Most veteran, youth league umpires know the importance of preventive officiating. Many of us learned this in mechanics clinics taught by college level or minor league umpires. Others of us have learned the concept in our state association and annual rules interpretation meetings. Anyone who has worked with or around kids for any appreciable length of time practically understands it instinctively. So why do we so frequently see adults who should know better, particularly sports officials, overreacting at youth sports events?
From the disgruntled coach obsessed with winning to the tunnel vision grandparent with no clue about baseball rules to headstrong sports officials who think the game is about them, youth sports suffers from an unprecedented onslaught of in-your-face antics and incendiary verbiage…from adults.
Nowhere does this become more apparent than when it concerns out-of-control sports officials. Such was the case at a 16u tournament semifinal that I observed on October 27, 2013. A well-known weekend tournament in northeastern Pennsylvania provided the venue for an all-too-familiar confrontation between a home plate umpire and travel team coaches, which led to two ejections, an unholy stream of invective from parents, and a grown man venting his anger against a completely innocent, undeserving, young ballplayer.
In putting a batter on notice for stating his objection to a called strike, the home plate umpire chose to reprimand not one but two coaches who spoke in their player’s defense. One of them, an assistant coach, apparently spoke too vociferously, earning him a free pass to the parking lot. That part we can understand. However, the tongue lashing that the umpire then administered to the head coach, who remained calm, composed and professional throughout the entire incident, amounted to an embarrassing overkill.
At that point the worst should have been over; instead, it got more ridiculous. Two batters after the ejection a base runner rounded 3rd trying to score from 2nd on a single. The shortstop’s relay throw home took the catcher into foul territory on the 3rd base side. The runner, who slid head first to the inside of the diamond as the catcher dove to tag him, touched home plate with his right hand, avoiding the catcher’s outstretched mitt with enough clearance to fit a size thirteen baseball shoe. It was one of those plays that was so obvious and easily seen that a spectator watching from a rooftop in the next town could have made the right call. Without binoculars. Without instant replay from a dozen different angles.
Still, the home plate umpire loudly announced and emphatically signaled an ‘out’ call, pointing demonstratively to the spot where the catcher ‘tug the runner’s shirt.’ That’s right, he said it just that way. At that moment I wanted to disguise the fact that I was an umpire and blend into oblivion, because I knew what would happen next. Happen it did, as a chorus of protest quickly descended from the grandstand behind home plate. Normally I would not agree with the spectators’ demand for the umpire’s head, however in some cases it’s understandable and warranted.
Most people accept that sports officials sometimes miss calls because human imperfections are a fact of life. One only has to consider the recent case of Jim Joyce making that ‘safe’ call on what should have been the final out of Andres Galarraga’s perfect game. The difference between Jim Joyce and the travesty we saw at the youth league level is the humility shown by a professional versus the abject lack of integrity displayed by an incompetent wannabe.
To make matters worse, this embarrassment in blue compounded his travesty by ejecting the runner he called out when the young man threw his batting gloves to the ground in disgust. The player said nothing to the umpire, he said nothing profane, he made no loud utterance or committed any unsportsmanlike act of any kind. A sixteen year-old expressed legitimate frustration with a lousy call, in a way that you would expect from a kid. Unfortunately, the home plate umpire behaved as a spoiled something-less-than a typical sixteen year-old.
It might surprise our readers to know that the home plate umpire in question and his partner on the bases are professional umpires in a well known independent league in the northeast. Moreover, the base umpire serves as the lead umpire in that league. One wonders where these so-called professionals received their training, because they stood every fundamental mechanic for a two-man crew completely on its ear. As one glaring example, Mr. Lead Umpire watched each fly ball to the outfield as a spectator instead of watching the batter runner rounding 1st base. Funny, I seem to recall that every umpire training program and mechanics clinic ever invented teaches the base umpire, in a two-man system, to avoid being a spectator by disciplining himself to focus solely on the batter-runner. How else will he see if the batter-runner misses 1st base, or if the first baseman obstructs him?
So it goes when self-inflated big shots get the call to work at lower levels.
Instead of ejecting a player for what, at best, might constitute a minor, borderline infraction, a competent youth league umpire more advisedly uses preventive officiating whenever possible. This could involve having a calm, respectful discussion with a coach between innings about a player’s comments or actions. The experienced youth league umpire enlists a coach’s input to teach kids the importance of controlling their emotions on the field.
A skilled youth league umpire recognizes and takes advantage of teachable moments that frequently occur in games involving young players. A 16 year-old pitcher will more likely learn and remember to pause in set position with a well-timed reminder – such as during a dead ball period – from an umpire, as opposed to waiting until he balks in the tying run from 3rd base. As youth league umpires we have a greater responsibility to help kids learn how to play the game than we have to call major league balks, especially on kids sixteen and under who have probably not yet received proper instruction.
Preventive officiating recognizes that adults benefit as much from teachable moments as do the kids. Asking a head coach to quietly intervene with overly vocal spectators on his side of the field does more to control a game than removing one’s mask and trading barbs with hostile parents who, left to their own unschooled opinions and observations, convince themselves that a pitch in the dirt behind home plate could not possibly be a strike. Anyone who has sat through three innings of a 14u tournament game knows how explosively out-of-hand a situation like this can become if not handled maturely and professionally when it first happens.
The aforementioned bullies in blue from the big time made the classic mistake of failing to use preventive officiating to avoid potentially volatile situations at the youth league level. In two innings I counted 3 vitriolic exchanges between Mr. Home Plate Wannabe and family members who told him to stop venting his anger at the kids.
When I last checked, the tournament assigner had relieved the two minor league tough guys from any further games that day, or ever as I heard it. County Baseball Publications joins the rest of the sane free world in saying, “Good riddance!” There’s just no place for their brand of tyranny masquerading as professional conduct.
We end pretty much where we began, questioning why we see this in-your-face pugnacity at sports events designed for young people. To the extent that the demeanor of adults can define how we administer games for kids, sports officials play a key role. In that regard, preventive officiating becomes a critical factor in letting the players play the game and keeping adults off center stage.