The following article “Keep the Game Moving” was written by one of my best friends, Jim Bard of Chambersburg, PA. Jim mentored me in the early 1980’s and was the reason I became an umpire and have remained an umpire. He has been an umpire since 1969. I consider Jim one of the best and most knowledgeable. As a young umpire I would go to Jim with questions. He has served our local chapter in several capacities, one of which was chapter interpreter. I have learned much of what I know about umpiring from him. No one I know can explain and has the experience as an Umpire in the Game of Baseball than Jim Bard. Enjoy his story. Jim also co authored a book about the baseball legend Nellie Fox. “Little Nel” it can be purchased by emailing Jim at : [email protected]
Keep the Game Moving!
I’ve always loved baseball. Baseball is by far my favorite sport, has been as long as I can remember. My first memory of baseball was the first game I ever saw on television, the famous playoff game at the Polo Grounds where Bobby Thomson broke the hearts of all Brooklyn with a pennant winning home run. I was all of 4 years old. We didn’t even have a television. My family was visiting a neighbor in the apartment downstairs; it may even have been the first time I watched television. I played the game a little bit, long enough to realize that I didn’t have the talent to make a living playing the game. I worked in the front office of a major league baseball team for a couple of years, the Washington Senators (at least some people would say they were major league, some probably would not). The Senators moved to Texas, I stayed put, and then came back to Pennsylvania. I have been umpiring 45+ years now. In addition to the games I umpire, I probably attend another 30 or 40 baseball games a year. I’ve been a member of SABR, the Society of American Baseball Research, since 1973 and serve on both the Ballparks and Umpires committees. I’ve served as both secretary and president of our local mens league for some 15 years. Why am I telling you all this? I’m telling you all this because I want you to know just how much I care for the game of baseball.
Baseball, when it’s played the way it’s supposed to be played, is one beautiful sport. In this area we are extremely fortunate because we have a really good brand of baseball to umpire. We are in probably the top area in the state for high school baseball. The caliber of play dictates that we be at the top of our game.
A baseball game whenever it is not administered properly, can becoming boring. The nature of the game has a large number of people standing around inactive for periods of time that can easily become too long. What we as umpires must strive to do is eliminate the unnecessary dead time. We can, and must, take action to speed up the game. It can be done, it must be done – and we, as umpires, are the ones that are responsible to do it.
I’ve gone to many of the interpreters meetings that state interpreter, Marty Ondrovich, runs prior to each season. Practically every year they have either a point of emphasis or a major concern about the length of games. We have adopted speed-up rules that allow courtesy runners for the catcher and pitcher and a limit on the warmup time between innings. But we can do more. Much of the discussion is about ways to keep the game moving.
I’ve been on a crusade the past 5 years to speed up my games, to eliminate dead time. It has worked for me. There are a number of things, little things, that the umpire can do to keep the game moving. In itself these little things individually don’t amount to much, but when you couple them together you eliminate much of the dead time associated with the game. I’m comfortable doing these things that keep the game moving. It works for me.
I challenge you in your games, be they varsity or junior varsity, to implement these things into your game plan. If enough of us do these things, soon the teams will become accustomed to playing with them and they will become the norm rather than the exception. I’m sure you will find the game moves quicker, not last as long, and be more fun for everyone. Besides, the last I looked, we didn’t get paid by the hour.
OK, here we go………
1. Make sure the game starts on time. Be sure to arrive at the game site early enough to carry out all your duties and have the game start just as it is supposed to. If your contract stipulates a 4:00 game time, that means the first pitch is thrown at 4:00. If the first pitch is to be thrown at 4:00, then the mandatory pregame conference with both coaches must be over prior to that. And, in addition, at some fields they play the National Anthem prior to the start of the game.
What we do is this: We start the pregame conference 10 minutes prior to game time. Keep the pregame meeting to 5 minutes. Plate umpire handles the introductions, accepts and checks the lineup cards, gives his instructions and has the home team coach give the ground rules. That shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes. As soon as the conference concludes, give instructions to the home team to take the field. Starting on time will set the tone to keep the game moving.
2. Call for the batter. As the pitcher is warming up to start the game, I look at his first 6 pitches, then I back out, turn, and call the batter. As soon as the final 2 warmup pitches are thrown, I quickly clean off the plate and get ready to go. Between innings, when they are allowed only 5 pitches, I call the batter after the 3rd pitch. Invariably, the batter is going into the batter’s box as the catcher is making his throw to 2nd base. Getting the batter in on time will keep the game moving.
3. Don’t chase foul balls/wild pitches. If a ball gets by the catcher and goes to the backstop during warmups, give him another ball from your ballbag and let the warmups continue. If the same thing happens in the game, make sure that there aren’t any runners on base or it’s not ball-4, and give him a ball from the bag. Same with foul balls. Let someone from the bench chase the balls. Even if they are at the screen, unless of course you are in one of those small cage-like backstops. There you don’t have much choice. And, if you can’t throw the ball well, hand the ball to the catcher and have him throw it.
4. Rotate the baseballs in your ballbag. I usually have either 3 or 4 baseballs to start the game. Generally, the norm is that each pitcher is given a ball to warmup with and the coach hands me 2 additional balls for the ballbag. Whenever I replace a ball in play, I work from the front of the bag. Whenever a ball comes back, it goes in the back of the bag. I try to get baseballs into the game as quick as I can. I hate it when a pitcher wants a particular ball late in the game because he doesn’t want to use a brand new ball. I do allow the pitcher to change baseballs, but I don’t like it when he does. If I am down to the last ball, we will play with that one. Once I get down to the final ball in the bag, I let the home team know we are almost out of baseballs. We don’t want to delay the game so that the coach can leave the coaching box to come in and get a baseball out of the box, rub it up, and get it back into the pitcher, then go back to the coaching box before we resume play. To me, that’s an unnecessary delay.
5. Keep the batter in the box. We have the rule – let’s make sure we use it. If the batter takes a pitch and he’s not forced out of the box by the pitch, keep him in the box. Since this is a rule, you may have to keep reminding him. I do that all the time. You can do it quietly without anybody besides you, the batter and the catcher knowing what is going on. Batters in and out of the batters box does not keep the game moving.
6. Get the bat. If the team has a batboy you don’t have to be concerned with this. If the play is over and you are waiting for the next batter to arrive at the batters box, go ahead and remove the bat from the field and return it to the bench area. Normally, you will hand it to the next on deck batter or toss it to that area. Let the batter get set. Otherwise, you lose time while the batter gets the bat, takes it to the bench and returns to the batters box to get set.
7. Between innings. I encourage teams to hustle between innings. After the 3rd out is made, if I’m the plate umpire, I usually walk toward the bench area of the team that is going to the field and remind them to hustle on and off the field. I also make it my business to know if the catcher is ready to take the field. If he is not ready to go, I remind them to get somebody out to warm up the pitcher. I always allow the catcher to throw the ball to 2nd base. Unless it is the first inning or they have changed pitchers, after 3 warmup pitches I say “two more pitches” to the catcher and call for the batter. Just remember to always count pitches. If you get caught up in a substitution and you lose count, ask the catcher.
8. Paperwork. We are required to keep track of substitutions and conferences on the lineup cards. Since they now require the coaches to include numbers and names of the substitutes on the lineup card, they’ve made this job a whole lot easier. All I do is record the uniform number of the substitute in the proper batting order position on the card. This satisfies my requirement. If we would happen to get into that incomplete game situation and I have to send in the lineup card, I can easily go back and enter the names on the card. Normally the coach tells me that sub 1 is batting for player 1. My big thing is that each team inform the other of any changes so that they can have the proper spelling of the name in the scorebook. I include that in my pregame instruction. As for recording conferences, we have to do it. Just remember not to charge a team with a conference when they change pitchers.
9. Changing pitchers. Whenever a coach goes to the mound for a conference, you let him know what number conference this one is. If it is the 2nd to the same pitcher in the same inning the pitcher must go, tell him before he goes to the mound. If he has to change pitchers, ask him who his new pitcher is and get the change to the other team. It is commonplace to make position changes that affect the pitcher. The base umpire should count warmup pitches while the plate umpire is doing the administrative work. Once again, you call the batter after the 6th warmup pitch.
10. Umpire conferences. Normally when the pregame conference with the coaches breaks up, I tell my partner I’ll see him at the end of the game. Unless you have something you absolutely need to discuss, there is no need for the umpires to get together between innings. In fact, if you have just had something confrontational, it not only doesn’t look good, it looks bad, for the umpires to get together for a discussion after that inning is over.
11. Courtesy runners are part of the speed-up rules. Now that we have courtesy runners for the catchers and/or pitchers, in some of the amateur leagues remind the coaches at the pregame conference that they should have their courtesy runners ready to go as soon as the pitcher and catcher reach base. The game should not be delayed for the courtesy runner, that defeats the purpose of the rule.
12. The Strike Zone. I’ve intentionally saved the best for last. Notice please, that they do call it the strike zone, not the ball zone. We need to think strikes. As part of our chapter meetings, we have had coaches participate, telling us what they think of umpiring. The one item that consistently crops up is the strike zone. Coaches don’t understand why umpires have so small a strike zone. As an umpire, I am flabbergasted that an umpire would have a small strike zone. Jokingly, I tell our guys of Bard’s Law: the more strikes and outs you call, the quicker you get to go home. Remember, they don’t pay us by the hour. I say that in jest, sort of.
The fact is, baseball is more fun when the batters swing the bat. The strike zone, as I interpret it, is any part of the ball passing over any part of the plate (17 inches wide) between the batter’s armpit (letters of the shirt) and the hollow beneath the kneecap. That’s what we are to call. Remember, any part of the baseball on any part of the strike zone is a strike. That adds the width of the baseball to the strike zone. If we make the pitcher throw the ball down the center of the plate, and not call anything above the waist a strike, we are in for some looong games. If you establish from the first pitch that you are going to call strikes, then the batter will swing the bat. That way every close pitch, the batter is more prone to swing the bat, not take the pitch and look back at you. I give the pitcher every bit of the strike zone – he’s entitled toe it. Adopt a philosophy that it’s a strike until they prove to you it’s not. The more strikes you call, the more they swing the bat. The more they swing the bat, the less deep counts you have. The less deep counts you have, the quicker the game. The quicker the game, the earlier you get to go home.
What coaches look for is a consistent strike zone. I will guarantee you that you will get less flak for having a big strike zone opposed to having a small strike zone. Small strike zones add to everyone’s frustration. The game was intended for the batter to hit the ball and the fielders to make the plays. Nobody ever paid a nickel to watch someone walk. I’m not advocating calling strikes on pitches out of the strike zone. I am encouraging you to examine your strike zone, think about it, and give the pitcher his due.
Whatever you do, don’t shrink your strike zone with 2 strikes on the batter or with 2 outs in the inning. Again, we strive for consistency. If it was “there” for strike-1 or strike-2, don’t hesitate to ring him up on strike-3.
We don’t have the same strike zone as they use in the major leagues. If you watch a lot of baseball on television, you won’t see many strikes called above the belt. We can’t do that. Call those pitches strikes. Make the batter swing the bat. Trust me, the game will be more fun.
“Remember, it’s a strike until they prove to you it’s not.“