THE JOYS OF GAME MANAGEMENT
Right off the top, let's point out that there's no way to cover in detail all the aspects of game management in one article. It's a complicated, detailed aspect of umpiring.
It's also one of the most important tools in an umpire's toolbox. Yet many inexperienced umpires aren't even aware it exists. That's because when they begin umpiring, they have to learn the basics first - positioning, rules, mechanics, calling balls and strikes, and safes and outs.
And that's how it should be. As a tennis instructor told me long ago, "First you work on the basics; then you can worry about getting good." The fundamentals, as mentioned above, are the cornerstone to good umpiring. But they're not everything.
Once you get comfortable with your plate stance, your timing, positioning, and basic rules, you need to learn about game management, if you truly want to progress as an umpire.
And what, exactly, is game management, you ask. Ah, there's the problem. There isn't one set answer for that one, so it makes it difficult for mentors to present a consistent message on that one.
One of the questions we asked in the book UMPIRE MENTORS was "What is your definition of game management and why is it important?" None of the 100 respondents argued game management isn't important, but there were almost 100 different definitions on what game management is.
So let's see if we can agree on this: Game management is everything you do as an umpire to make the game run as smoothly as possible once you step on the field.
In other words, it starts as soon as you step on the field. There are some who believe it begins even before you step on the field, with items such as arriving early and having a good pre-game with your partner(s). But those are separate issues. That's not managing the game itself.
It helps if you believe that there is always someone watching you from the moment you step on the field, and I'm not just talking about an evaluator or supervisor. Players are watching you. Coaches are watching you. Fans are watching you. Oh - and they're all judging you as well. It's human nature.
So be professional. Represent your umpire association and your umpiring fraternity well. You can be professional and still be friendly. It's OK to smile at the plate meeting or when you're talking to a coach between innings. Be approachable. That means be someone a coach isn't afraid to come talk to if he has a quick question, or someone a player isn't afraid to come up to.
But don't hesitate to crack the whip when you have to. That means telling teams to knock it off if the comments step over the line, or making a controversial ruling you know is going to upset one team. Don't let perceived friendly relationships with coaches or players get in the way of doing your job.
There are way too many aspects of game management to adequately cover them all here. Now that you're more aware of the importance of game management, you can do your due diligence to find out more about it. But here are a few of the bigger aspects of game management:
PACE OF THE GAME
Keep things moving. There's a rhythm to a good ball game. And umpires are a key part of that. Make sure you have enough baseballs. If you don't, the time to seek them out is between innings. Of course, you don't have an unlimited supply. If a batter fouls off five straight, there's a good chance you're going to run out. So during that at-bat, when you're down to one or two baseballs, let the home team (or whoever is in charge of supplying you with baseballs), that you need more. Now.
Just because the inning is over doesn't mean you get to sit back and relax until the teams tell you they're ready to go again. Sure, go get that drink of water or talk to your partner(s) if you need to. But at the same time, you have to take care of business. Make sure the defense has a catcher coming out. If their game catcher was on base or at bat when the inning ended, the team needs a warmup catcher to come out for the pitcher. If you don't see one, let the defensive coach know.
And keep an eye on the battery. If a ball gets away from the catcher, give him a new one so he can continue the warmup. Don't let him saunter back to the backstop, pick up the ball and saunter back to the plate.
Some leagues have a designated amount of time or pitches allowed between innings. If your league doesn't, a good rule of thumb is eight warmup pitches for a new pitcher or, for a returning pitcher, five warmup pitches between innings. Then let's get started.
As part of managing dead time, make your lineup changes quickly. You don't need to write a whole book when a pinch-hitter comes up. Just write that No. 8 came in for No. 6 in the 5th inning, or something similar.
Similarly, if you need to clean off the plate, do it during a natural break in the action, such as after a foul ball or before a new batter comes up. I wish I had a nickel for every time I've seen an umpire stop the game in the middle of an at-bat to wipe off the plate, and thereby ruining the flow of the game. The pitcher and the batter have to regroup now and find their focus again. If the plate is that dirty, clean it before the batter or quickly right after a pitch. Most of the time, the plate isn't that bad that you need to upset the rhythm to get it clean immediately.
And when there is a foul ball or time is called, be ready to put the ball back in play as soon as everyone is ready to go. Don't let the batter take a stroll outside the batter's box between pitches. Sure, let him gather his thoughts, but he can do that with one foot in the box, or at least he can stay in the vicinity so he can be quickly ready to go.
Similarly, don't let the pitcher wander around the mound like he's lost. Get everyone ready to go, in a polite but firm manner. You don't need to be yelling "C'mon! Let's go!" every time there's a small delay. But you can clap your hands and say, cheerily, "OK, let's go, guys!" just to let them know it's time to resume.