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Was that tarp discussed in the ground rules before the game? If the player attempts to recover the ball in this situation, is it considered live? If a foul fly goes near the tarp, can a player put one or both feet on it to attempt a catch? All of those situations and other ground rules should be considered during the plate meeting before the game. (Photo Credit: Dale Garvey)

Like everyone else, I like to be prepared when someone asks a question. That is particularly true when I’m umpiring a game. That gives me a chance to remember what I saw, read or discussed and make calls with confidence. Knowing a field’s quirks preloads information that may be critical during the game. When the ball is bouncing around in a corner or close to dead-ball territory, it changes your thinking from “That is odd” to “I got that!” A few minutes spent walking the field before the game can save you from difficult conversations with coaches once the game is under way.

There are few things more satisfying than stepping onto a field that is perfectly enclosed and maintained. The chance of ground-rule issues occurring are reduced. Those fields are an umpire’s dream — that and working the Women’s College World Series or state finals one day. No matter how well a field is designed though, there are always areas where the ball can become blocked.

It is a great practice to walk a field before a game to find those areas where, against all odds, a ball can disappear. When you do that, your pregame with your partners has already started. Discussion about the need for additional chases will prepare the crew for its movements and rotations. That is one of the reasons umpires are encouraged, when possible, to arrive at their field at least one hour before game time. Besides demonstrating to the coaches your professionalism and commitment to their game, finding those problems early may allow grounds crews to repair or make corrections to start your game on time.

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A good example involves a temporary fence. Each code differs slightly when determining a catch/no catch, home run versus an out. Clarifying those rules before the game will save you from delaying the game for a crew conference later.

Trees hanging over the field, flags, signs and poles that jut out into live-ball areas and holes can kill play and restrict the offense. There are a lot of fields out there with no home-run fence. Sometimes the end of the field is a roadway or other hazard to players. Coaches and parents will always say it is unfair when a batter hits a ball for extra bases and they must stop because the rules call for a double on one of those long hits. No matter how unfair it seems, both teams face the same problems. In a perfect world, the ball would never be blocked or leave the field, but that is not the nature of the game. Your job is to award according to the rules and not concoct your own interpretations.

Recommendations on field requirements for collegiate games should also prompt inspection to confirm compliances with updated rules for supplemental fencing improvements. It has been well over a year since those changes were mandated, but for many reasons, smaller schools may have difficulty updating. Minor areas of concern should be reported to your conference assigner for follow-up and not delay the game unless there is a significant hazard or issue that prevents starting the game.

The inspection of the field will allow the crew to be aware of those issues that need to be discussed at the pregame meeting with the coaches. During that meeting, not everything will need to be discussed because the rulebook has already identified most of the procedures and awards. Dugout openings or any opening where there is no barrier preventing a player from leaving a live-ball area to make a catch should be discussed. Also, any openings that allow a ball to roll out of play should be identified. Holes in the backstop where a pitched ball will exit the field, or a temporary fence that is not long enough or has gaps along the bottom are some of the problems that can and will affect your game. An example would be a foul line that meanders or does not cross first or third base precisely. The presence of a tarp should lead you to review what determines a catch or no catch and where and when a ball will be considered blocked.

The areas around home plate and the batter’s box should always be corrected if possible, but when not possible, you should at least note that they are off and you will use your judgment to ensure that your rulings are in line with the rules. Batter’s boxes that are often too far or too close to the plate can affect a coach’s perceptions of your strike zone. Letting the coaches know that you recognize the discrepancy and it will not affect your calls shows your attention to details and reduces the anxiety of the coaches when their catchers tell them the ball was off the plate or in the box.

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All codes allow special ground rules to be used as long as they do not conflict with the appropriate code’s rules. Those should be reviewed during the pregame at the plate. You do not need to overly explain the penalties or awards that you may enforce because those awards are in the rulebook. The pregame meeting is not the time to educate coaches on how bases are awarded. Most coaches will generally know that and will view that as a waste of time. Your plate conference should acknowledge where field problems may arise so you are not explaining those during the game. Stick with identifying the prominent problem areas of the field that may require you to make a decision.

In NCAA and NFHS contests, both teams must agree upon any special ground rules. When they do not, it is the responsibility of the umpire to properly formulate the ground rules. In USA Softball, the ground rules are determined by the plate umpire with emphasis to keep the ball in play as much as possible.

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Each code covers ground rules a bit differently, but all agree a ground rule shall not supersede a rulebook rule. The NCAA’s focus on getting the call right does not contradict that. A fly ball hitting the foul pole is still a home run. If an umpire’s judgment call is changed based on additional information, that does not alter an award as directed in the rules. Managing errors in judgment is separate from making proper awards. Determine what actually happened, then make the proper award.

What should run through an umpire’s mind on a ball moving toward dead-ball territory is how the ball got to that position because that will decide the award. Basically, a pitched ball is a one-base award, a thrown ball is a two-base award and a batted ball can be up to a four-base award. The “possessed ball” that does not fit into the above categories will be a one-base award. Those awards basically hold true across all codes but timely review of the code you are working is always recommended.

Every game has surprises and decisions that have to be made on the fly. Be proactive. Reducing the number of items that may catch you by surprise can only help you. To improve your game, you need to plan ahead and take the time to recognize those little things that can come out in a tight game. It is that type of attention to details that will take you to the next level. Enjoy your next walk around the field.

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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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