At a referee development camp that I attended last summer, the camp director began with a single question: “Who is your agent?”
After a period of silence that seemed to last forever, he answered his own question with one word: “You.”
As odd as it may seem, you are your own agent. You are not like a professional basketball player whose agent makes or negotiates many of his decisions for him. It is your responsibility to create your own schedule, be in demand and prove that you can do the job. You are responsible for the number and level of games you work. In fact, if you want to become successful as an official, it is crucial to understand that you are responsible for almost everything that happens to you.
However, as the late philosopher Jim Rohn once said, “When you’re playing the game, it’s hard to think of everything.” You need some help. Maybe you need a mentor, or maybe you just need someone in your corner to get your foot in the door. That is where the assigner comes into play.
One of the interesting things about sports officials is that we have the dual role of athlete and agent. On one hand, we are responsible for performing at our very best each and every game we work. On the other hand, we must also make sure that we have games to work in the first place. Having a solid relationship with your assigner is perhaps one of the best things you can do to advance your officiating career. It can ensure that you are always in demand.
The main reason for having a great official-assigner relationship is simple and obvious: You want to work bigger, better games — and more of them. It won’t happen overnight. But with diligence, patience and hard work, you can get there.
Officials are considered to be “free agents.” You can only eat what you kill. In the entrepreneurial world, we say that increasing your rewards — in the case of officiating, that is your game count — starts with increasing your value. The more valuable you become as an official, the more games you work, the better games you work and the more satisfied you will be knowing that you are very good at what you do.
So what are some ways you can make yourself more valuable to your assigner?
I know it’s cliché, but it’s true. Hard work will get you noticed not only by assigners, but by coaches and other officials. You make yourself desirable as someone other officials want to work with and that assigners want to hire. Simply put, if you are not seen as a hard worker, it will be harder for you to convince your assigner that you are willing to work bigger and better games.
Assigners are not in the business of gambling. Their jobs depend on the quality of officials they send to games. They want to know that the crew they put out on the court or field will get the job done.
Coaches do take notice of hard-working officials, and they may actually tell assigners what a good job you did. That will definitely separate you from the officials who get little to no positive feedback at all.
Assigners are always looking for more experienced officials to work with new officials. You can make your assigner’s job so much easier — and enhance your schedule — by offering to work games with a rookie or a less experienced official. Veteran officials are accustomed to working with other veterans. We all like working with people we already know. But if you work with someone new to you, you may find you’ve found another official you trust and with whom you feel comfortable working.
That might mean doing the Sunday morning game, the game on what was supposed to be on your night off, or the one between cellar-dwellers that won’t show up on the 10 o’clock news.
Our local association has the “Fireman Award” for the official who accepts the most last-minute game turnbacks. Making your assigner’s job easier will increase your value as an official tremendously.
Keep your schedule up to date on a regular basis. Turn in all your paperwork on time. When you accept a game, keep it. One of the easiest ways to annoy your assigner is to constantly decline games they offer you because you fail to block your schedule. If you are constantly wondering why you aren’t getting games, that may be the reason why.
One of the logistics coordinators for our development program loves to use the term “low maintenance.” That means keeping things simple: Review your schedule regularly, accept games that are offered and move on. Be low maintenance, and the rest will seem to take care of itself.
Introduce yourself to the assigners. Talk to the officials who work at the level you want to work. Demonstrate to them that you are willing to work hard and are open to learning from each game you officiate. Don’t be pushy with them, but show them you are ambitious and ready for whatever game you accept.
And finally, remember that the bridge between you and your games is your assigner. Treat him or her with the same courtesy you would treat your family members. According to Dale Carnegie’s book How to Win Friends and Influence People, 85 percent of success or failure in any field comes from communication and dealing with other people.
Understanding that one principle will propel you forward more than you can imagine, no matter what you do in life — because you are your own agent in officiating and in life.
Michael Menard lives in Hamburg, N.Y. He is a veteran ice hockey official at the youth, high school, adult, college club, junior and collegiate levels.
When people say, “There’s no need to get emotional,” that’s probably more true for officials than for the average person. Put a regular guy or gal in front of hundreds, maybe thousands, of screaming fans, a couple of intense coaches and a bunch of psyched-up, keyed-up and fired-up athletes, and you’re going to need a squeegee to put what’s left of Joe or Jill Average back together.
You, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury to feel what the average person feels — you’re an official and there’s a job to do. But emotions shouldn’t be ignored, either. Controlling your emotions means controlling your game and controlling your game is your job. To be effective, an official needs to be a rock, but not a robot. A listener, but not a passive abuse-taker. A professional, but not an egomaniac.
Confidence is one of the “good” emotions that you probably don’t need to control too much (unless you become overconfident, which could lead you to become arrogant, which leads to egomania!).
Being able to handle pressure starts with confidence in your ability. You have to develop a level of confidence that you know the game and you know what you’re doing out there. You develop a feel for the game and what’s going on around you. It allows you to defuse problems before they happen. Knowledge is power and when you’ve mastered your game, a sense of control will follow.
Stay cool when the pressure gets hot. All the knowledge in the world will only take you so far when there’s a lot on the line. Let’s face it, the outcomes of some games have outrageous implications. Some officials are put in charge of events involving tens of millions of dollars, with maybe hundreds of millions of people watching — and careers often hang in the balance. There’s pressure there and you can’t deny it.
Don’t think that only happens at the pro, international or major college levels, though. The folks sitting in the stands at a local high school football or basketball game, or a Little League baseball or youth league soccer game, can be just as — and sometimes more — personally invested in the outcome of a game. The ire of a handful of parents can be more disquieting than the anonymous roar of 20,000 spectators.
It is essential to develop stress-management skills so you can keep focused during the actual contest, when the pressure gets turned up. A big mistake officials make is trying to pretend they have no emotions and nothing can get to them. Though it doesn’t pay to display your emotions for everyone to see, denying your feelings exist can lead to trouble.
Self-talk can help. Instead of trying to be an unfeeling robot, you’re better off being able to identify when you’re feeling stressed and then having a strategy to deal with it.
It can be as simple as developing a quick conversation with yourself:
1. Acknowledge the pressure, direct your mind to focus on the game and assure yourself that you’re in control in a relaxed, calm way.
2. Fairly assess your performance and commit to minimizing mistakes, but also be prepared to move on and develop a tolerance for being less than perfect.
3. Be wary of when your internal conversation becomes hostile. If you find your self-talk starts to run along the lines of, “Damn, I blew that one!” “I don’t belong out here!” “I stink!” or other similarly denigrating comments, stop it immediately, and approach your thinking in a calmer way by turning an intense focus back to the game.
When it gets really ugly. Let’s face it, as an official, you’re not going to be the most popular person in the building or on the field. You’re often going to be the scapegoat for the frustration of players, coaches and fans. You probably already know not to expect hugs and kisses, but what about when the people involved really start to push your buttons?
Maintaining composure can be a real challenge when the words get unkind and the talk gets personal. It’s not enough to have tough skin; you have to anticipate what might come and deal with it. The most important skill to have is the ability to avoid taking anything too personally, which you can do with some mental strategy.
It is essential that you keep in mind up front that officiating is not an activity designed to get people to like you. You may love the game; you may love staying close to it, but don’t come into it thinking you’re going to make friends. If you have a strong need for approval from others, spending your nights and weekends officiating sporting events is going to be a nice introduction to hell. Take an inventory of what draws you to the sports you officiate and be honest with yourself. If getting lots of slaps on the back and camaraderie from the others involved in the game is what drives you, maybe your time would be better spent driving the team bus or manning the Gatorade bucket.
Women often face challenges men do not, especially if they’re officiating games involving male athletes. On top of the usual, “You’re blind!” comments, women will hear catcalls suggesting they aren’t good enough or should “go back to the kitchen.”
In those cases, focus your energy into the game, not on the negative comments or even desperately trying to prove anything to anyone. Whether it is a personal attack, unfair criticism or just plain harassment, the key to keeping cool and performing well is maintaining your focus where it should be — on the game.
When you know you blew one. Every official kicks one once in awhile and everyone knows it. The adage that no one’s perfect really isn’t much of a comfort in our business despite its truth, but there are steps you can take to keep your focus after the occasional and inevitable mistake occurs.
Sometimes — not always — admitting a mistake to a coach earns their respect. But doing that too often destroys your credibility. Insisting on perfection in your own performance will backfire, not just in the relationships you develop with the players and coaches, but it will also interfere with your performance. It sets you up for unrealistic expectations and you’ll wind up trying to convince yourself that you’re always right or feeling that you’re incompetent and don’t belong in the profession.
It’s often said that the legendary Bill Klem, the late Hall of Fame baseball umpire, could often be heard proclaiming that during his entire 35-year NL career he felt he “never missed a call.” Officials who hear that story usually roll their eyes.
Instead of demanding perfection of yourself, your focus should be on doing the best you can and searching for ways to improve.
All things in balance. Keeping your emotions under control is a matter of keeping everything at the game, and in the rest of your life, in perspective. Balance is the key. Too much of anything — mistakes, ego, abuse from the spectators, etc. — can throw your emotions all out of whack. Not everyone is born with the skill to perform with grace under pressure, but it is something you can learn. The key is to know your game, know yourself and understand human nature.
If your motivation is to be the best official possible — and that’s a pretty good motivator for any official — putting it all together is simply a matter of practice and self-awareness.
I’ve read every umpire manual ever written back to Hank O’Day’s turn of the century (20th) handwritten notes. Manuals are good and provide umpires with solid basic knowledge and guidelines for all phases of umpiring. Nevertheless, when it comes to managing coaches, the manuals always refer to “normal” coaches.
What I mean is the manuals are written to calm down or defuse a normally placid coach that is uncharacteristically excited or irate about something that occurred. Likely there are good calming techniques in most manuals to bring those coaches back to reality. Unfortunately, I’ve never read a manual that addresses how to deal with perennially nasty, recalcitrant coaches who come to the game looking to show off, show you up and generally are a pain by raucously disputing every close call and questioning every ruling imaginable. I’ve seen potentially good new umpires quit because of the actions of such coaches. I’ve declared war on those coaches and provided methods about how to manage, mute or eliminate them at least for the game at hand.
I’ve garnered a lot of experience by working many hundreds of war games, men’s fast-pitch money games, and semipro baseball games and encountered many Earl Weaver, Billy Martin and for old-timers, Leo Durocher wannabes.
The first thing I do prior to a game is to find out the coach’s first name and give them mine and ask them to call me by name. I know some umpires like to play the “high planes” umpire with “no name” but they end up being called “Blue,” “Umpy,” “Hey You,” or some other disrespectful name. You must demand respect from difficult coaches and then convince them you deserve it. I’ve found coaches are not as aggressive and mean-spirited when they are conditioned to call you by your name. It’s easier to scream, “That’s two you missed, Blue,” than to say the same thing followed by the umpire’s name. I never desired to be friendly with a coach or tell jokes or think of them as friends. I want to be professional, businesslike and prepared for the difficult task at hand.
I do not try to forestall an explanation, question or argument by asking an approaching coach if he formally requested time when it was obvious that all playing action has ceased. That technicality only foolishly prolongs and exacerbates the situation and further infuriates the coach. I manage situations as they occur and do not try to rush coaches off the field by saying, “I’ll explain that between innings,” or “We’ll talk about that later.” I want to resolve the problem one way or another and put it behind us and not drag out the situation. I avoid unnecessary eye contact with coaches and do not encourage dialogue by being slightly aloof. I am there to manage a competitive game and not make it a social event.
At the same time I try to give the impression I am very serious about my officiating, but I am not going to be a nitpicking official that is going to use Gestapo tactics by hunting through equipment bags and scrutinizing equipment and give needless and unnecessary warnings. I try to establish an understanding of “if you don’t mess with me, I won’t mess with you.” More politically correct that means establishing peaceful coexistence. I try to not threaten coaches, but if I do issue a warning, there will be dire consequences for the next infraction. I don’t make the mistake of believing that bad behavior will go away if I ignore it. I understood that difficult coaches are much like difficult children. I don’t have the time, desire or inclination to try any fancy techniques to build a less adversarial relationship with them. My main request is good sporting behavior.
I establish the fact that I do not tolerate any attempts of intimidation or threats and that I will make any such attempts unpleasant for coaches. When I work the plate, I don’t hesitate to use a judicious “glare” to show my displeasure when I am criticized about balls and strikes. During arguments I listen to the coach’s reasonable concerns. Nevertheless, I do not allow them to make ludicrous complaints or repeat the same argument over and over. Contrary to popular opinion, I do not eject anyone unless it is necessary. Fortunately, I usually have a good partner to share game management responsibilities but I realize that is not always the case.
When someone is ejected it is the duty of his or her partner to escort the ejected individual off the field. I’ve found that law enforcement people are much quicker to come to the aid of a colleague. I rarely follow the company line and never the clamor of television commentators that umpires should walk away from confrontations especially when working the plate. I consider the plate area my office and no one is going to make me walk out of my office.
On the bases I sometimes take a few steps away from a coach to give him or her a chance to depart, but I am completely prepared to manage any situation to its conclusion. After 36 years and 7,000 games I can say my methods work well for me. I’m hoping but not guaranteeing the same is true for you.
By Jay Miner
Jay Miner is a longtime umpire, rules interpreter and former assigner from Albany, N.Y.
An umpire buddy was planning a presentation to a high school umpires association on how to advance to the college level and asked me for some thoughts. The following is what I sent him, which is based on several decades of working on field at the minor league and Division I levels and serving as a Division I umpire coordinator.
I won’t dwell on this topic for it is often addressed in this magazine, except to say that if I’m considering several prospects for a staff opening, it’s easy to eliminate those who aren’t flat-bellied and don’t look like they’re athletic. Maybe this isn’t fair, but it is reality in this day and age.
Some umpires want to advance before they’re ready. One thing I focused on when watching umpires work was whether they could maintain a consistent strike zone for nine innings, regardless of what happened. You can’t learn to do this overnight. It takes roughly five years at any level to develop a consistent, solid zone.
I also wanted to see how an umpire controlled the game and whether he could turn the page instantly if he blew a pitch or call or the crowd hooted at him. It takes several years in the saddle to learn how to do this. Be patient and take things a step at a time. If you happen to get a college game or schedule, but screw up because you don’t yet know the ropes, you may not get a second chance. I’ve seen this happen many times.
If working college scrimmages is an option, do it. Balls and strikes are where it’s at, so get behind the plate. Be objective about your work; maybe ask for feedback from the pitching coach afterward. Although scrimmages are not pressure situations, it should give you a sense of whether you can handle that level.
People won’t come knocking at your door asking you to umpire for them. You must put yourself out there if, objectively, you think you’re ready to advance. Submit letters of interest to the proper people. Let people you work with who may be in a position to “talk you up” to those at the next level know of your desire to advance. Many umpires have gotten a chance at a higher level because a partner who was already there, put in a good word. Go to camps. (But don’t even hint that you’re there just to advance; this is a royal turn-off.) Be careful, however, not to come across as a suck-up. No coordinator has any use for real or perceived phonies.
Veterans may not look the part or be on top of rules or mechanics, but they’ll know things that books and PowerPoints don’t teach. If you get a chance to soak up their wisdom, take it. Incorporate what you like into your repertoire and discard the rest. When I started out, I learned as much from the old-timers as I did in clinics and chapter meetings.
Don’t fight your assigners and gripe about assignments. Other umpires may be as good as you are. Take constructive criticism without protest; it can be a career-killer to be branded as the guy who always has an excuse or comeback when someone in authority tries to tell him something. Don’t turn back games unless you have to. For you to become a headache to an assigner gives an easy excuse to skip you over when the plum games come around.
No one likes a walk parade, so call marginal pitches strikes, especially at the bottom of the knees (not the shins), where pitchers try to live, and on the corners. Don’t get hung up on how the catcher presents the ball. You can’t ring up strikes when they make a pitch look really bad, such as by reaching across their body or dropping to their knees to catch it, but otherwise don’t penalize a pitcher for subpar mitt work. This isn’t pro ball, where umpires won’t call a strike if, for example, the catcher turns his mitt down to catch a knee pitch.
I always said that when a pitch left the pitcher’s hand, I assumed it was a strike unless it convinced me otherwise. You won’t advance with a coffee-can-sized strike zone.
Work as if someone who can help you is in the stands; in the case of many umpires, someone was. The late AL umpire Steve Palermo, one of the very best ever, got his start because the head of the Umpire Development Program happened to see a Little League game he worked, thought he had potential, and recommended that he go to umpire school.
Know the rules, apply them with common sense and in light of their intent, and adhere to the prescribed mechanics. Have the guts to do what you’re supposed to do even if you get yelled at. And don’t let the troops run the show. If you don’t take charge — without being confrontational or overly aggressive — you’ll never gain anyone’s respect.
If, for example, they have to eject someone, don’t stand aside and let them try to handle the aftermath. That has happened to me, and it wasn’t pleasant in the dressing room afterward.
Don’t trash talk umpires behind their back. You may think that dropping hints with an assigner about what another umpire did wrong may make you look better, but trust me, it doesn’t. If you screw up, own up to it. An umpire on my staff once called me after a game to say that he ejected a coach when he shouldn’t have. That earned tons of plus-points with me.
Lots of umpires today are competing for a limited number of collegiate umpiring slots. The amateur aspirant finds it harder with so many pro umpires coming to the college ranks after not surviving the minor league up-or-out system. Points like the ones above (and there are many others) may help you to set yourself apart from others and be attractive to a college umpire assigner or coordinator.
By: Jon Bible
There is nothing quite like the feeling of walking off the field after a stellar performance behind the plate. But having a great game calling balls and strikes — and executing impeccably on everything else that goes with the plate umpire position — is not easy.
It takes focus and attention to proper mechanics. Here are five things necessary for doing your best work as plate umpire:
Getting in the Slot
It probably goes without saying that if you don’t have the best vantage point with which to judge pitches as the catcher catches them, you can’t expect to be at your best calling balls and strikes. Although most of us learn very early that the space between the inside shoulder of the catcher and the batter is where you always need to be, it is surprising how many good umpires don’t get enough into that slot position to see all the pitches.
I recall learning as a young umpire that you need to be in the slot so you can see the pitch that hits the outside corner at the knees. However, I believe more umpires miss the pitch that hits the inside corner at the knees because they are not sufficiently up into the slot to see that pitch. They get blocked by the catcher’s body and end up having to guess on its location when it is caught. The skill level of the catcher will determine how close you can get. Many lower level catchers will make it impossible for you to get too close without constantly making contact with them as they come up to throw.
Proper Head Height
A general rule of thumb to gauge your head height is to find the place where your chin is roughly even with the top of the catcher’s helmet. However, I would not tell any umpire that there is one perfect place to always place your head in relation to the catcher. Catchers come in all different sizes and use different stances, so your position should be more a function of its relationship to the batter’s stance and your ability to see the entire plate than any point on the catcher’s anatomy. However, the most common head-height error is to set up too low. An umpire who is too low will lose ability to see all of the plate. Find that position where you are high enough to see all of the plate, but not exposed to the point of being extra vulnerable to foul balls off the mask.
An often overlooked but essential ingredient of good plate umpiring is proper use of your eyes. When I get set to see the pitch, I already have an imagined strike zone etched in my mind based on the hitter’s stance. As I pick up the pitch from the pitcher’s hand, I want to make sure my head does not move as the ball travels to the catcher’s mitt. Especially on pitches to the outside part of the plate, if your head moves with the ball, you will have a tendency to push the ball outside of the strike zone on close pitches. Make sure your eyes stay with the pitch all the way through the receiving process by the catcher. There are other important plate responsibilities where proper use of your eyes is critical. As the plate umpire has primary responsibility for judging a checked swing, moving your eyes from the location of the pitch to the bat as soon as possible is necessary to make this ruling properly. When your eyes have determined that the pitch will be out of the strike zone, you can afford to move your eyes immediately to the hitter. On more borderline pitches, you will have to keep your eyes fixed longer on the pitch’s relationship to the strike zone. Fortunately, the rules allow you to get help from your partner(s) on this difficult call.
If there is only one thing that I can share with an umpire to help him or her become good at calling balls and strikes, it is slow down your timing. See the pitch all the way into the catcher’s mitt, make a decision, and then make your call. If you think of those three steps as separate and distinct aspects of calling all pitches, you will likely find that your timing will improve. On pitches that are not strikes, but rather close to the strike zone, making yourself stay down in your stance a little longer will help your timing and promote the appearance that you are very sure of yourself and your call. It also will help you avoid the infamous “stee-ball” call or “umpire balk” where everyone thinks you are coming up to call a strike, but instead you flinch as you change your mind.
Good timing can also help you avoid many other mistakes. You’ll be better at judging checked swings, foul tip, batter interference and catcher obstruction plays. Those plays all take normal human beings time to process and rule on. Don’t be afraid to take the time that you need to sort out what just happened so you can rule accordingly. One of the best bits of advice I ever received from one of my umpiring mentors was this: “If you are in the middle of what you think is a great game calling balls and strikes, tell yourself to slow down.”
Proper Use of Your Voice
As a plate umpire, outside of calling the balls and strikes, your job is to manage the game. How better to establish your competence in this regard than by using a strong and assertive voice. A strike call should be sharp and quick, not long and drawn out, but it should definitely be something that people can hear. I consciously make it a point to be a little louder when I call a strike on marginal pitches, and this is especially true when that marginal pitch is called for strike three.
Some umpires will use a strong voice to call a ball on a marginal pitch. One caution I would suggest to umpires who use this method is make sure you use it sparingly. An over reliance on using your voice to sell your call of “ball” can create a belief that you are afraid to call strikes on the edges of the plate. I used to occasionally employ that tactic, until I was convinced that it was unnecessary. The argument that swayed me was that if the pitch was so close that you need to sell it, maybe you should have called it a strike.
DIGGING OUT OF A SLUMP AT THE PLATE
Even the best ballplayers go into slumps. A hard-hitting batter is suddenly “popping them up.” A dominant pitcher “loses the strike zone.” An ace fielder begins praying, “Please don’t hit the ball to me.” A top baserunner commits surprising blunders. Slumps are part of the game.
Umpires have slumps too. That’s especially true for plate umpires. Like most slumps, they come on without warning and usually go away in time.
However, unlike a player, a plate umpire doesn’t have the luxury of riding out a slump. For the record, Webster’s Electronic Dictionary defines a slump as “a decline from a standard or accustomed level.”
To break a slump the plate umpire must go back to basics. First, the umpire will make sure his or her head is one full head above the catcher’s head. The umpire should also try to be at least one full head between the catcher and the batter and at least one full head behind the catcher. The umpire’s goal is to see the entire plate including the outside corner and the ground beyond.
If you are having trouble seeing the pitch, first raise your stance, then move back, then move over. Still can’t see? Move to the best position from which you can see. What about working over the catcher’s opposite shoulder? Some umpires, on very rare occasions, use that position for a few pitches when it is the best position from which to see. However, be aware that many evaluators will “bash” you unmercifully for doing so.
Work a wide base in the slot between the catcher and the batter. Establish a balanced and comfortable stance with your feet flat on the ground in a heel-toe-heel-toe configuration. That is, for a right-handed batter place your left toe on line with the catcher’s left heel. Your left foot will be pointed directly at the pitcher. Then place your right foot behind the catcher on a line from the heel of your left foot to the toe of your right foot. Your right foot will be pointed toward the normal playing position of the second baseman.
Make sure your knees are flared out away from the body. Your body weight should be 80 percent forward and your legs should form an upside down “V.” Be sure your shoulders and head are square to the pitcher with your eyes level.
Do not fold your hands behind your back as that often results in bending at the waist that can cause your head to drop. Remember to bend at the knees rather than the waist.
Place both hands loosely in front of your groin area or place your right hand in a specific area just below the rear of your right hip on your upper leg in a “locking” mechanism that will ensure proper head height throughout the game. Use of that locking mechanism is critical or optionally develop a personal locking device that’s effective. Work mirror opposite for a left-handed batter.
Drop to your set position when the pitcher brings her hands together while on the pitcher’s plate. Use the six steps to calling a pitch, which are crucial for having a good ball-and-strike game.
Increasingly, umpires are adopting the “Gerry Davis Stance” where the hands are placed on the knees during the “on-the-pitcher’s-plate” mode and kept in that position until the “call-it” phase. That stance ensures head height and helps the umpire to call higher strikes due to a marginally higher head position. Check with your assigner or association to see if that stance is approved.
Lastly, avoid tunnel vision and be a tracker. Don’t let the pitch pass down the tunnel while your eyes are fixated toward the pitcher’s release point. Keep your head still and track the ball with your eyes all the way into the catcher’s glove. Umpires who are good trackers consistently rate high in ball-and-strike accuracy.
Other than a few gifted umpires, most of us must learn and reinforce a solid plan to have success behind the plate. Consistent umpiring is based on following good habits and behavioral patterns.
Here is a solid formula that will lay the foundation for position, stance, and mechanics:
First, start off relaxed. Either stand up or crouch with hands on knees. Either way you should use the time between pitches to breath and pace yourself.
Next, you must develop a sense of positioning. You must know in advance of dropping into your stance where your head will go for the best vantage point. This spot, relative to the slot, must essentially remain the same for your entire career. With practice and experience you will find the location and angle for your head so your eyes can track the ball and finish on the catcher’s mitt.
When the pitcher is on the rubber, you should arrange your feet and body so all you have left to do is drop into your stance and final position. Your stance should keep you safe, comfortable, balanced and mobile. If you are struggling with a stance, work with a high-level veteran umpire to help you get there.
Next, as the pitcher reaches back to deliver, you must drop down into position while locking in with your head in the pre-determined position. Drop down using a “quick snap” motion. This “snap” is the defining lock-in that will keep you from moving; a slow movement into place will never give you a defined lock-in and may lead to occasional moving or drifting – a recipe for inconsistency.
Now the pitch is on its way. There are 4 steps to follow here that will maximize your ability to get it right: tracking, processing, deciding, and rendering. For the steps to work, each must be completed separately before moving on to the next one.
First is tracking. The natural tendency will be to judge the pitch when it is in flight. This will get you in trouble so slow it all down and let it come to you. Your only job when the ball is in flight is to move your eyes (or “track”) the ball to the mitt. With experience and confidence, you will be able to avoid prejudging.
The next step is processing what you saw. Now that the ball is in the mitt, run it back in your mind. Often referredto as “timing”, it is actually the use of that time that counts. Proper processing will automatically give you proper timing.
The next step is the actual decision. After processing the information, make your decision and then render that decision. One of the biggest mistakes an umpire can make is to begin coming up from the stance to render before consciously making a decision. This act can “box” you into a decision that you would not have otherwise made. This is a product of overlapping the steps. If your strike mechanic itself involves multiple steps (such as vocalize first), you are more likely to rush “processing” and “deciding” while jumping to “rendering”, so a compact strike mechanic is helpful. Although there may be a mere second between the ball leaving the mound and the call, the key is to keep the steps separated.
Consistently following this pattern will lead to consistent judgment and plate performance. There’s no magic – just hard work.
By : Bill McCallum, Jr.
Bill McCallum, Jr. is an NCAA Regional Advisor for the Northeast.
He is the Liaison for the America East, ACC, Atlantic 10, Big East, IVY, Colonial, MAAC, MEAC, and Patriot Conferences.
Dating back to when I was a student at umpire school in 1995, a comment that continues to resonate with me is, "We need to be athletic umpires on an athletic field." I initially took this literally until I realized I didn't need to train to be an Olympic sprinter or power lifter, as the statement refers to the perceptions people have of us umpires. When asked by fellow crewmembers, "What do you think I need to do to [insert conference and post- season goal here]?" my stock answer is generally to strive for continuous improvement and to look the part by eliminating the checkmarks against you in the
perception categories. Most perception categories for umpires refer to our hustle, appearance, professionalism, and consistency - not necessarily in that order. The great news is we have the ability to control many aspects of all 4.
Hustle directly refers to the physical effort to put you in the proper position to get the best perspective of every play. You don't have to be a teenager to hustle. In my years of teaching umpire school, I will attest some of the best examples of hustle came from the efforts of men in their 50's and 60's - well beyond their prime. It wasn't a matter of speed, but rather it was a matter of pride for these men to get set in the best position possible to see the play. We can all control our level of physical effort, which can positively impact the perception others have of our hustle.
For umpires, appearance refers to our physical stature and, more importantly, the magnitude we are perceived as being physically fit. This doesn't mean we need to strive to attain 6% body fat and have the latest gear and uniforms in order to get the call for post-season assignments, but rather it should be a way of life in which we properly take care of ourselves and look the part. There are countless reasons why we should take our health and nutrition seriously, with my top 3 being: 1. Maintaining a high quality of life; 2. Being around to have an impact on the lives of my future great-grandchildren; and 3. Being able to umpire at a high level for many years. I would encourage you to take your annual physicals seriously, as this is an opportunity to make adjustments based on the results of your blood work. Diets don't work, but constant focus on fueling our bodies with proper nutrition will ensure we are moving towards being healthy, fit and, when it comes to umpiring, hopefully reflecting in a positive perception of our appearance. Keep in mind your image not only impacts you, but the entire crew. There are ways we can control the perception of our appearance; if you're not sure what to do, just ask!
Professionalism encompasses many aspects of our collective body of work: on and off- field demeanor, field presence, handling of non-routine situations, effective communication, as well as the confidence and competence to perform the many tasks required of our job as umpires. One of my mentors told me, "Being professional means you have the guts to make the unpopular call and handle the aftermath with calm confidence." We are expected to be levelheaded representatives of the conferences and the NCAA on the field, yet some coaches act as if every pitch will dictate the outcome of the 7th game of the World Series. Whether we agree or not, as long as we embrace the mindset that every pitch, every play, and every game is important, we will be making strides toward impacting others' perception of our professionalism.
Merriam-Webster defines consistent as "showing steady conformity..." For our practical purposes, being consistent refers to how exact we are from one pitch to the next, from the first to the last. When it comes to plate umpires, there are 3 separators of good versus great: 1. Setting the tone early, which entails being mentally prepared well in advance of the first pitch of the game and knowing the next pitch could be that borderline difference maker that dictates whether your job is easier or more difficult for the rest of the game, depending on how you call it; 2. Working hard to get the best view possible on every pitch. Even when both the batter and catcher crowd our view, it is still our job to render a decision; and 3. Attempting to minimize the number of pitches we call incorrectly. We are all human, so the common denominator across these 3 is continued focus. When you break a game down, outside of the obvious "balls" and "strikes," most plate umpires have fewer than 40 pitches that require a decision. Based on the perceptions, the fewer we miss, the better we are. We may have 3 different plate stances for left-handed pitchers throwing to left-handed batters, but they are all for naught if our calls are incorrect. Some would say its due to a lack of judgment, but I believe we all can be strong behind the plate, so I would argue it is more likely attributed to a lack of focus. Watch your crew chief on the first game of a series and take mental note of how he is calling the pitch just below the knee, at the top of the belt, and on the corners. If he is doing his job well, he is setting the tone for his crew to follow his lead for the series, which is a deeper diver into consistency as a crew. If any part of your post- game feedback revolves around a lack of consistency, you can improve this perception by reverting back to the fundamentals and doing everything possible to improve your mental focus throughout the game.
While there is much that goes into becoming an improved overall umpire, this article should allow you to laser-focus on some points of emphasis our respective conference supervisors and NCAA executives consider when deciding how many games we receive each year and whether we are ready for the next level. Umpiring can be a thankless job, but it has been one of my overwhelming passions, as there are countless similarities between baseball and life. Whether we like it or not, we live and work under a theme that perception is reality. My advice: either spend your time wishing the job to be easier, or embrace the opportunities to make yourself better. It is my sincere hope that everyone finds renewed health this off-season... At least the perception of improved health!
By: Adam Dowdy
You’re a young, aspiring official who is eager to seek knowledge anywhere you can about the rules, mechanics and philosophies applicable in your sport. You’re hoping to move up the ladder or just to get better. But you don’t feel you’re getting what you need from the training program in your group or association. What do you do?
This is not a problem at the major college or pro levels because the training is extensive and goes on year round. Officials spend a great deal of time, in clinics and otherwise, digging into the books and dissecting videos. That individual study complements the training afforded by a national coordinator or league supervisor. If you’re not getting what you need, it’s because you’re not taking full advantage of what exists. Or maybe, it’s a case of not putting forth the required effort.
In lower levels, however, there can be wide variations in the caliber of training provided. For one thing, states are different. In Texas, for example, the Texas Association of Sports Officials affords extensive training. The larger cities also have chapters that conduct training programs.
But not every state and sport is the same, so in many instances, officials may find themselves pretty much on their own. What then? It boils down to how proactive one wants to be.
I believe much of what is done at the collegiate level is readily transferable to lower levels. What is pass interference or a block/charge in Maine should be the same in Utah. Why should a high school baseball umpire not use the same stance that major leaguers use? Why should the strike zone in NCAA not be the same as it is in high school? NFHS rules may call for tweaking here and there, but not too much.
Access the plethora of information available to College Officials
That leads me to believe that an aspiring official at any level would do well to figure out a way to access the plethora of information that is available to college officials. Yes, it may be necessary to change things a bit if your national, state or local authority has some unique twists that make what is done at the college level unworkable at other levels. But my experience is that although the rules and mechanics may be different at different levels, situations can and should be handled essentially the same way at all levels, so that training videos can be of immense help.
Something else whose importance should not be minimized is the value of a good mentor. There may not be formal mentorship in your group, but there will be solid, proven veterans, many of whom would be anxious to take a neophyte under their wing. If you’re new to officiating, and maybe even if you’re not, ask around to see who might qualify. Then approach that person and ask if he or she is willing to take you on as a project. A few won’t be, but most will; they’ll be flattered to be asked.
When I started officiating football in 1970, I did not have a mentor per se. But I quickly figured out how to become part of a group of eight to 10 veterans who got together at the same watering hole after chapter meetings. While a lot of the conversation was typical war-story talk, there was also a lot of common-sense back-and-forth that helped me learn how to navigate a football field better than anything I could have gotten out of a book. I used a lot of the techniques I learned back then for the rest of my career.
The bottom line is that I don’t think it matters where you are or what sport or what level you work. There is a wealth of information out there that will help you if you’re willing to figure out how to access it. Referee.com and NASO have plenty of resources. There are also many website discussion boards, some of which involve an exchange of useful knowledge (others are just forums for BS). Or try Googling. Some of what you learn may be at odds with what the powers-that-be in your group or sport have decreed, and in that case you have no choice but to do what you’re told to do. But a great deal of what you access can be used as-is.
By: Jon Bible
Jon Bible is a replay official in the Southeastern Conference. A resident of Austin, Texas, he formerly officiated collegiate and pro football.
Admittedly, this will probably be the least popular blog I’ve written this year because I admit openly that I am a fan of the umpires.
And very few are aligned with me.
Rabid fans enjoy booing and hollering at them while coaches and players often question their judgement and possibly their heritage or lineage.
Not me: I like them and pull for them.
Bear with me and let’s take a collective moment and reflect on these non-loved arbiters.
These guys simply love the game. They most probably played baseball for as long as they could (ability-wise or physically) and remain in love with the game, just like you and me. They went to umpiring school, which isn’t cheap, and is very, very competitive. They worked their way up to college ball. And for the most part, they remain in decent physical shape in order to get in position to make judgement calls.
That’s what they do: they make judgement calls all game long. They call them as they see ‘em. Now you the fan, the coaches and players quite often disagree, which is fine but then again, umpires, as fans of the game, probably disagree with the judgement and/or decisions that the coaches and/or players make.
“Why didn’t the coach take out the pitcher earlier?” the umpire may question. “Why didn’t that right fielder hit the cutoff man?” is another. “How could that third base coach wave home that runner knowing that the center fielder has an accurate arm?”
And then there’s the fact that umpires never have home games. Every outing to them is away.
They have to take time off to leave their “real” jobs and often travel great distances -- alone -- to get to the park early. They have only each other and perhaps the host team’s club house manager or operations guy as allies. No one in the stands, except perhaps me and possibly their wives, cares for them.
They stand and are attentive every single game, every single inning, every single out, every single pitch. When the catcher points to the first or third base umpire for an appeal on a check-swing, the ump rapidly makes the judgement call that you may or may not agree with.
That’s his job: make snap and accurate decisions. How did you do on your many (or few) snap decisions that you made at work today? Did you get them all correct? What was your percentage?
True, there are times when fellow umpires gather and overturn a call. They, like everyone else, want to get the call correct, even if it means temporary embarrassment. They clearly get more calls correct than they miss and they certainly aren’t perfect. But then again, who is?
For the past 14 years, I have served as a site representative for NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals and as part of the overall responsibility, I oversee the assigned umpires that come from all over the country. For Regionals, there are six in the crew and only four for Supers. If the site is in the Southeast, we are usually assigned umpires from the Northeast or West. For the most part, the ACC and SEC umpires are assigned to the Midwest and West. And it is indeed an honor for an umpire to be assigned to a Regional, Super Regional and, of course, Omaha.
As representatives of the NCAA, the umpires and I stay at the same hotel, different from the teams, which in most cases, is located further away from the field. As a rule I always meet with them prior to the tournament’s start. I have been known to have a case of beer on ice in my hotel room on the Thursday night of their arrival, and we bond. For hours. We share funny, happy and sad stories alike, find out about each other and our personal lives because, despite what others may think, umpires are human.
It is very important that the site representative and the crew chief be on the same page and work together in order to make the games operate more smoothly. We need to get along, and of my 20+ NCAA assignments, I have enjoyed several crew chiefs and umpires to the point that I still keep in touch with them by calling them when I’m stuck in Charleston traffic.
I like getting to know them away from the field.
The next time you feel like hollering at an umpire, all I ask is that you remember that the guy doesn’t care who wins, isn’t getting paid a lot of money, is alone with very few allies, is doing the very best he can, has to be alert for every single pitch and doesn’t take a break and that, perhaps most importantly, he simply loves the game.
By: Andy Solomon
After nearly 25 years in athletic administration at The Citadel, native Charlestonian Andy Solomon is now a development officer for Citadel Athletics. His first book, From the Pages of The Blue & White: My First 25 Years of Citadel Athletics, is now available.
You can purchase his book here.