By Jon Bible
“Timing is everything!” That expression is cemented when it comes to baseball umpiring. You can read rulebooks, study mechanics, go to camps and clinics and have excellent judgment, but it will all be for naught if your timing stinks.
In an AL game many years ago, a batter bunted a ball down the third-base line. It trickled foul and seemed like it would stay there, so Hall of Fame umpire Billy Evans yelled, “Foul ball!”
The ball then hit a pebble and veered over the foul line into fair territory.
When challenged, Evans said, “Well, it would have been a fair ball yesterday and it will be fair tomorrow and for all years to come. But right now, unfortunately, it’s foul, because that’s the way I called it.”
I once worked with the late College World Series umpire Ron Graham. He rang up a strike on a pitch in the dirt, prompting howls from the offensive team. Later, between innings, he sauntered up to me and said he couldn’t figure out what the ruckus was about because the pitch was right at the letters — Converse, the brand of shoe the batter was wearing. I chuckled and after the laughter was over I told him that his timing might have been “a little quick.”
Evans and Graham had earned the respect that allowed them to get out of their difficulties, but other umpires are usually not that lucky. Being a little quick generally gets you in a heap of trouble. Let’s cover the scenarios that may come up in a game that illustrate good timing is important.
If you’re working in a three- or four-umpire system, a base umpire is expected to go out on “trouble balls” — balls that may be trapped, go out of the park, or raise fair/foul issues. They can cause problems. If you’re too quick, you will misread the flight and trajectory of the ball and go out when you shouldn’t. Or stay in when you should have gone out. Or, worst of all, go out when your partner is going out as well.
“Pause, read and react.”
That is the mantra that applies. In those situations, good timing means that once you recognize that a batted ball is going to go into the air and into the outfield, you will pause briefly to read whether it is likely to be a trouble ball and, if it is, whether you’re the one who should go out on it. Then you react accordingly. If you go out, you also need to be sure that you don’t run toward the ball, because you’ll lose the angle on it. Instead, run parallel to the direction it takes. That will give you the best angle to the see the play without getting straightlined or blocked.
Fly ball coverage is something that needs to be covered in every pregame. Everyone must be on the same page in terms of which base umpire(s) have the various outfield responsibilities and when. Then, remind yourself not to run out the instant a ball is hit to the outfield, but instead to take things a step at a time and employ the pause, read and react philosophy. The last ingredient is that before the ball gets to the outfielder, fence, etc., you need to stop. Even if you haven’t gotten as far out as you would have liked, you’re more likely to get the play right if your eyes are steady and set rather than bouncing up and down while running full tilt.
Here again, you have to fight a constant battle to take things slowly, especially at first base. We all have a tendency to call plays too quickly.
The best advice is to get set before you make a call, no matter which base or situation it is. I’ve found that if I put my hands on my knees, I’ll be much more deliberate than if I’m still moving as the play ends and a call is necessary. Umpiring 101 says that getting a good angle on the play and getting set before making a call will vastly increase the chances of making the correct call even if you’re farther away from the play than you’d like.
The key is to be deliberate on every pitch. By being deliberate from the first pitch to the last, you create an air of certainty about your work, which will go a long way toward selling yourself. Perception is far more important than reality.
Your stance, the way you set up and your strike signal can have an effect on your timing. If you use the scissors style, I’ve always thought that you are putting more pressure on one leg. As the game progresses, you’ll have a tendency to want to come out of your stance more quickly and that will almost inevitably speed up your timing on calling pitches. A quick, punch-like strike signal will do the same thing. Umpires using that style when calling pitches don’t believe that speeds up timing, but often it’s very noticeable.
In my book, if you use a box stance, with your weight evenly distributed, as well as a fluid this-is-no-big-deal, out-to-the-side strike call, and if you train yourself to pause a couple of seconds on every pitch before calling it, you’ll enhance your chances of getting to the point where you can be deliberate day in and day out and year in and year out. That comes from personal experience.
One final note on timing involving plate work. When I worked the plate, I always asked my partner(s) to let me know if my timing was too quick. Often, you can be without being aware of it. The signal my partner(s) would use was a tap on the left wrist. That was an unobtrusive way of telling me to slow down. I always welcomed it, especially in the early innings when there was time to correct the problem. The signal could come at any time. As the game progresses and things get tense, you can get caught up in the moment and, unwittingly, speed things up. When things are getting hectic and you are more deliberate with your calls, you will create the impression that it isn’t your first time and you’ll be in control.
Good timing is a vital component of good umpiring. Be conscious of the need for good timing before and during games. You will be perceived as someone of great experience and not someone who has never umpired before.
Jon Bible, Austin, Texas, is a veteran umpire who has worked six NCAA Division I College World Series.
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