An umpire wants to see every play and do everything possible not to become a part of the play, especially when clearing the catcher. Malcolm Boyles, Seattle (Photo Credit: Dale Garvey)

The umpiring crew must be sure the playing field and other conditions are safe to start the game and all conditions remain safe throughout the game. The umpires’ responsibilities are also to assure the game is played orderly, fairly, under prescribed rules with good sporting conduct and that both teams are given an equal opportunity to win the game.

However, the umpires are not the game.

Few people come to games to watch umpires unless at least one umpire is highly rated and other umpires want to observe and learn from that umpire to improve their own officiating.

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During the game the players are the performers and they speedily move about the field competing against the opposing team. The umpires must officiate the game without interfering with the participants in any way. In the words of Oswald Tower, the late, great officiating philosopher, “The game officials should complete their assignments to the absolute best of their ability without unnecessarily imposing themselves on the game. Officials must try to stay out of the way and let the players play whenever possible.” I recommend all officials in all sports Google and study Tower’s brilliant philosophies.

Umpires are NOT the game

It is unfortunate if an umpire interferes with play, this is why it’s important to teach mechanics and techniques that help the umpire clearly see every play but not physically become part of the play.

To illustrate, let’s create an imaginary game, where Frank is the plate umpire and Bill is the base umpire. 

Working the plate.

Frank must stand close to the catcher to call pitches and make spontaneous rulings but he must try not to interfere with her or compromise her play or movements in any way.

Frank must track each pitch and follow the ball with his eyes and officiate the game as plays develop. As Frank views pitches, he must be at least a foot to 16 inches behind the catcher to provide needed clearance between them so they can both carry out their duties. Nevertheless, Frank must always know where the catcher is so he doesn’t get tangled up with her.

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On foul fly balls, most catchers turn to their right and look up for the ball but plate umpire Frank should not immediately rip off his mask and try to look up to find the ball or he might inadvertently hinder the catcher. With both looking up, Frank could interfere with the catcher.

Frank, working in the slot between the batter and the catcher for a right-handed batter should watch the catcher’s shoulders and not the ball. Frank will then take a drop-step back and away with his rear foot from behind home plate while pivoting off his left slot foot nearer the batter.

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That method is called clearing the catcher. That clearing technique opens the gate for the catcher so she has an unobstructed path to track and attempt to catch the foul fly ball. For a left-handed batter, Frank will work and perform mirror opposite from his right-handed batter position to the slot between the catcher and a left-handed batter.

Frank should then remove his mask but he doesn’t need to try to locate the ball. When the catcher finds the ball, Frank will let the catcher take him toward the ball from a safe buffer distance of about 10 to 12 feet so he doesn’t interfere with her. If the catcher goes to the backstop or near a fence to try and catch the ball, Frank will move toward the backstop or fence from about 10 feet away and look between the catcher and the backstop or fence. While lining up for the possible catch, Frank must make sure the ball doesn’t strike the fence. A legal catch cannot occur if the ball first strikes the backstop, a fence, pole or other obstruction.

When a ball is hit into fair territory, Frank must enter the infield — he should carefully move to the left of the catcher to avoid interfering with her as she too may be moving into fair ground.

Bill the base umpire.

With no runners on base, Bill will take a position on the first-base foul line in the “A” position about 18 feet behind first base on the line but completely in foul territory. Bill’s A position is right in the middle of the tenuous “No Umpire Fly Zone.”

The No Umpire Fly Zone is an elongated 25-foot wide zone that is split down the middle by the right-field foul line from first base to Bill’s A position, 18 feet from first base. On any pop up or fly ball in the No Umpire Fly Zone, Bill must vacate the area because the first baseman, the second baseman and the right fielder might need that area to catch the ball.

Bill will vacate the No Umpire Fly Zone and move toward the pivot point that’s in fair territory on the home-plate side of first base. The pivot point is 10 feet toward the plate from the first to second baseline and 10 feet in fair territory from the first-base foul line.

Frank will take responsibility for all fair-foul calls and all catch-no-catch situations. Bill is safely out of the area where he could interfere with a fielder, but he is in position to take the batter-runner to second base should a fair ball drop safely to the ground.

Umpires who understand and execute those concepts regularly will eliminate hot zone areas where umpires may interfere with fielders who are trying to make plays on batted balls. Good luck umpiring and remember Oswald Tower.

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Softball 2024 – Umpires Manual

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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