The Judges on the Field

Thank the Umpire

It may be the most thankless position in baseball but it's arguably the most important in the game. When the job is done well, few take notice. But when a mistake is made, everyone is a critic. 

The umpire is the arbiter on the field. They are tasked with making calls throughout the game. Good judgement and knowledge of the rules are necessary to be successful. Being confident, aware and fair are must have attributes to be effective. Not everyone is cut out to be an umpire, but a good one is an asset to the game. 

They are there at little league games, high school tournaments, and the MLB World Series. They range in experience from a first time behind the plate to 40+ years calling balls and strikes. Some have minimal training, while others are continuously learning and graded. 

The reasons for putting on the mask vary. For some it might be to stay connected to the sport. For others, it could be to have a little extra income. For high level professionals, it's their livelihood. Whatever their level is, from the time the lineups are exchanged to the last out of the game, they are the lords of the field. 

The marquee trait of a good umpire is to have little to no affect on the outcome of a play or the game overall. They are there to observe and judge. Unfortunately, as every player that has stepped on the field knows, sometimes the umpire can be more of a factor in the game than they are supposed to be. Whether it's from lack of training, bad judgement, ego or simple human error, one bad call from the "blue" can make a difference in the game. 

Umpires are like players in some ways. Some have a knack for the job and can do it fairly well from the start with little training. Others consistently put in work to become better. In general, they want to be good at what they do. And that's important, because they carry an authority in a game that no one else on the field has. 

As a player, I tend to give umpires the benefit of the doubt when they make a mistake. It inevitably happens, no matter how talented they are. What is a pet peeve of mine, however, is inconsistency, especially in the strike zone. While it's common and understandable for strike zones to vary from umpire to umpire, when it changes throughout the game, or even in an at bat, it becomes difficult to keep discipline. When the strike zone changes throughout the game, the umpire is making themselves a participant in the game. And that has an impact on outcomes. 

When pitching or catching, I spend the first few pitches testing the boundaries of the strike zone. Determining if it's wide, narrow, inside, outside, up or down. Is the blue calling where the ball crosses, or where it's caught? Is the strike zone three dimensional or a solid plane? Is the umpire staying consistent?

As a batter, I rely on an umpire to stay consistent. When a pitch is called for a ball or strike earlier in the count, it informs the decision to swing on following pitches. There are few things more frustrating than to be called out on strikes on a pitch that was called a ball previously in the at bat.

Most umpires do their best to call the game well. But they are human. They will make mistakes. Even the best ones do. Depending on what type of call was made, what the umpire does next often depends on the type of person they are. Some allow pride or ego to get the best of them. Others might give the next close call to the other team to "balance it out". Neither are a winning approach. 

Every umpire needs to have an air of authority on the field. On ball and strike calls, umpires should stick to the call, even if they question themselves as to whether it was correct. To reverse it invites arguments from the players on pitches later on. With other calls, such as those at bases, they should be open to asking the opinion of a fellow umpire, if one is there and potentially had a better angle. 

Being in the right position to make calls is important as well. Umpires should be moving during the play to give themselves the best angle to view a potential play at their base assignment. Some of this is common sense, but most of it is a matter of training. Especially with a 1 or 2 person crew, their positioning may rotate during the course of the play. Knowing the best spot to be in to make a correct call, while being out of the way of the play, is a sign of good umpiring. 

Having a high tolerance to criticism is a necessity. On many calls, one side or the other won't be happy. How far they allow players, coaches and spectators to go with their protests is entirely up to the umpire. Some have a short fuse and will issue a warning or ejection pretty quickly when the chirping starts. Others give a long rope in hopes of it dying down. Neither approach is right or wrong. The umpire usually has to weigh the inevitable passions of the game versus the potential them to disrupt the flow and integrity of the game. Also in the balance is their ability to maintain control and their authority. Without it, games can get unruly. 

While we as players should definitely be engaging in the game with passion, we should remember the umpires are doing us a service. Without them games would be chaotic by not having a neutral party to ensure fair determinations of play. It's fair to get upset when they mess up a call. But at the same time keeping control of outbursts in the dugout and on the field is in everyone's best interest. Berating an umpire does nothing but hurt ourselves and our teams. It's also bad sportsmanship. Egging on an umpire for a bad call is no better than taunting a teammate for making an error. 

No umpire is perfect. Just like no player is. But they are on the field for the same basic reason that the players are. They are staying engaged in the game of baseball. And that's a beautiful thing. 

You might not agree with them. You may be frustrated with them. But umpires are essential to the game. And for that deserve our thanks. 


Play ball

If you know an umpire that deserves some credit, give them a shout out in the comments. As always feel free to share.


Popular Posts