Photo Credit: Dale Garvey

Many of us who have been umpiring for a number of years have seen the situation in which one umpire is dutifully making his or her way across the diamond in anticipation of a call at third. Then, to our surprise, we see the plate umpire streaking toward the base, awaiting the play to unfold. It’s exciting to see the great hustle by each umpire until the danger mode hits because it looks like two umpires are about to make a call on the same play.

If the close call is the same, it simply looks like two umpires hustling and without a doubt the runner was safe or out. Fellow umpires know that is not good; it simply means they dodged a bullet because they didn’t communicate with each other.

Now, if one umpire calls, “Safe” and one umpire calls, “Out,” things get heated very quickly. However, as bad as that is, the fact that both umpires hustled into position means the coach is probably going to give them a little bit of a break. As umpires, we know that two calls on one play, especially two different calls on one play, are the types of things that give players, coaches and fans the ammunition to fire at will.

Contrast that scenario of a bang-bang play to one that is less innocuous, and much, much more embarrassing. And that play is the appeal play when one umpire rules “out” and the other umpire rules “safe.” In the appeal scenario, there is no cloud of dust, a runner sliding in, a tag being applied or a tag being missed, or a runner making a great slide to avoid a tag and still reach the base. No, the appeal play is more like bookkeeping. Most of the time it is handled without incident, and many times it is handled by the base umpire without many of the other players, the other umpire or the fans knowing it is happening. And then again, it can be a very deliberate demonstration, at which time all eyes and ears are on the umpire.

Umpires usually have a mental scar or two relating to a call, a rule interpretation, or how we’ve reacted to a player or coach, during an appeal. When that happens in our career, it leaves an indelible mark. And, yes, I was scarred early in my umpire career due to an appeal fiasco.

The angst of that call reverberates in my memory. I vividly remember the situation. I was working the bases and we had runners on base and a routine grounder headed to the outfield. The batter-runner made his way to second base without issue. Or so I thought. In those days, unless it was a live-ball appeal, the ball had to go back to the pitcher, the batter and catcher had to be ready, the umpire had to put the ball in play, and then, the appeal process could be started. I heard the first baseman tell the pitcher that the runner had missed first and to appeal the play. As a new umpire, I knew I had to watch R1 touch second base and look to see the batter-runner touch first base.

If you don’t see an out, you don’t have an out

As I’ve learned over the years in slow-pitch softball, you rarely are able to see both of those touches on a consistent basis. That’s what happened on that day. Since I didn’t see the batter-runner touch first base, I should have done what I had been taught. And that was, if you didn’t see the runner miss the base, then the runner is safe. If you don’t see an out, you don’t have an out.

The umpire put the ball in play, the pitcher voiced his appeal and with great forcefulness, I made a “Safe!” call emphatic and loud. But to my terror, echoing across the diamond, I also heard, “Out!” from my partner.

In a nano-second I knew I (we) had a problem. We discussed the situation and I told my partner that I wasn’t watching at all. He had what he needed to explain to the coaches why there was an “out” call and a “safe” call. Obviously, we stayed with the out call.

That brings me to what I consider the fool-proof method of not having two different calls on the same appeal play. Before each game, we are supposed to discuss with our partner our coverage responsibilities — tag-ups and runners touching bases. And there are mechanics that we agree on that aren’t described in an umpire’s manual. The importance of that should never be diminished.

I recommend the traffic-cop approach. I call it that because I see the traffic cop as directing traffic, letting each driver know when to go, where to go, and mainly, not to go.

If the appeal isn’t ruled on before the ball is dead, then most often the pitcher is facing the plate umpire when he or she initiates the appeal. And if that is the case, it is usually an appeal on the batter-runner missing first base or R1 leaving first too soon during a tag-up play. In slow pitch, the appeal of the player leaving first too soon is the plate umpire’s call. The potential for error comes in the appeal of the batter-runner missing first base. I tell my partner that on a base hit, I’ll be looking down at first to help with the batter-runner touching first base.

When the appeal process begins and is stated, I am directing “traffic” from behind the plate. If I saw the batter-runner clearly miss first base, I would rule “out.” If I clearly saw the batter-runner touch first base, I would rule “safe.” If I did not see the batter-runner touch first, or if the missing or touching was so close that I couldn’t tell from my angle, I’d move into the traffic cop mode by stepping from behind the plate and pointing to my partner, “The pitcher is appealing the batter-runner didn’t touch first base.” That tells my partner that I did not see the play well enough to rule either way. My partner then makes the call based on what he or she saw. No matter what the groans are from the players, there aren’t two opposite calls. When we get together after the game, we can discuss whether or not my partner was able to see the batter-runner touch first or not. In a two-umpire system you are not going to be able to see everything all of the time.

Learn to conduct traffic to avoid that nano-second panic attack.

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