If you look at film clips of MLB games from years ago, you’ll often see umpires dashing madly about and calling plays on the run. Conversely, I think we’ve all seen umpires who seem glued to one spot even when the situation calls for movement.
How we move on the field can affect our performance. Too much and our ability to see and accurately process action will be impaired because our heads, and thus our eyes, will bounce around. Too little and we may end up so far away from a play, or with such a poor angle, that we can’t see all of its elements.
Our image can also suffer. Excessive movement can make it look like we’re trying too hard and are in over our heads. This includes false, or needless, hustle that is usually done just to put on a show. Not enough motion and we can look lazy. Neither of these extremes enhances our image and, as you’ve probably heard, perception can be more important than reality.
We should strive for a happy medium where we move in a brisk but controlled manner that gets us where we need to be, when we need to be there, and makes it look like we know what we’re doing. For many of us, this is something that requires thought, effort and experience. Even with the aid of mechanics manuals and the sage advice of veteran umpires, it’s a trial-and-error process that takes time. This is one reason why I’ve always talked about the need for umpires just starting out not to get over eager and want to advance too quickly. We can’t know how much we don’t know until we’ve been at this for a while, and it takes time for each person to experiment until we figure out what works best.
Obviously more movement will be needed the smaller the crew, but we can still do it in a controlled manner. Ultimately, the angle we get on a play is more important than being on top of it.
When I had the plate I got in my stance and looked at warmup pitches in both halves of the first inning. This helped me to focus on my timing, get a sense of what and how the pitcher throws and how the catchers receive the ball, and have a get-acquainted chat with the catchers. Plus, I thought this made it look like I took my job more seriously than if I just stood to the side like I wasn’t engaged. But recognizing impressions of us can be formed before the first official pitch is thrown, I neither dragged myself back there nor got there in an overly exuberant manner. Instead, I strove for something in between that looked crisp and businesslike. I also did this when I dusted off the plate.
Say the batter hits an infield grounder with no runners on base. We need to get a few steps down the line to be able to help the base umpire if the throw is awry and the first baseman tries to tag the batter-runner or pulls his foot off the bag. If we take only a step or two — or none — we look like we’re loafing and we’re 90 feet away from being able to provide help if it’s needed. But if we sprint down the line we can’t provide much help because so much movement and head-bobbing make it difficult to process what we see. Again, strike a balance: Briskly move down the line a few steps, get set before the play happens, watch it, provide help if necessary, then crisply trot back behind the plate.
We may not think much about between-inning movement, but it can be important. Eyes may be on us, especially if we made a pivotal call to end the inning. I didn’t bounce out from behind the plate and yell at the team taking the field, “Let’s hustle, guys” because I thought that was corny, but I also didn’t slouch around, get down on a knee, etc., while the teams changed sides. I took a few steps down the line and stood there in an upright but not rigid manner. If I got together with a partner on the bases (which we should keep to a minimum) I made sure I was back in position to start the inning.
Depending on the size of the crew and whether an umpire goes out on a trouble ball, we may have coverage responsibilities at any base. If we move too slowly we may never get correctly positioned to make a call, so we’ll have to make it long distance; right or wrong, this will open us up to criticism. But if we take off like a sprinter out of the blocks we may interfere with players or throws, needlessly get to a base when no play is developing, overrun the play and be out of position, or otherwise make ourselves useless. When the ball is hit, glide, in a controlled manner, a few steps toward the base we may need to cover, stop and read the play. If it looks like action may develop, we need only take a few more steps and we’ll be there in time to stop, get set and make the call.
When there’s a trouble ball in the outfield, each base umpire should pause, read its direction and trajectory, and react by going out (trying to make sure that another umpire doesn’t do so) or rotating on the bases if another one does. If you go out, don’t keep running, because your head and eyes will be moving at the crucial time when you have to make a ruling. Go out briskly, but not full tilt, and then, while you may end up farther away from the play than you’d like, stop so you’ve got a controlled look at whether the catch is made, the ball is fair or foul or whatever. As is the case with plays on the bases, getting a good angle on a trouble ball is more important than being on top of it.
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