It’s no secret baseball coaches and players sometimes see that other guy on the field wearing protective gear — other than the catcher — as nothing more than a necessary nuisance.
To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, many a plate umpire “can’t get no respect”, and it often shows up in the manner in which baseballs make their way back to the boy — or girl — in blue. The way some teams deliver new baseballs — or, at most levels, return already used ones that have gone out of play for one reason or another — you would think the home-plate umpire is nothing more than a dog playing fetch.
Rolled. Bounced. Thrown over the head or 10 feet short.
Instead of baseballs, most umpires might rightfully expect a tennis ball, an old slipper or a stick to come flying their direction next.
We can all agree that major league umpires would never allow such an act of disrespect to fly. Could you imagine attending a game at baseball’s highest level and watching the likes of Gerry Davis and Joe West chasing wayward pearls in the downtime between pitches? Yet when it comes to the high school and amateur levels of the game, it happens all the time.
And we should be putting a stop to it.
That doesn’t mean that an umpire should never be expected to handle a baseball. There are plenty of reasons for doing so. Perhaps you need to check a ball for a cut or scuff mark after the hitter nubbed one off the end of the bat. You’re standing in the infield halfway between home plate and first base — because you mechanically did what you were supposed to on the ground ball — and the baseball has already been returned to the pitcher. Nothing wrong with asking him to toss it to you for inspection.
There is a huge difference between such onfield acts and the manner in which baseballs arrive from the dugout to the plate area. Plate umpires need to do their part in cleaning up that process and setting the tone for their fellow umpires who will work said teams in the future.
Address it during pregame
Some coaches are difficult on purpose. Others are oblivious. Either way, you have an opportunity to set expectations during the plate meeting about any items that you feel need to be addressed. Let the coaches know that when you need baseballs, a uniformed team representative needs to run them out and hand them to you. More on Pregames
Whether you use one ball bag or two is a matter of personal preference. Either way, you should be aware of how many baseballs you have at your disposal at all times. And as soon as you have fewer than two, you should be making the home team aware of that fact. We’ve all seen situations where a foul ball goes flying out of play and the umpire turns to the dugout and yells, “We need a baseball. I am all out.” Now, the teams and the fans have to play the waiting game because you didn’t take care of business when your supply ran low. You don’t wait until your car comes to a stop on a busy highway to re-fill your gas tank, right?
In a perfect world, the home team will have someone responsible for paying attention to how many baseballs have gone out of play and how many you still have to work with. Then again, we all know that we rarely umpire in perfect situations. To that end, be specific with teams about what you need when you are requesting baseballs. If you yell to the dugout, “Guys, I need two baseballs, please,” then it should be expected that someone will deliver two baseballs. If you just yell out that you need baseballs, don’t be surprised when they bring one (setting you up for the same conversation as soon as the next pitch is fouled out of play) or four (which, if you’re a single bagger, is going to leave you looking like you are ready to tip over).
Good ball mechanics should be a two-way street. You have asked the coaches to respect your process; you need to likewise be respectful of theirs. If you have a baseball that needs to be taken out of play, don’t just toss it toward the dugout with a grumble. The word for such an umpire is “hypocrite.” You don’t need to walk it over to the dugout and delay the game. But you should make eye contact with the head coach or whoever has been taking care of delivering baseballs and let them know why you are softly tossing one their way. “This baseball has a tear in the seams. We need to take it out of play. Thanks.”
Use proper language.
When using language audible enough for anyone more than the catcher and batter to hear, remember to call them “baseballs.” Few things are more embarrassing than turning to the dugout and yelling loud enough for everyone to hear, “I need some balls!” Yes, it may elicit a chuckle. It may also open the door to ridicule and invite the lack of respect that we are trying to avoid in the first place.
Scott Tittrington is an associate editor at Referee. He umpires college and high school baseball, and officiates high school basketball and football.
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