I didn’t get away with much as a kid. If I’d broken a family heirloom or eaten the last piece of pie, I’d crack under even the mildest questioning from my mom or dad. Most of the time it was my facial expression that would give me away. After a few seconds of futile alibiing, I’d just admit my misdemeanor and accept whatever punishment my parents decided was appropriate.
Oddly enough, I found that experience helpful when I umpired. Reading players’ body language proved a helpful tool when a ruling could go either way. If you are patient and observant, the players can make decisions for you in a number of situations.
I was the base umpire in a two-umpire crew. With runners on first and third, I had to take a rundown between first and second by myself. The adroit runner did an admirable job of staying alive as the first baseman and second baseman ran and threw back and forth trying to record the out while keeping an eye on the runner at third.
After what seemed an eternity, the trapped runner contorted his body to avoid a swipe tag. Out or not? What to do? I simply could not tell if leather had brushed cloth. The fielders acted as if they weren’t certain either.
Fortunately, the runner stopped in his tracks, slumped his shoulders and took on the hangdog body language of a vanquished foe. He gave up the chase and trotted toward his dugout. With a mixture of relief and joy, I gave the confident out signal of an umpire who appeared as if he’d known it all along.
There were a few times a 2-2 or full-count pitch may or may not have nipped the corner. Most umpires will tell you to find a way to call any strike you can. That’s easier said than done if the pitcher has something less than pinpoint control and hasn’t been hitting that corner consistently.
The saving grace in those situations was my own good timing. Well, more like good luck in that the batter bailed me out by heading for the dugout before I could call the pitch. It’s nice when the batter calls himself out and grumbles at himself, not you, on a non-swinging third strike.
Of course, there are two parallels to the surrender that aren’t as helpful: the catcher who tries to goad you into a called third strike by coming out of his crouch and heading for the dugout or firing the ball to third to start the “around the horn,” and the batter who tries to convince you he’s walked when he drops his bat and heads for first base on a perceived ball four. If those don’t go the way the players want them to, you can expect some squawking.
Foul by a foot
I never turned down help from the players on fair/ foul rulings. That included the one in which the batter smashed the ball down in the batter’s box and it dribbled forward into fair territory. If the catcher didn’t try to field it and the batter didn’t sprint toward first, I’d rule foul ball. If both went into action, that was good enough for me and I’d go with fair. Of course if only one reacted, it was time to be an umpire again.
Speaking of fair and foul, one local field has a grove of trees beyond the outfield fence that provides a beautiful backdrop. When they’re in bloom, that is. Early in the season, they’re a dull brown that is roughly the same color as a game-used baseball. So when a deep fly ball is hit down the line and the umpire has to rule home run or foul ball, good luck.
I encountered such a situation one cloudy afternoon. The batter belted a drive to left and as it got closer to the fence, I lost the ball in the trees. I was trying to come up with a solution when suddenly the left fielder let out a mild expletive and threw his glove against the fence. That could only mean one thing. Reprieved! I pointed fair and twirled my index finger overhead. Had it all the way.
The no-trap trap
A looping fly ball to the outfield can present a challenge to a base umpire but there is one clue I sometimes was able to use. Say the fielder charges in and attempts a shoestring catch. You have no idea if it’s a catch or trap. But the fielder scrambles to his feet and immediately throws to second base.
That told me he was conceding it was a trap. Unless the outfielder was just showing off his arm, there’s no need for him to come up firing in that way (unless, of course there were other runners on base. The theory described only works if the bases were empty when the ball was hit).
It isn’t foolproof, of course. Some fielders make the throw in that manner by force of habit. And you can’t base the ruling solely on the reaction of the fielder who holds his glove aloft with the ball in it.
Failure at first base
Poker players know about “tells,” clues that tip them off as to the strength of other players’ hands. A first baseman has a tell on a bad throw and it used to help me.
If the first baseman had to leave the bag for a nanosecond to dig out a low throw and the batter-runner was several steps short of the bag, if the fielder didn’t seem to panic, I’d call the out. But if he rushed to go back and jab the bag with his foot or tried a swipe tag on the batter-runner, he told me he knew he missed it and he needed to secure the out.
Tag, you’re not out
On a tag play, if a fielder applied a tag a second (or third) time, I interpreted that as him knowing he missed the tag the first time. If the runner was on the base, it was an easy safe call.
Many fielders will show you the ball in their glove after a tag. That doesn’t automatically mean it’s an out, but at least one part of the puzzle has been solved for you. Just remember that if you ask to see the ball and the fielder shows it to you, you’ve got to have an out. You don’t ask for the ball and then rule safe.
Jeffrey Stern is Referee’s senior editor. He umpired high school baseball for more than 40 years.
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