JANUARY 2024 VOLUME 3, ISSUE 8
The flow, beauty, and grace of baseball
"Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal."
- George F. Will
Author and Pulitzer Prize winner
This might sound a little weird, a little "out there," so please stick with me and I'll try to bring it around to where it makes some sense.
I believe there's more to a good baseball game than just balls and strikes, safes and outs, fair and foul.
I believe a good baseball game has a flow to it, a poetry if you will, and I believe umpires' rotations (especially in three- and four-umpire systems) have an impressive grace to them not unlike a dance or ballet.
When I'm supervising a game with good umpires, I look for these things - the flow of the game, and the grace of the rotations. Unfortunately, I rarely find all of them.
BASEBALL IS POETRY
First, before I lose you, let's talk about the flow, the poetry of a game. I believe it's only evident to those people who truly love baseball. There are people who truly love winning at baseball, or even truly love playing baseball, but that's not the same thing. Baseball is a beautiful game, a game created by geniuses, and if you disagree with me, then I'm talking to the wrong people. So when I say I believe there's a flow, a poetry to it, I'm looking for the umpires to be aware of it. To be truly top level, they have to be aware of that flow, and respect it.
Imagine this scenario: Tie game, two out, bases loaded, full count, bottom of the ninth. It's tense. Pitcher gets ready to throw. And all of a sudden the plate umpire says "TIME! TIME!" and walks out to dust off the plate.
BE AWARE OF THE FLOW
That umpire has, perhaps unwittingly, just interrupted the flow of the game. The batter was focused, getting ready for that next key pitch. The pitcher was getting mentally prepared, perhaps going through the mechanics of what he needed to do to execute his next pitch. All fielders, both benches, and all the fans were caught up in the moment, unconsciously aware of the flow, the rhythm of how things were supposed to play out. The pitcher would get his sign. Focus on the target, take a deep breath and exhale, then start his motion home.
The batter would step out, maybe tap his cleats, go over in his head what he would do depending on the location of the pitch and what the actual pitch was - fastball, curve, etc., then step in, dig in, and look toward the pitcher, ready to identify the pitch as it leaves his hand, and then act accordingly.
WAS THIS NECESSARY?
But all of a sudden the plate umpire, not aware of the flow, the rhythm, the poetry of baseball, unnecessarily interrupts the flow by stopping action to clean home plate.
Now both the pitcher and batter have lost their focus, and will have to begin their ritual all over again, hoping they can once again capture that concentration, adrenaline, and execution.
Don't get me wrong. There are indeed times when the umpire has to stop the game and interrupt the flow. The trick is knowing when you have to and when you don't. The other trick is being able to keep it on track when others conspire against you.
1. - Maybe the same situation as above - two out, bases loaded, etc. Batter fouls the pitch off and everyone gets in their rhythm, prepared to do battle all over again. But this time the plate umpire says "I have no baseballs! Can someone get me a baseball?"
Again, this can be avoided. Get more baseballs in natural breaks in the action, such as after a half-inning or between batters. Same goes for cleaning the plate, for that matter.
2. - The catcher was on base when the last out occurred, so now there's a real drag while everyone waits for the catcher to get his gear on, come out and warm up the pitcher. You, as the umpire, can let the team know as soon as the inning is over they need to have someone come out to warm up the pitcher while they all wait for the starting catcher. Keep the game moving. Keep the flow going.
3. - In a tense situation, with runners on base, the batter
announces himself as a pinch-hitter. The umpire takes a solid two minutes, looking for his pen, the proper lineup card, and then finding the batter that's being pinch-hit for, as well as the announced pinch-hitter.
DON'T PROLONG A DELAY
Have a system to do this quickly. Yes, the players themselves interrupted the flow, but you don't have to prolong it. Have your pen and lineup card in the same, easily accessible place. All you have to do is note the new batter as "12 for 36" or some other sort of shorthand, put your pen and paper away, and get back to the game.
4. - Batter fouls a pitch back to the screen and the catcher goes and gets the ball.
Meanwhile, the pitcher comes all the way off the mound, halfway to home plate, waiting for the catcher to retrieve the ball. When the pitcher finally gets the ball back, he has to repeat that long walk back to the top of the mound.
Instead, tell the catcher to stay where he is and have the on-deck hitter chase the foul ball. Give the catcher a new ball.
He'll throw the ball back to the pitcher, who now doesn't have to come all the way off the mound to wait for a new baseball.
And we're ready to go again in only a few seconds.
There are many other examples, of course, such as coaches taking too long at mound meetings or prolonging arguments, but you get the idea. The game has a flow, a pace. Do your best to keep it going.
On the next page (scroll down), we'll discuss the beauty and grace of good umpire rotations.
Umpire rotations - pure ballet when done right
How often have you seen this happen?
Three-umpire system, R1, base hit to right field. U3 stays exactly where he started on the play, perhaps somewhere around the B position (P3 to our Canadian readers).
In other words, he's between first and second base on the edge of the infield grass, closer to second base than he is to first.
Plate umpire jogs half-heartedly toward third base, maybe five steps, but he's going at a slow pace because he can see that while there is a throw to third base, it's nowhere near in time to make a play on R1, who makes it into third base standing up.
Meanwhile, U1 watches the batter/runner touch first, then slowly heads toward home, but like the PU, only goes five steps because he can see PU isn't really leaving the plate area, so there's no need for U1 to hustle all the way to home, is there?
Now try this instead. Exact same play. As soon as the hit is made to right field, PU hustles toward third base, watching the ball, making it all the way to third and getting into proper position for a possible play at the base.U3 slides toward first base a few steps, watching the ball. He watches R1 round second and head to third, and continues to watch
R1 until he passes F6, making sure there is no obstruction or interference.
Once U3 realizes R1 has committed to third base, U3 picks up what the batter/runner is doing, and U3 slides more closely to first base, because the B/R has rounded the base but stopped there. U3 now realizes the only possible play he'll have to call will be a pick back to first base, so he drifts closer to first base, watching the ball, chest to the ball.
U1, in foul territory, watches the B/R touch first base and starts drifting toward home plate. Once he sees R1 commit to third base, U1 hustles toward home plate, watching the play, and getting ready for any possible call at home plate, from the third-baseline-extended position.
The difference between the two scenarios, for those who are watching and know what to look for, is staggering. The first is a routine, lack-of-hustle play we see time and time again. The second one is pure grace; a perfectly timed dance. And it's impressive.
There are other scenarios, of course. As many as there are umpire rotations, whether it's two-, three- or four-umpire system. Every time you move on the field, it's a chance to show others you hustle, you know what you're
doing, you care, and that you're working hard.
And each time there's a rotation, or even a possible rotation, it's a possible opportunity for the umpires involved.
It's a chance to show the coaches, players, and fans that you're got this, that you're committed to the game and doing your best.
It's a chance to show any young umpires who may be watching that this is how it's done. You're showing the young umpires that this is how the experienced umpires do it, and it's how they should do it.
It's a chance to show any senior umpires, supervisors, evaluators, trainers or assignors who may be watching that you, too, can work higher levels, that you're hustling, know what you're doing and you'd be a good partner.
Opportunities abound every game to show off your umpiring skills and abilities. It's not all about balls and strikes, rules knowledge or being able to call 14 balks a game.
Supervisors, assignors, etc., are looking for hustling, confident umpires who are good at game management.
And, if truth be told, they're also looking for umpires who understand and respect the sheer beauty of the game.