NEWS BLOG (WSAU) The baseball world was buzzing last week with the blown call at first base by umpire Jim Joyce, costing pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game.
For many years in high school, college, and into my early 30s I’d worked as an amateur umpire. I was competent. I didn't stink. I occasionally made bad calls, every umpire does.
My most enjoyable was umpiring Little League baseball in New Hampshire. It was enjoyable because the league was very well run. As a small town they only had six teams. Four of the teams had long-standing coaches who’d continued to work with the kids even after their sons were too old to play. The League President and Director of Umpires were also veterans of many seasons. The league had a sense of “this is how we do things,” and it made the entire operation run smoothly.
Umpires worked in teams of three. The umpire with the most experience was the crew chief. The two associate umpires were usually college kids. I was the least experienced crew chief. The three other umpiring crews were each led by long-time veterans. William, our Director of Umpires traveled around the state giving clinics and training sessions for other little leagues. Today he works for the Little League national office in Williamsport, a dream come true for him. I occasionally see him on ESPN working games in the Little League World Series.
I remember speaking with William about calls the umpire is supposed to get wrong. Yes, supposed to get wrong. These situations are understood – and unspoken – for anyone who knows and plays baseball. They’re givens.
When a runner attempts to steal second base, he’s OUT if the ball gets there before the runner does. True, the runner may slide under the tag… but the unspoken rule is that the runner is out. Throw beats the runner and second… Yer Out! The exact opposite is true for a play at home plate. A run is on the line. The tag must be applied before the running touches home. No leeway.
The “in the neighborhood” play at second base is also universally understood. When turning a double-play, the second baseman gets take his foot off the base a few moments before the ball arrives. It keeps him from getting spiked by the base runner. It makes it less likely the base runner will get hit by the throw. Technically the runner shouldn’t be out… but he is.
“In the neighborhood” also applies at first base, but to a lesser degree. The first baseman can pivot his foot off the base slightly when a runner is being thrown out. It reduces the chances of him being spiked. And, even though ties go to the runner, outs make the game move along. The first baseman can cheat by a fraction of a second, and the runner is still called out.
Any umpire calling balls and strikes behind the plate knows the two unwritten rules. First, if the catcher has to frame the pitch, that is, move his glove and hold the ball extra long on a close pitch – it’s a ball. Calling it a strike looks bad to the crowd and the other players. And, after all, the pitcher missed his spot. The corresponding rule involves a pitcher who hits his spot perfectly, even if the catcher lined up slightly off the plate. That’s a strike. It’s the umpire’s judgment how far off the plate the catcher can be and still get a strike call if the pitcher throws perfectly. The third unwritten rule is for little league only… a close pitch with two strikes is always strike three. Kids need to be encouraged to swing and hit, not look for walks. Batters, coaches, and umpires understand all of this. The unwritten rules are accepted. It’s the way the game is played.
So what are we supposed to make of Jim Joyce’s blown call? None of the unwritten rules apply here. He simply got it wrong. From my view, he did not have a good view of the play – even though he says he did. With the pitcher covering first base, Joyce had to look through three sets of legs, the base runner’s, the first baseman’s and the pitcher’s, to get a good look. If he was one step to his left, or a half-step back, he’d have a better view. No matter. He’s supposed to get that call right anyway.
The biggest game I ever umpired was the Little League State semi-finals in Rochester, New Hampshire. It was my turn to be the third base umpire, meaning I had little or no responsibility. The game was decided on a close play at first base. If the runner was safe, the tying run would have scored to send the game into extra innings. If the runner was out, the game would be over and the home team would lose. Umpire William was at first base. It was a very close call. The first baseman cheated just a little – a tiny bit. The runner was out. At least that’s how I would have called it. That was William’s call too. We needed a police escort to get to our cars once the game was over.
Operations Manager, Midwest Communications-Wausau