After nearly four months of nary a blog, why resume that pasttime keying about baseball umpires. It's all about nostalgia. I haven't umped a game in more than 17 years, but for 25 years it was a near passion of mine. So the other day I got to thinking about those days and this blog is the result. The goal is not to be witty or funny or even inspirational. It is certainly not to make anyone want to become an umpire or to quit that avocation. This is purely for me to relive some pretty good times in the past doing something I left behind long ago. For you...this is from the "for what it's worth" department. Enjoy or not as you choose of course. I just keys 'em like I sees 'em.
When I moved to Tennessee in the mid-1990s, I retired from sports officiating with nearly 25 years of baseball umpiring experience. I had also officiated softball in spring and summer, volleyball in the fall, and basketball in the winter; but my first love was always baseball. Sports officiating was a way to make a few bucks, keep contact with sports I loved but was never good enough to play seriously, and escape the stress of the job as a professional educator. During my last years in Texas, I was assigning secretary and clinician for the umpiring association in San Angelo, Texas, covering area high school and college games through NCAA Divison I, as well as umpire-in-chief for Little League District 4. My motto was “call ‘em like ya see ‘em.”
Some months after my arrival in the Volunteer State, minus my umpire equipment most of which had been donated to young Texas umpires, I recall my wife’s asking me if I missed officiating. My response was that, while I had lots of mostly good memories from those years, I didn’t miss the Little League double headers in the heat of the summer. It was especially hard on the knees and the sweat glands to get low behind a 10-year-old catcher who couldn’t catch protected only by my mask, shin guards, and the infamous balloon chest protector. I preferred the inside chest protector for mobility but with the really young catchers, the outside balloon protector gave a lot more hiding and ducking room.
In my umpire clinics I would give the novices lots of information and the veterans some reminders. These were in the form of my Dozen Habits of Highly Effective Umpires (with apologies to Mr. Covey):
1. Dress the part. Be in the proper uniform with all the necessary equipment. Appearances should not be deceiving. Never show up to work a game in tennis shoes and white socks. I remember one time when I assigned myself and a first-year novice to umpire a Little League double header in the summer heat. My youthful partner showed up without any plate gear. I had to umpire both games behind the plate. I found time to chew on him pretty good during those innings. He never again failed to prepare for his share of plate appearances; and subsequently I never scheduled him for another double header with me .
2. Keep a professional distance with coaches, players, and fans, before, during, and after the game. I never liked the umps who spent pre-game and between-innings time visiting with fans in the stands. Before games there are always bats and other equipment to check and ground rules with which to familiarize yourself. Between innings the job is to watch the teams coming on and off the field and oversee the time of warm-up.
3. Partnerships take careful communication; do your part. There are nonverbal signals that all umpires need to know. Then again…non-bashful shouting often can be a quite effective tool. A loud shout of "You got third!" from the base ump reminds the plate ump of his responsibility when the first call may obviously be at first or second.
4. Take charge! Know the rules; enforce them with consistency. Most coaches understand that umps are going to miss calls now and then. They don’t like it, but they do understand it. If a coach will be realistic and reflectively admit it, umpires are only human. The veteran umpire knows there is a time to just suck it up and admit, “Coach, I blew it!” I remember a contest between the local high school San Angelo Central and Odessa Permian. I was calling the dish. Though time has dulled some details, the events are pretty close to how I am about to record them. During one of the middle innings, I lost the strike zone…and I knew it. As now, it was supposedly against the rules for coaches to question ball and strike calls. Central was at bat. A pitch broke into the dirt and I called it a strike. That was followed by a fast ball at the shoulders for strike two. That’s when the coach, already upset, called time to talk to his batter. What he really wanted was to talk to the moronic, blind umpire. I knew he would stand down the third base line until I walked all the way up there, about 65 feet of the 90 foot base path, and broke up his one charged offensive conference allowed in that inning. My hollering, “Play ball!” did no good. So I took the walk. Before the coach even opened his mouth and after the batter had moved out of earshot, I started with, “Coach, what’s your favorite pizza topping? Mine’s Italian sausage.” He seemed stunned and at a loss for words. I continued, “Coach, even though I just blew the last two calls, you know we can’t discuss those calls; so, I’ll ask you again about your favorite pizza topping.” He laughed and we resumed the game. The top of the next inning with Odessa at bat, the same thing happened. Knowing the coach wanted to have his two cents worth, I again walked the line. After the batter returned to the plate, I addressed the visiting coach, “Coach, let me ask you the same question I asked the Central coach last inning.” His reply was something like, “What’s that?” I continued, “What’s your favorite pizza topping?” He hesitated, so I went on. “Coach I’ve missed a few calls but since we can’t discuss that, what’s your favorite pizza topping? Mine’s Italian sausage.” I didn’t miss another call all game, the ones I did miss did not affect play or the outcome, and both coaches later told me they appreciated my admitting the situation and the manner in which I handled it. Humor can often help umpires avoid confrontations that can quickly get out of hand culminating in the violation of one of my three cardinal principles: "Do everything you can to end the game with everybody who started it."
5. Use SOUND mechanics; always as dictated in the manual and loudly selling the close ones. Umpires have to learn the signals, motions, and movements. The bang-bang plays must be sold vigorously and loudly. There is a direct proportion between the selling of the call and the length of the argument that will always follow the close ones with the coach in whose favor the play did NOT go.
6. Keep the game moving. Limit time between innings. A pet peeve of mine was always about umpires who would state in the pregame meeting with the coaches that their team (including pitchers) would have one minute to warm up between innings and then never enforce that rule. The game can really drag. There’s enough down time in a baseball game without allowing extra because of lack of hustle.
7. Work inside out. This in an umpire’s positioning concept. If the ball is in the infield, the base umpire remains positioned slightly on the outfield side; if the ball is in the outfield, the umpire moves quickly to the infield side in position to make the next call and to watch runners touching all the bags as they progress around the diamond.
8. Avoid the DMZ [Dead Man’s Zone] when umpiring the bases. This is the area 10 feet to either side of a direct line from the pitcher’s rubber to second base. Umpires strolling into this zone to make calls or to follow runner's progress are prone to getting beaned or interfering with a throw or a play.
9. Hustle! Cover all the bases with proper positioning and mechanics. Nothing can make up for a lack of hustle. In a two-man system the plate umpire must move out from behind the dish to the infield grass (to left of catcher) to be prepared to make a call at third if a previous call for the base ump is at one of the other bases. The plate ump also must be ready to back up the base ump on appeals at first base (particularly swipe tags) for which the base ump may not have a good view no matter his position. I remember one time with no one on base, the batter hit a line drive toward the right field gap. It was going to be a close catch, so, as the base umpire, I immediately sprinted to the outfield to ensure a closer view. Seeing my move and hearing my shout, “Going out!” my partner anticipated a play at either second or third base, so he sprinted toward the shortstop’s position so as to be in place for either call. The ball was not caught and rolled to the wall. The right fielder threw the ball in toward third base where my partner was in perfect position for the call. As soon as I determined the right fielder would not be making a shoestring catch or trap, I had retraced my steps toward the infield. Seeing that my partner had third base covered, I headed toward home as the runner was rounding second. The throw went over the third baseman’s head to the fence where the pitcher backing up that play eventually retrieved it and sailed it home. There was a close play but the runner was clearly out. Even so, I sold it with motion and volume. As I trotted back to my position behind first base, I gratifyingly overheard the rather hushed tones of the fans, “Where’d he come from?” “Never seen umpires work better than that.” “Nice hustle, Blue!” It did this old umpire’s heart good.
10. If it isn’t in writing, it may not exist. I have this slogan on cardstock on my office wall. What works in my career as a professional educator is just as important on the diamond. Keep track of line ups, substitutions, charged conferences, and, when there is no working scoreboard, innings, runs, and official game time. “Amen!”
11. Get a strike whenever you can; get an out whenever you can. Call it like you see it; if you don’t see it, call it the best you can, then get help from your partner(s); when all else fails, sell it! I actually used to teach three principles in my umpire clinics with young officials. It went like this: “There are three cardinal rules to umpiring. Get a strike whenever you can. Get an out whenever you can (there is no such thing as the tie going to the runner). These two “rules” make the game move along more quickly. The third was “Do everything you can to end the game with everyone who began the game.” That last principle was about umpire’s having thick skins and not having rabbit ears.
12. Use the right mouthwash...S-C-O-P-E:
• Submission to the rules and spirit of the game
• Consistencyin mechanics and judgment
• Observationof all facets of the game; you are in charge; equipment, weather, fans, coaches, field conditions, ground rules, etc.
• Preparation...pre-season practice; pre-game warm-up [body & mind]; pre-call position.
• Energy; hustle; enthusiasm for the game and for “that” game; it’s more than a job, it’s an adventure.
Umpire Heckles. Perhaps the most well known heckle of all time, “Kill the ump!” was first recorded in Ernest L. Thayer's 1888 poem “Casey at the Bat.” Today, possibly because of the legal repercussions of screaming a threat on a man’s life (Homeland Security and all that), the term is seldom used. The majority of umpire heckles revolve around two common themes. The ump is blind and the ump is partial. The professional umpire is not usually within earshot of the bleachers. For this reason heckles must be short enough to bellow, usually not exceeding one line. Here are some interesting heckles:
• Sweep the plate! It's the least you can do.
• Go get 'em, blue! Arf! Arf! Arf! (when the coach's mound visit has been going on too long)
• Move around, you're tiltin' the infield.
• You're killing me, blue.
• Can I pet your seeing-eye dog after the game?
• It sure sounded like a strike!
• How'd you get your square head in that round mask?
• Did they stop printing the rulebook in Braille?
• Don't donate your eyes to science, they don't want ‘em.
• Does your wife let you make decisions at home?
• Pull the good eye out of your pocket.
• I thought only horses slept standing up!
• Flip over the plate and read the directions.
• Wipe the dirt off that called strike.
• Sure you don't want to phone a friend?
• You can open your eyes now!
• If you need the money that bad, get a paper route!
• That was a strike in any bowling alley.
• You flipping coins?
• Is that your final answer?
• Take off that welding mask.
• Lenscrafters called...they'll be ready in 30 minutes.
• Open your good eye.
• When your dog barks twice, it’s a strike!
• Next time buy a ticket if you're going to watch!
• Kick your dog, he's lying to you!
• Do you get any better or is this it?
• You're blinking too long!
• I'm gonna break your cane and shoot your dog.
• You couldn't make the right call if you had a phone book.
• Move around, Ump; you're killing the grass!
• Leave the gift giving to Santa!
• Take out your glass eye and wash it.
• Be careful when you back up, so you don't trip over your dog.
• If the pitcher is throwing too fast for you, ask him to slow it down.
• The manager called, your uniform is ready.
• Your strike zone is a moving target.
• You're getting better, you almost made the right call that time.
• Punch a hole in that mask, you're missing a good game.
• Stevie Wonder could see that one.
• I've seen potatoes with better eyes!
• For a guy who almost works two hours a day, you're doing a pretty bad job!
• Hey blue, if you had one more eye you'd be a Cyclops.
• If you knew anything about Newton's law of gravity, that would have been called a strike.
• Hey, Blue, try looking BETWEEN the bars on your mask!
• RING! RING! Wake up call, ump!
• You couldn't see the plate if your dinner was on it!
• This guy busted his behind running 90 ft, the least you could do is move 10 ft to make a call.
• If that pitch were any more inside, it would've taken out his appendix!
• If that pitch were any farther outside, it would be in Arkansas!
• Come on, ump! If that pitch were any lower, it would be in the subway!
• Just 'cause it's a night game, doesn't mean you should be asleep!
• If stupidity were bricks, you'd be Fenway Park!
• Those are radio balls he's throwing – you can hear 'em but you can't see 'em.
Let me conclude this overly enlightening travesty of blogging with two final highlights from my career.
I was calling bases on the front end of an NCAA Division I double header in Sheveport, LA, between Centenary College and Hardin Simmons University. The game was 11-0 with the home team leading in the top of the last inning. There were no runners on base and I believe only one out. The slugger for HSU, who had gone hitless the enire game to that point, smacked the first pitch over the left field wall. The plate ump gave the home run signal while I went through the formality of watching the batter "touch 'em all." He was admiring his shot and missed first base by two feet. The Centenary dugout (with a clear view) erupted into laughter and chantings bringing the infraction to the immediate attention of everyone else...I was already enlightened by my not-always-blind eyes. As soon as the batter touched the plate, a new ball was tossed to the pitcher, the next batter stepped into the box, and my partner signaled for play to resume. The pitcher stepped back off the rubber tossing the ball to the first baseman who tagged the bag. I had to call that batter out especially since everyone in the park (except perhaps the idiotic slugger) knew he'd missed the bag. The third base dugout erupted and the visiting coach charged me in my location behind first base where I was awaiting what was to be the last batter of that game. Upon reaching my position the coach, who was outwardly displaying a maddeningly fuming disposition, said, almost in a whisper so no one else could hear, "I know you had to make that call, Blue, and I hope you realize I have to run out here and throw a fit questioning it for my players sake. We do have another game to play, you know." After that he turned and jogged back to the dugout. There were no more problems that day except for that clutsy hitter who probably got an earful from his coach for more than a few minutes.
My final story is about a time when a high school coach was on my case about a judgment call. I truly believed I had gotten the play right. The coach differed with that opinion. After letting him have his say for a few moments, I approached him in the third base coaches' box. The dialogue went something like this:
Me: "Coach, you've had your say; all I want to know is did you bring your binoculars?"
Me: "Your binoculars, Coach? Because if I hear any more about that call, you're going to watching the rest of the game from the bus in the parking lot."
That was the end of that conversation and also the end of this blog.
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