3-0 Count… Pitcher comes set… here’s the pitch… the baseball is knee high and catches the inside corner of the plate when it crosses the front of home.
What’s the issue? The issue is the batter thought it was ball four and ran down to first base. From my position just to the right and behind the pitcher, I tell the coaches the batter needs to go back. It was strike one. Here come the eye rolls and the incredulity about the plate umpire’s strike call. The batter made his way back to the batter’s box and proceeded to swing (and miss) at the next two pitches. Strikeout. I’ve been in this situation before. Anyone that has worked even one game as a sports official has been in this position before… the position of facing a less than pleased coach over a call that was made.
Coach: “Can’t you help your partner out?”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Coach: “That strike call.”
Me: “That was a great call!”
Coach: “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
Me: “No. That was a great call. Pitch caught the inside corner of the plate and was knee high.”
Coach: “It bounced in the dirt.”
Me: “It was knee high when it crossed home plate.”
Coach: “There’s no way…”
Me: “Coach, we’re not going to argue about this.”
Coach: “We’ll just have to disagree on this.”
Me: “Yeah, we will.”
This interaction was early in the game… plenty of baseball still to be played in this end of season Championship game… but the groundwork had been laid now for the coach and parents to start complaining more and more as they felt that calls were missed and going against them. The chirping had begun and would only get worse as the evening went on.
Complaints about foul tip versus not a foul tip.
Complaint about a hit batter call.
Complaints about strike zone.
Many complaints during the course of the game.
As the base umpire, I move to different positions during the game depending on if there are runners on base and what base(s) they occupy. When I stand up the first base line… I can’t tell if a pitch is a ball or a strike. Sure, I can see the height of the pitch when it crosses home, but I can’t tell if it is inside or outside. I can see if the catcher has to move his glove inside or outside to catch it but that still doesn’t tell me if it’s a ball or a strike. I can’t see where the catcher set up. For example… a catcher may set his glove as a target on the outside of the plate. The pitcher might miss a 5 or 6 inches further outside. From the first base line it looks like it was a strike, but I wouldn’t know because I don’t know where that catcher is set up. In this case, the plate umpire calling a ball makes sense. When I’m in a position behind the pitcher, I can see inside/outside much better.
Knowing this… it never ceases to amaze me that coaches can know with a surety if a pitch was a ball or a strike based on their perch from the dugout area. The home plate umpire has the best seat in the house to see where the pitch crossed home plate yet it seems coaches and every parent watching, no matter their vantage point, knows whether the pitch was a strike or not. (I fully expect that you sense my sarcasm here.)
Allow me to take a detour here momentarily. In 2008 Major League Baseball (MLB) began very limited use of instant replay to aid umpires in determining a boundary call, that is seeing if a ball was definitively a home run or not. In 2014 MLB expanded the use of instant replay to what they use currently. Coaches are allowed to challenge an umpire’s call once per game. If that challenge is successful, the manager will be granted another challenge. Different types of calls are now allowed to be challenged including but not limited to:
- Fair/foul calls in the outfield
- Force plays
- Batters hit by pitch
- Catch or trapped baseballs
I took this momentary detour here because as a long time sports official, I believe instant replay has made the job of youth and high school level sports officials much tougher and scrutinized to an immeasurably greater degree. Sports officials at these levels get to see the play ONE time… at regular game speed… from their ONE angle… and have the expectation to be perfect in their calls. With the use of replay at higher levels, those officials are able to review video MULTIPLE times… in slow motion… from multiple camera angles… and they still sometimes are argued with because the video wasn’t conclusive to change a call. Youth leagues and high school level athletics obviously don’t have this technology. But… everyone seems to have a smart phone now and can take videos of their amateur athlete. A coach in the championship game even said I needed to go watch the replay to see a foul tip that neither my partner nor I called. Professional level and collegiate level replay coupled with smart phones at lower levels has caused over-the-top analysis of the amateur level officials’ calls… which they get to see one time in real speed.
Let’s circle back to this championship game. The game was scheduled for 6 innings. The visitors trailed much of the game but came back to tie the game in the top of the 6th. Then, after holding the home team scoreless in the bottom of the 6th, the game went to extra innings. It took a full 9 innings for this game to be decided. It was a great game in regards to the players on the field. The game featured some wonderful defensive plays as well as a number of hard, well-timed hits. These players worked all season to be in this game and they played with a passion for the game. They played their hearts out. What was nice too was seeing the smiles on many of their faces. Sadly, there were a handful of players that got very down after an error or a baserunning mistake. The competition seemingly took the fun that this championship experience.
My partner behind the plate worked his tail off. Did he work a perfect game? Of course not… show me any sports official that has worked a perfect game ever. It just doesn’t happen. He did however work a very solid game. Were there a handful of borderline pitches? Absolutely! There always are going to be some borderline pitches. They can go either way. I could see from the outset of the game that batters better be protecting the plate when a pitch was coming in knee high. If they didn’t swing… it was going to be a strike at the knees (and over the plate).
Despite the solid game… parents and coaches still were not happy. It sure seems that this is the accepted norm anymore at sporting events… parents and coaches feeling entitled to consistently yell, argue or just show their lack of maturity towards an official. More and more articles have been written about a shortage of sports officials. The Washington Post wrote about this shortage because of verbal abuse from parents and coaches. The New York times outlined the lack of respect shown to officials. Denver’s CBS station looked into the shortage of officials and poor sportsmanship and verbal abuse were reported to play a large factor into why less and less officials stay in the profession. Parents, when you show up to your son or daughter’s game and there are less officials than what there should be… or no officials present at all… keep these things in mind.
My partner during this championship game… a newer official… confided in me after that he doesn’t enjoy working these games. When I asked what he doesn’t like about these games, his response was the parents and coaches behavior. I don’t blame him for feeling this way. There’s a chance he doesn’t strap up the shin guards, put the chest protector on, or pull the protective mask over his face again after this season. That is a real shame… because he has been a very good, solid umpire thus far in his young career.
Parents and coaches… if I can encourage one thing… think about your perspective. Think about the things you say and do at these games… the youth are watching you and seeing your example.
I’m going to go out on a limb and venture a guess that no college or professional scouts were in attendance at this championship game. I’m quite sure that a called strike didn’t cost anyone a scholarship opportunity. To the player that ran into two outs on the basepaths… don’t worry… your favorite MLB team won’t hold it against you.
By the way… my partner who LOVES baseball but is feeling driven away from umpiring… he’s 16.
And this championship game? It was played by 8-year olds.