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Teaching respect for umps, officials

Updated: May 11, 2013, 3:05 PM ET
By Steve Wulf |

"All you, blue, all you!"

As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I wanted them back. The umpire on the bases in the high school softball game had clearly blown the call: tight score, bases loaded, two outs, ball hit to left field for what looked like an RBI single … except that the left fielder quickly threw to third to beat the runner by a step. Unfortunately, the ump was trying to get out of the way and didn't see the force, and the home plate ump refused to get involved, so the run scored, and the next batter hit a grand slam off my daughter. Which is when I made my own bad call.


[+] EnlargeAlan Porter
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastUmps may take the abuse, but that doesn't mean they deserve it.


I knew better. These things happen, just like they did in Cleveland when the umpires didn't acknowledge an A's home run that would've tied the game, just like they do every night in every state at every level. I've seen enough games to realize that bad decisions are like bad hops. Dems da breaks.

It doesn't matter if the official is a teenager making $20 a game, or a man or woman moonlighting as much for love of the game as for money, or Joe West, who's been working major league games since 1977. It's a tough, usually thankless job, but somebody has to do it. We often hear, "The most important thing is to get it right," and while that is very important -- the more replays the better -- it's not the most important thing. First and foremost, we owe the umps and zebras and refs a foundation of respect and a debt of gratitude. There would be no games without their commitment.

That's worth mentioning at this time of high visibility for officials, when the NHL and NBA are in their postseasons, baseball is in its ascendancy, and spring school and collegiate sports are heating up. On the list of headlines on on Thursday, a few spots below "Indians top A's after blown call," was this one: "Utah teen charged in death of soccer ref."

On April 27 in a recreational league soccer match outside of Salt Lake City, authorities say, a 17-year-old goalie punched 46-year-old Ricardo Portillo in the head after the ref penalized him for pushing an opposing player. After hospitalization, Portillo lapsed into a coma and died on May 4. A game that was hardly a matter of life and death became one.

There may be no way of knowing what brought the unnamed player to that tragic moment of anger. But here's what does lead to a breakdown in respect for authority: coaches who think it's OK to ride the refs; fans who feel it's cool to yell at officials all the time; the constant cries of "Call 'em both ways!" and "Open your eyes!"; the confusion of professional sports with youth sports.

Contempt for officials is nothing new. In 1906 a singer named Bob Roberts recorded "The Umpire Is a Most Unhappy Man."  But there are two converging media streams that seem to be adding to the turbulence. One is the criticism of officials, be it missed home runs, or unfair penalties, or control of the game. The other is the almost prurient interest in bad behavior at sporting events. It kind of feels like sports civilization is crumbling.

The death in Utah hit Jim Thompson particularly hard. He is the CEO of the Positive Coaching Alliance, which he founded at Stanford University in 1998 to help transform the culture of youth sports. "I feel for both families," he says. "It's the ultimate price to pay for a win-at-all-costs mentality."


[+] EnlargeRef Funeral
George Frey/Getty ImagesSoccer officials wore black patches and arm bands at Ricardo Portillo's funeral.


Since its founding, the PCA has grown into a network that reaches 1 million athletes and 100,000 coaches, though that's still only 2.5 percent of all the participants in youth sports in this country. The foundation of PCA workshops is the phrase "Honoring The Game," and the sessions encourage respect for the acronym R-O-O-T-S: Rules, Opponents, Officials, Teammates, Self.

When it comes to dealing with officials, PCA has a few suggestions for coaches: introduce the officials to the parents before a game, designate a parent to monitor spectator behavior, have the players practice their responses to a bad call, find a self-control routine (like counting backward from 100), and approach the officials deferentially if there's an important difference of opinion.

"The best way to teach respect," says Thompson, "is to show respect." Thompson also recommends thanking officials after a game, and complimenting them if they've done a good job.

Some of them don't, though, and a few of them make things worse by mistaking arrogance for authority. "Just think of them as bad weather," says Thompson. "You still have to play in it, and it doesn't do you much good to complain."

The vast majority of officials are just striving to be fair to both sides, to get it right. And if you're lucky, you'll encounter one who goes above and beyond. Same daughter, different sport: field hockey. At halftime of one of her games, the lead referee came over to the spectator side of the field to ask if there were any questions about the calls in the first half, or about the arcane rules of the sport in general. The session was both edifying and disarming -- nobody questioned any calls in the second half.

As for the ump who blew the call in the softball game, I could see he felt as bad about missing the call as I did about yelling. He actually ran to his car after the 10-7 game ended, ahead of what he might have imagined to be an angry mob. In reality, my daughter and her teammates were already over it by the time he got there.

It's not all you, blue. It's all us.

A version of this article appeared in print on June 11, 2011, on page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: If at First You Don’t Succeed 

Umpires have to watch for the runner's foot touching the bag and the ball hitting the glove — two different views — while listening for each.

A common exercise at umpire clinics is to blindfold students and have them call close plays at first base. It’s not a frivolous thing. The idea is to teach the students to use their ears as an umpiring tool, to listen for the separate sounds of the foot on the bag and the ball in the glove — “a thud and a pop,” as the veteran major league umpire Mike Winters described them.

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Peter Dasilva/Getty Images

The close play at first is an umpire's biggest challenge, especially with today's fast players and technology for second-guessing calls.

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Barton Silverman/The New York Times

First-base umpires have to be positioned and prepared for anything, including errant or bobbled throws or a foot off the bag.

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Paul Sancya/Associated Press

The umpire Jim Joyce made one of the most famous umpiring gaffes in history, costing pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game.

“Your eyes will lie to you sometimes,” Winters said, adding that he saw it in student umpires all the time. “You put the blindfold on, they can’t miss one. You take it off, they can’t get it right.”

It isn’t just students. First base is a swamp of problems for all umpires, big-leaguers included. It has always been that way. The home plate umpire has to call balls and strikes, of course, but the first-base umpire is otherwise the busiest person on the crew.

Umpires will tell you that other calls can be tougher — on stolen bases at second, for example, where the ump has only a moment to find an optimal position and set himself, and the runner’s body often gets between his eyes and the tag. But the tight play at first, known in umpire argot as a banger or a whacker, is the most consistent headache. The old, self-preserving umpire adage had it that “if it’s a banger, you didn’t miss it.”

But now that isn’t so. With rabbit-quick players on every roster and high-definition television, with its super-slow-motion replays from myriad angles giving every couch potato a better view than the umps — albeit in retrospect — there are more whisker-thin margins to discern and more scrutinizing eyes to cope with than ever.

“The tough ones come in waves,” said Bill Miller, a big-league umpire since 1999. “I’ve had five or six in one game at first base. Do you have a ground-ball pitcher? You got Jose Reyes or Ichiro running down the first-base line? If you do, a routine ground ball to the shortstop can be an extremely close play.”

A year ago, the umpire Jim Joyce made one of the most famous umpiring gaffes in history, costing pitcher Armando Galarraga, then with the Detroit Tigers, a perfect game when he blew the call at first on what should have been the 27th and final out. And St. Louis Cardinals fans with long memories remain convinced that the first-base umpire Don Denkinger’s missed call in the ninth inning of the sixth game of the 1985 World Series handed the championship to the Kansas City Royals.

Interestingly, both Denkinger and Joyce left the field thinking they had made the right call only to learn otherwise shortly thereafter. The plays were similar: each was a ground ball that was taken by the first baseman, who tossed to the pitcher covering the bag. The umpires couldn’t use their ears; on soft tosses like those, especially in a big situation with the crowd roaring, it is tough to hear the ball land in the glove. In each case, the umpire’s eyes lied to him.

Partly because of television’s increasingly close scrutiny, umpires are facing more thorough evaluations this year than in the past. Major League Baseball staff observers visit stadiums often enough to watch and evaluate umpires in slightly more than half their games; this year, for the first time, tapes of close plays in otherwise unobserved games are being examined for umpire performance as well.

Plays at first base play a large part in all of this, and they are distinctively challenging for umpires for a number of reasons. For one thing, the runner coming down the line from the plate (in umpire parlance, the batter-runner, to distinguish him from someone already on base) does not have to maintain contact with the bag. He is not only allowed to touch it and steam past it, he is expected to.

This gives rise to the possibility that ball and runner can arrive at exactly the same time — or at least seem to — and the canard that a tie goes to the runner. (At least one place inthe rulebook implies that the opposite is true. Rule 7.01: “A runner acquires the right to an unoccupied base when he touches it before he is out.”)

In any case, as umpires will tell you, they do not have the luxury of declaring a tie. Either the ball beats the runner or the runner beats the ball: they must decide.

“The human eye will never, ever be able to compete with that hi-def, slo-mo cam,” said Winters, a crew chief who has been in the big leagues since 1990. “If we’re going to be judged by that criteria, we’ll never keep up. Our percentage is something like 98, but the 2 percent will kill you. You work so hard to be as perfect as possible, knowing that perfect is not possible. When it’s that close that they have to go to super slo-mo, so be it. That’s about as good as I’m going to get.”

Another distinction at first base is that the vast majority of outs do not require tags, so the call rarely involves the fielder touching the runner with the ball.

Instead, the call is most often made with the two significant elements of the play — the ball in the fielder’s glove and the runner’s foot on the base — at some distance from each other, far enough apart that the umpire cannot keep both in his line of vision. From the earliest days of their training, umpires are taught how to cope with this: on most infield ground balls, establish a position 15 to 18 feet from the first-base bag and at a right angle to the perceived path of a true throw.

For big-leaguers, this is only a guideline. Many, working from experience and knowing that disaster for an umpire most often begins with a player’s mistake, will cheat on the 90-degree angle to be more prepared for an errant throw and a sweep tag.

“Your spot is not as important as being stopped and having your eyes in the right place,” Winters said.

Alfonso Marquez, who has been in the big leagues since 1999, gave an example of having his eyes in the wrong place, in this case too close to the ground.

“I was in Baltimore one time,” Marquez said, “and Brian Roberts hit a grounder to the shortstop, and I went down on one knee and took the play that way. And Roberts slid headfirst, and I had no idea when he touched the bag. Needless to say, that’s the last time I went down on a knee.”

And if the ground ball is into the hole between first and second or up the first-base line, the umpire can be in danger of ending up in the path of a fielder or the batter-runner, or having to swivel his head quickly to follow a throw, so the guidelines become more complicated, and the umpire’s position less specifically prescribed.

In any case, the umpire is taught to get set in position, focus his eyes on the base, and listen for the sound of the ball hitting the glove. If he determines the ball has arrived first, he then immediately shifts his eyes to the glove to make sure the fielder has secure possession of the ball.

Of course, sometimes it’s possible to take in the fielder and the runner in a single glance, but big-league umpires say their experience teaches them to use every tool at their disposal all the time.

“You can see the ball and the glove, but you don’t want to umpire that way,” Marquez said. “I try to use my ears on every play.”

Jim Evans, who umpired in the American League from 1971 to 1999 and now runs one of two sanctioned professional umpire schools, said that on the occasions when sound will not be helpful — on a soft-toss play with the pitcher covering first, for example — the umpire has to anticipate that and keep his distance from the bag so he can make the call using only his eyes. But most of the time, he said, you use your eyes to determine two things — whether the fielder’s and runner’s feet touched the bag and did the fielder have secure possession of the ball — and your ears for a third: When did the ball arrive?

“I would have a play in a real game and know I got it right,” Evans said, “and later I’d watch it on replay without the sound and I couldn’t tell.”

Like all situations calling for an umpire’s judgment, plays at first are made more complicated by the unforeseeable. A routine ground ball to the shortstop suddenly turns problematic when the throw pulls the first baseman off the bag, or if it short hops into the first baseman’s glove with a hint of a bobble. Even a good throw, if it causes the first baseman to step directly toward the umpire and obscure his view of the bag, can create trouble if there’s a question whether the first baseman’s foot remained in contact with the base long enough.

A final complication is the savvy first baseman who “cheats,” that is, tries to fool the umpire by lifting his foot off the bag just before he snags the throw, suggesting by such misdirection that the ball arrived sooner than it did and possibly gaining an extra split-second of umpire judgment.

“Is it a lost art today? You don’t see it too much,” said Keith Hernandez, now an announcer for the SNY network but a former Gold Glove first baseman who learned the art of cheating, he said, from an old Dodger, Ron Fairly. Umpires, he said, are on the lookout for two things: when the ball arrives and when the runner hits the bag.

“It’s hard for them to triple-task, and I’m not one of their two keys,” Hernandez said. “There’s a trick to it, a technique. It has to be a play where it’s going to be close. You can’t get a whole step; maybe you can get a half-step. As you stride out you come off the back. You have to be smooth. And you only come off six inches or so.”

Asked how often it worked, Hernandez said not too often, but that it might have gotten the Mets to the World Series in 1986. In the second inning of Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, the Houston Astros had men on first and third and one out, and the batter, Craig Reynolds, grounded to second. The Mets tried to turn a double play and the umpire Fred Brocklander called Reynolds out.

Reynolds, Hernandez said, “clearly beat it, but I cheated and we got the call.”

“It cost Houston the game,” as the Mets won in the 12th inning.

Jim Evans summed up the first-base umpire’s plight.

“You’ve got the juggled ball, you’ve got the swipe tag, you’ve got the pulled foot,” he said. “A blind person can call a play at first base if it’s just a matter of ‘Did the ball beat the runner?’ ”