are convinced of it.
Knowing when to sell a call is just as important as how to sell a call. Different clinics I’ve attended over many years provided different metrics of when and when not to sell. The common denominator they all share is, “With experience, you’ll know when it’s right and when it’s not.” Sharing from my own experiences, I think the best template to use is if the runner is at full speed and she’s out or safe by more than a step, we should stick to basic mechanics and make the call at a deliberate pace with no verbal or visual emphasis. When we get to plays that are a little less than “bang-bang” but not quite a simple safe or out, I’m of the opinion more emphasis should be in your mechanic, but not anything extraordinary either. This can be displayed by a quicker, stronger use of the out signal or a more defined step into your safe signal to show conviction in your call. When we get to those calls where we, along with everyone else, will be replaying them in our minds several times, we get to the real art of selling the call.
Being in a proper position to make the sell call could be an entire article itself. This is where our mechanics training should take over. Being in the correct spot, with the eyes where they should be, makes all the difference. We have no internal mechanism in ourselves that can slow down time, but on these super close plays, we need to make sure we have a proper “snapshot” of whether the runner is safe or out. In the split-second we make up our mind, we should already be “coming up big” with our calls. An exaggerated safe or out signal along with a strong verbal call provides all the information necessary to show conviction in our call. A word of warning, though: Always be prepared. The one thing every umpire hates is making the big out or safe call and then seeing the ball on the ground because it was dropped. We should never take our eyes off the ball when we make the call. Taking that split-second to develop the picture in our mind will help prevent that dreaded out then safe call.
In the course of our officiating careers, we’ll make thousands more of the routine calls than the highlight reel calls. Strive to know when we need to convince the coaches, players and fans (and maybe even ourselves) of our call. Be part of the background, called upon when needed and nothing more.
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