Recently, I came across a couple of film clips taken from major league games played decades ago. In one, an umpire called a tag play at second base while running full tilt. In the other, the plate umpire’s head dropped about three feet as the pitch arrived. Indeed, setting up at the last second and shifting one’s body down on a low pitch and outside on pitches in that area was common back then. As a young umpire starting out in the 1960s, I recall the thinking behind these “mechanics” was that we’d have a better look if we moved to where pitches went — an old descriptive term was “riding with the pitch” — and that to get base plays right we must be on top of them — even if this meant making calls on the run.
Excessive movement wasn’t unique to umpiring. Watch film of old-time games and you’ll see football officials dashing madly about and basketball officials constantly bouncing around the court. There was no such thing as working in a measured “cruise control” fashion back then.
Eventually, the powers-that-be realized excessive movement is counterproductive, for when our body is moving our eyes are as well, and this makes it harder to properly focus on, and accurately process, what’s in front of us. Now, the thinking is that to enhance our chances of making correct calls we need to get set and then stay still before the critical part of the play occurs. Obviously, there will be plays that require a lot of motion on the part of some or all members of the crew, especially the fewer umpires there are. But no matter what the situation is, the general “get set” principle applies.
When calling pitches, get set as the pitcher begins his delivery so you’re still when the ball leaves his hand, and track the pitch into the catcher’s mitt with your eyes without moving your head. Most of us have an imaginary “window” — if the pitch is there it’s a strike and if not it’s a ball. If our head is moving as the pitch arrives, the window will move, and this will make it harder to be accurate and consistent. Movement also increases the chances of the catcher obscuring our view of the pitch. If you don’t have a locking mechanism to help you stay steady, such as putting your hands on your thighs, develop one.
On tag plays at the plate, umpires often dart here and there as the ball arrives and are moving when the catcher makes the tag. We can’t plant ourselves in one spot and stay rigid because adjustments may be needed depending on where the ball, catcher and runner go. But too often, we overreact and move too much and in too herky-jerky a way. If we make slight, controlled movements and then get set and stay still before the tag occurs, it’s more likely we’ll end up in a good position to see it and the baserunner’s foot or hand in relation to the plate, and be able to properly process what happens.
At first base with an infield grounder, move into fair territory — how far and where is up to you — while the fielder fields the ball and then get set as he throws so you’ll be still when it arrives. Then, listen for the sound of the ball hitting the glove while watching the runner’s foot hit the bag. If you’re moving, you decrease the chances of properly registering what happened first. Again, a locking mechanism, such as putting our hands on our thighs as we set up, will help us stay steady. (Old-time umpires grabbed the lapels of their coat.)
We may need to adjust if the throw is off-target and there’s a swipe tag, etc., but again the key is not to overdo it and move too much or too abruptly. Most likely, a controlled step or two will get us where we need to be to see what happens.
As for other plays on the bases, getting close can be challenging, especially with fewer umpires (and it’s possible to get so close that we lose sight of all of the play’s ingredients). But experience has shown that getting a good angle on the play and being still as it happens are more important (within limits, of course) than how far we are from it. As a play starts, move in a controlled way to get that angle and then, no matter where you are, stop and get set just before the tag is applied or, on a force play, the ball hits the glove.
Base plays in a two-umpire crew can test us. On a pickoff, turn as the pitcher throws and plant your feet instead of running toward the play. You’ll be farther away than if you did the latter, but your eyes won’t be jiggling when the tag occurs. On a steal of second, turn as the catcher’s throw passes you and then stop, plant yourself and watch the action. On a steal of third, move toward the mound (not toward third) when you sense the runner breaking, turn as the catcher throws, stop and observe.
On trouble balls hit to the outfield when you must go out, don’t keep running so you’re moving when the ball hits near the foul line or pole or an outfielder makes a shoestring catch. You’ve got a better chance of getting the call right if you can sense when the ball is about to hit the ground or glove, and get set before it does. As is the case with base plays, you may not be as close as you’d like, but your eyes won’t be bouncing up and down at the critical point in time. One additional note: On trap-catch plays, don’t run toward the fielder because you’ll lose the angle on the ball in relation to the glove; instead, run parallel to the ball’s flight.
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