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Reading Material ... The Umpire’s Edge – Mechanics

Are mechanics more than descriptions or diagrams on a page? How do they help us on the field get calls correct, manage volitile participants, etc.? Read this article & gain a perspective ..

By Emily Alexander

Umpire mechanics are the ‘meat & potatoes’ of umpiring. You may go ten games and never have to mess with the DP/DEFO. You may go 20 games and never have to call an obstruction. You may go 30 games and never have to make a ruling on 3’ lane interference. But every single game you will ever work you will have to use mechanics. There is no hiding what you do not know about mechanics. It may not become evident for many, many games that you really do not know the batting out of order rule. But the first time you call a pitch or have runners on base, if you do not know what to do, how to do it or where to go, your lack of knowledge is broadcast to the whole world.

Umpire mechanics encompass more than the X’s and O’s in the manual; more than the precise numbered steps for correctly signaling an out. The scope of umpire mechanics goes far beyond a strong ‘hammer’ or a perfect 90º. Mechanics are the total physical operation of umpiring. The language of mechanics is body language which is kind of like sign language in BOLD. It commands attention yet does not lack in subtleties and nuances.

Every move you make as an umpire, from the time you walk on the field until the game is over and you are out of sight, says something about you and sends a message to the onlookers. You can control what is said and the message that is sent but it requires constant vigilance. Many umpires spend countless hours reading and studying the rulebook. This serves them naught if equal time is not spent, not only reading and studying, but also physically practicing and mentally visualizing the umpire manual. Like rules that must be interpreted through tradition, intent, level of play or practical application; mechanics too must be deciphered, contemplated, analyzed and understood.

There are elementary mechanics; there are complex mechanics and finally there are allusive mechanics. Elementary mechanics deal with standard umpire signals and general positioning for the most common situations. Signals are our words. Mechanics put us in a position to know what to say, how to say it and have what we say believed.

The remainder of this article will focus on signals and the tremendous role they play in umpire mechanics. Another time we can dissect some of the multitudinous intricacies of other mechanics.

Umpires are communicators and how we communicate is with signals. We use signals so we do not have to talk. Yes, there are words that go with our signals but the body language will forever be louder and more convincing than the verbal language. I once had my partner come to me on a check swing down the first base line. I stood as tall as I could and gave a huge, wide safe signal while hollering, “Yes, she did!” Guess what happened? Nothing. No one (not even the first base coach) batted an eye. A ball was recorded on the count and play continued.

Umpire signals are a universal language. They are a language that should have no dialect, no vernacular. Signal language is a very simple one. It is designed to be understood by anyone at any ball park. In order to be understood a signal must first be seen. This is why most signals are given from a full upright position and extended up or away from the body. Once a signal is seen, its meaning must be immediately apparent. We cannot have some people thinking we called a ‘safe’ and some thinking we called ‘timeout’ and others wishing for instant replay because they have no idea what we called. Once seen and understood a signal must convince everyone, through its strength and deliberation, that the correct call has been made.

Signals vary only in emphasis, not in implementation. From the routine play to the unusual, every signal must be visible, distinct, strong and convincing from its beginning to its end. Too many umpires ruin a great signal by not finishing it…letting the arms just fall after a safe, starting for the next position while the hammer is still up or not staying with the play that extra instant after a sell call. Like a speaker whose voice trails off at the end of what he is saying, a signal that does not finish willfully weakens the whole message. A signal for a routine call demands the all the same precision as any other call just with less emphasis. Routine does not mean weak, lazy or vague.

Every signal should be made from a stopped, set position. A set position can a standing set or a bent set with the hands grasping the thigh just above the knees. In either position, the feet must be slightly more than shoulder width apart and parallel with each other. Think of yourself as a photo mechanism. Your head is the camera. Your eyes are the lens. Your body is the tripod. If the camera is moving the picture will be blurry. If the camera is set on a tripod, the picture will be clear. Having the feet parallel gives you a solid base from which you can adjust in any direction as the play dictates.

Starting from a set position enhances proper timing. Since you must come to a full, upright position before beginning your signal, you have this additional time to review and resee the picture you just took from the tripod. If the play changes during this time, such as a dropped ball, there is still time to make the correct call and avoid the old umpire nemesis, the “out/safe” call.

Because of the universal scope of signals, we are limited in the number of signals at our disposal. Think how valuable words would be and how carefully we would choose them if we had only twenty or so words in which to say all we needed to say. The signals we have are just as precious. We can milk them for all they are worth through tone, inflection and emphasis but the fact remains we only have so many to work with. The less a signal is used the more valuable and meaningful it is.

Do not waste signals. A ball hit between third and shortstop does not need to be signaled fair. A ball fouled straight back to the backstop with no runners on does not need to be signaled foul. A pitcher standing off the pitcher’s plate while the batter digs in does not need to be signaled to hold up. Unnecessary signals are a label of the rookie umpire. Never draw needless attention to yourself.

Do not weaken a signal with overuse. Pointing at a routine play where nothing out of the ordinary occurs emasculates ‘the point’–one of our most powerful signals. Save ‘the point’ for when you need to draw attention to a special circumstance such as a misplay, pulled foot, or swipe tag. Echoing the plate umpire’s call on every foul ball will get everyone so accustomed to seeing you out there with your hands up that when you legitimately need to stop play no one will pay any attention to you.

The first step in great mechanics is great–not unique–signals. Don’t waste them. Don’t weaken them. Don’t compromise them. Always be set before signaling. Use your whole body for the signal. Make it seen. Make it distinct. Make it strong. Finish it. With this first step accomplished the journey to great mechanics is off to a smooth start.

Here are two signals you will not find in the manual but may want to add to your ‘bag of tricks’. They have been in use by good umpires for years to better communicate on the field and facilitate the natural flow of the game.

1. As an umpire, either plate or bases, whenever a batter has two strikes you should be prepping yourself for the possibility of a dropped third strike and know in advance whether the batter will be out immediately or must be put out at first base. When the third strike reaches the catcher both umpires must know and be in agreement whether it is caught or uncaught. As a base umpire you can communicate this information to the plate umpire with a simple clenched fist at the belt or at the side of your body if the ball is caught and a point at the ground from either the belt area or side of the body if the ball is not caught by the catcher. A plate umpire who is not sure whether the ball skipped the ground before being secured by the catcher has only to look out to the base umpire to find out. These are not sneaky signals and no more tip off a player than any other umpire-to-umpire signal. They simply enhance the communication among the crew and alert all umpires to whether or not a play is imminent.

2. Whenever a situation happens that has the appearance of a violation but is not, such as possible interference, appeared to be hit by a batted ball but was not or looked like obstruction; give a quick safe signal. This serves the purpose of letting everyone know that you saw the same weird thing that they saw, you made a judgment on it and you have ruled it as ‘nothing’ or no violation. This simple mechanic incorporated into your game could save you from several visits from the coach each season.



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