Umpiring in Post-Season Youth Baseball
by Ace Holleran
Umpire Consultant/Assistant District Administrator
District 2 Little League, Bridgeport, CT
Foreword: Please note that in most cases, I am referring to the Williamsport organization. Of course, none of what I am babbling about holds any water in arguments, rhubarbs or other unpleasantness. The purpose of this little tract is to help prepare arbiters who might have done regular season games up until now--and are ready to move up a notch. It can mean big fun, and big problems, too. Beware: Some humor is included; live with it! So, before you get your boxers in a knot, here goes ...
The Right Stuff
Before you even walk onto the field, much must be done. Chances are you haven't been wearing a full umpire's regalia until now. Get it. Buy all the impedimenta you need; if money's a problem, try to wheedle some jingle from your league.
This stuff includes: Leave your Dockers in the bureau. Real heather-gray (also called "oxford gray") trousers. Get a wider-legged pair for the plate. Note: If you do the plate with your shinguards on the outside of your pants (or wear your hat backwards), I will personally come to your game and give you a red kiester--on every pitch.
Use the shirt your local group requires. By now, I hope they have passed the "Elbeco Era," and are into the navy polo shirt that 99% of umpires wear. I could go on forever here. In short, press it, buff it, shine it. If you need to ask why you shouldn't wear an adjustable hat, you might be better off in the stands. Please trust me on this. I trusted my father when he talked me out of dating Gladys Lipinski; he was right.
Attend All Pre-Tourney Meetings, etc.
If your district is on the ball, they will have several pre-tourney confabs. There will be discussion of book rules, local ground rules, all that good stuff. We even have some umps sit in on our coaches' meetings... just to listen.
Dog-ear a Rule Book:
Keep one on the nightstand; one in the loo; one in your gear bag. DO NOT bring one onto the field. Acquaint yourself intimately with all the permutations of the following knotty sitches [even though the venerable Carl Childress says the word sitch emanates from CA, I still humbly opine that I was first to use it on the Net to describe intra-game happenings].
Here's the stuff you should be able to quote from the Williamsport Manifesto, chapter and verse:
- Obstruction: immediate and delayed [Rule 7.06]
- Interference: by catchers, runners and batters [6.08(c), 7.09]
- How to orchestrate (and adjudicate) a proper appeal play [7.10]
- Batting out of order [6.07]
- (Little League, 11-12s) Leaving base early on the pitch [7.13]
Remember Gladys Lipinski; trust me on this one too: All this stuff can--and will--happen. Unlike the regular season, you can't "let it go." Coaches, players and fans alike will be encouraging you--and none too kindly, I might add--to do the right thing. Bandwidth prevents me from delving into all these niceties. A hint: Join the LL umps' unofficial mailing list, where short-twisters are frequently discussed. See the end of this morass for more info.
You're an Amateur, So Act Professionally
This may be the first time that you're showing up at a field in uniform, deciding a game that is played by strange teams -- a game that really means something. Act the part; you're on stage.
Be there early, not just on time. Have a pre-game with your partner(s). Remember you [especially if you're on the dish] are administering a serious ballgame. Decisions you are about to make will determine whether little Jason of the Gnats will be playing shortstop next week--or playing Chief Wahoo in Camp Tee-pee's summer pageant.
"I Don't Think We're in Kansas Anymore."
No, you're not. In short, this ain't your home league. Nice old Mr. Pfister from the pharmacy won't be coaching. Your buds won't be there ready to bail you out. Be ready for coaches that breathe fire ... and know as much about the rule book as you do about freezing brain sections.
Please relax. I'm not characterizing youth-league tourney coaches as brimstone-spewing, brain-addled idiots. But oftentimes they are. Tournament time can transform mild-mannered accountant Harvey Schultz into Lou Piniella. Overnight. And guess what: When Stymie throws the ball over the backstop, and you award all runners two bases, a good number of people will think it's your fault. Which brings us to ...
Ignore the Fans
Chances are that some of your games might be well attended. And yes, you will be booed. And worse. Look at this as a compliment: You have stepped into a tough sitch and made a controversial call. Exactly half the people there will agree with you; they will be silent. The other half will be screaming things that will warp your mask.
Here's the only way to look at it: You are the man, even if you're female. Nothing the wienie-munchers can do will change this. After you call Spanky out at first when the throw beats him by a good two steps and a team mom in a sensible jumper gives you her Saab story at 105 decibels, you'll see how ridiculous grown people can be. Don't forget, these folks are not out for a summer's night of fresh air, good clean fun and baseball. They expect Iodine to get a college scholarship playing ball some day. And you're the meanie who's derailing his nascent career.
Unless fans are interfering with the game, or taunting players, let 'em holler. If a problem occurs, go to the site director or other official to quell the natives.
Mechanics: Ump Big
Veteran arbiter Ray Faustich gave me this pithy, two-word phrase, and he is dead right. Be ready to sell each and every close call. Remember, you are dealing with 28 players, six coaches and 300 coaches in the stands. Why do you think umpires call close plays bang-bangers? Bang it. You're not only doing your job as a communicator; you're telling everybody in the yard: "I was there. I saw it. I've got the call. Now have a seat and go back to discussing with Mrs. Fussbudget how lousy your coach is for not starting Pugsley at third."
By the same token, don't embarrass anyone. For instance: a common newbie mistake is dressing up a swinging strike three. If it's not a checked swing that went too far, just raise you're right arm. Everyone knows that the batter swung, even Mrs. Fussbudget.
Do the 'Tighten up' on Your Zone
Okay. We've all been there. It's a regular-season game, the mercury is nigh bursting out the tube, and the Gnats are clobbering the Weevils 13-zip when the Gnat pitcher can't find the plate. A mirage is forming in center field and your cup has fused to your Jockeys. The Gnat manager, the evil Mr. Faust, doesn't want to burn another pitcher. Three more outs and an air-conditioned rumpus room awaits. Face it: You'd rather be behind a frosty beverage than behind Jiggles Rafferty, the stocky, sweaty Gnat backstop, who is letting every pitch hit somewhere on your body. Now, you're inventing strikes. If the next pitch has stitches on it, you're ringing it up.
Don't do this in all-star play. First, the games mean too much. Second, one hopes you'll see better pitching. A "nose to the toes" zone will only get you into trouble. Hint: Watch first-inning warm-ups with due vigilance. See what the level of pitching is going to augur. Wait a little longer on pitches that may be first-timers for you, such as nasty curves (yes, Virginia, you don't get to W-port without 'em). Stay with that zone, remembering the proper mechanics. You still won't make many friends, but will have fewer enemies.
Don't Look for Trouble--Stay in Phase 3
Here's another one from Mr. Faustich (the "trouble" part). I am going to amend it with what may be the only serious part of this rambling mess. So, I digress.
The Three Phases of Umpiring
Phase One: What am I doing here?
You're still wearing a "pillow" behind the plate. A sawed-off Home Depot special dusts off the plate. Your shinguards chafe your legs, since you are wearing cut-off shorts. But you're an ump. You listen to every comment from anyone within a 5-mile radius of the field. You find yourself thinking "Did I blow that one?" WAAAAY too often. A batted ball hits the plate. "FOUL," you cry. Oops. The local pastor wants to lynch you for calling a missed base on his nephew.
Phase Two: A Dictator in blue
This is truly the danger zone--and what this section's all about. You've got a few years under your belt, the right, spit-shined gear -- and a Parris Island attitude to match. Nothing escapes your domain: batters out of the box, interference on "high-fiving" coaches, balks galore, the whole works. You have graduated into Overofficiating 101. You're out there looking for it--and bad things will find their way to you. Instead of angry parents after games, you'll have police escorts.
Phase Three: Safe at home
You've learned to relax. Let the game come to you. Allow players to make mistakes, then react to them. No more double-calling dropped balls on tag plays. You're ignoring 11-year-old pitchers who may have a teensy shoulder twitch. After games, you're not hoarse. You're defusing petulant grown-ups instead of sending them to their Barcaloungers.
In short, use your head--and experience--to get to this third level. You'll be pleasantly surprised how swimmingly your games go. You may even hear a compliment once in a while ... but I wouldn't count on it.
You Run the Show
You've got the plate. Snotport is leading Volvotown, 6-5, and you've just completed the fourth inning. Then, the weather shifts. As the skies darken, so does the mood of the Volvotown manager if he knows the rules. Why? If lightning strikes, everyone goes home and Snotport wins (LL rules, anyway).
The cure: Keep the game moving crisply. Young catchers, for some unknown reason, will take 38 warm-up pitches between innings--if you allow it. Don't listen for a second to adults who moan that you're rushing the goings-on. Unless you're playing in Stade Olympique where weather matters not, you've got six or seven innings to get in, and a tourney to move along.
By the by, no matter how many coaches tell you otherwise, there is nothing in any rule book that mandates infield and outfield warm-up balls between innings. "Throw it down, meat," is something I say to catchers in every youth league game I officiate.
Why Can't We Be Friends?
The band War asked this musical question, but it flat don't apply to us in blue. Briefly: Stop trying to be a nice guy. This doesn't mean to act rudely, either. But, try to be everybody's buddy and you'll end up vexing all involved. Again, you're making impactful decisions; someone's gonna get upset.
I cringe every time I hear: "I stuck around for the post-game handshakes, and then this coach pops off and sez ..." The solution is simple: Leave the scene. Last pitch or play -- there's no appeal or protest imminent -- see ya. Get thee to a press box, your car, off the site. The less you hear the better. In the post-game foofaraw that often happens, you and your crew will be ignored anyway. That's the way it should be.
In addition, if you have to hang around for the next game because your niece is playing, get out of uniform. Keep a low profile and keep your pizza-hole closed, espceially if fans start grilling you with "Whadja think of that call?" In general, the better an ump you become, the less cheering you'll be inclined to engage in -- even if your local league is playing.
Ruh-Roh Reorge--The Tension Convention
If you've done some tourney games, Astro, agree with me on this: Most unpleasantness on the field derives from the proper application of a seldom-used rule. Safe/out is one thing, but point to a play in progress and yell "THAT'S OBSTRUCTION!" and suddenly all the wheels fall off. And the Varmints' coach, Mr. Bile, goes into apoplexy.
"What was that?" is the usual initial response from a coach. Instead of going postal on the offender, try a flat hand, a calm tone and one word: "Relax." Don't try to explain a knotty rule to an irate coach. Give him/her a chance to simmer down. I will rarely take time out of a inning to delineate the fine points, say, of LL 7.13. Between innings, I will briefly give the rundown to a civil adult.
Yes, I sound like a skipping CD (or whatever the millennium catchphrase may be) here, but don't look for trouble. If you HAVE to get your thumb out, let the coach initiate the nastiness. Look to defuse, not to aggravate. Here's a (longish) sitch:
Little League 11-12s. State final game. Home team at bat. Runners on first and second. On the pitch, runner on 2B leaves his base early. Ump 3 (not I) drops his hanky, correctly. Batter hits a grounder to short, who throws the rock over the first baseman's head. Ball stays in play. Both runners score, with batter-runner ending up at second, where he takes a wide turn. Ball comes back to pitcher, who tries to nail batter-runner off 2B. The chucker throws wildly into center field, and batter-runner also scores. Plate ump finally calls time, and U3 picks up the laundry and waves it. Yikes. Unfortunately, the plate ump did not smartly (and quickly) adjudicate the call.
Suddenly, coaches, waterboys, funnel-cake vendors, tourney directors are spilling onto the field. Just about everyone is saying, "What was that?" The plate ump hems and haws. I (first-base ump) decide to target the assistant coach of the visitors, still in the dugout, whose hat has flown off his head, revealing an almost Don Kingian outcropping of hair standing on end. He is beside himself, and I am beside him. He's making a sound and fury, signifying nothing, but he is not offensive toward any of us blues. I sidle up next to the poor guy and say, "Relax [howdja guess?]. When this is all sorted out, good things will happen for you."
Nobody in the big conference has a clue. So I step in. "Ace whaddaya got?" plead the PU and tourney director. "Simple," I reply. "This is 7.13(c). One runner left early on the pitch. The batted ball never left the infield. No runs can score, despite all the ensuing errors. It's bases loaded, gang." QED. Amazingly, everybody bought into this without rancor (even the home team), and we continued. As I returned to my base spot, I exchanged a quick wink with the once-irate coach, whose coif had since matted into more of a 70's Osmond look.
The pernt: It would have been easy to start tossing coaches and managers out of the game on this rhubarb. It would have been worlds easier had the plate ump known the book and done his job succinctly and crisply. In the long run, the right call was made, and nobody got egregiously injured.
Perhaps this philippic has gone a tad long, but I vividly remember my early tournament experience, and many of the mistakes I've made. Heck, if it saves you one nasty argument, the piece has done its job.
Don't misinterpret some of my comments toward coaches. They're in there trying their best. Most times, however, they have little or no experience, and allow the game to rule their emotions. Try to work with them.
Here's wishing all who've read this far a wonderful postseason, some 65-minute games--and no dropped hankies.