After 4 weeks of classes reviewing the rule book and the basic 2-man mechanics, it was time to finally put the class to work today. While the prospect of a Valentines Day marathon of umpiring was uninspiring to most of the guys involved, the day was just another day for me (don’t tell the girlfriend I said that).
The field work was held at Mayde Creek High School in Katy, way out on the west end of the Houston metroplex. I had to leave the house almost 2 hours before start time just to make it on time. I didn’t have much trouble finding the school, but thanks to a pit stop at Barcelona (specialty sporting goods), I ended up taking a wrong turn. The entrance ramp from Gessner to I-10 doesn’t go to I-10, it goes to the beltway. Three quarters of a mile and $0.75 exiting toll later, I get turned back around and on my way.
Mayde Creek’s field was really nice. It’s outfield didn’t have that “this used to be pasture” look, the mounds were steady and without divits, and most importantly, they had prisitine dirt base paths. You have to admire a field with well groomed base paths. They are slowing growing less and less common in the high school game as coaches take the easy way out by growing grass between the plate and the bases. I hated that Coach Pardo brought those to my high school my junior year. Coach Thompson was all about the baselines, and it may have been one of his most redeeming qualities.
Upon arrival, the Mayde Creek freshman team had just begun their scrimmage, about an hour earlier than scheduled. Our lead instructor broke us into groups. My group was sent to the visitors bullpen down the left field line. Here, the visiting team was coerced into having a pitcher warm up throughout the game. I don’t blame them if they’d done that anyways, as they were losing by 12 in the 3rd inning. At this station, we covered basic stance mechanics such as foot positioning, hand positioning, timing, and tracking. I probably got more out of this station than any other, if for no other reason that it was my first experience behind the plate. The kid throwing was definitely young and inexperienced. He had two pitches hit me (yes, I was the only one hit by stray balls in this station), one on the inside of the thigh, the other off my shoulder. The kid threw so softly that it almost felt as if someone threw an empty water bottle at me. So it wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounds. The one on the thigh scared the crap out of me nonetheless. Anything hitting me that close to the cup tends to send shivers down your spine.
After that station, we went to the plate on the field. Each umpire in our group was responsible for 3-4 batters. When my shift came up, it started with a bang: the bang of a ball hitting my first batter. I called time, awarded him first base, and everything is going like normal. Then fun happens. The defensive coach comes out of the dugout lamenting that the batter didn’t make an effort to get out of the way.
Its important to note that by current NFHS (high school) rules, a batter MUST try to get out of the way of the ball. The kid in this game strode forward, twisted his hand up in front of his face, and tried to bail. His reaction was way too slow and he was hit in the arm. I gave the coach the ol’ “he was protecting himself because he didn’t react fast enough” line. The great part about using the word “protecting” is coaches can’t argue that. The current high school game is so protection conscious that it almost detracts from the game. The coach just muttered “oh, protecting…” and returned to the dugout without any more to say. I guess he just saw me being one of the young guys on the field and tried to pick on me. Plan failed.
The next station was less structured. We had one of the old timers walk us through a pregame plate conference. That lasted 5 minutes. The rest of the time was the group shooting shit with the old man while we watched the game. The old codger was quite cool and had some weird stories to tell.
We moved from there to field umpire mechanics. The guy working this station is generally a bit too serious. Not like overwhelmingly, but sometimes he just sounds angry. We discussed how to set yourself up for force plays at first and how to pivot properly when a ball is hit to the outfield. As soon as the ball is hit, the umpire finds its location then sprints toward the back of the mound. He must pivot in the infield grass to watch the runner touch first, then prepare himself to reach the half way point between the mound and second base for a potential play there. There is actually a lot more involved to the field umpire than many give them credit for. I think I’d almost rather be behind the plate.
I didn’t get to work on my mechanics for runners on 1st or on 2nd though. Normally there the field umpire lines up on one side of the pitchers mound on the infield grass. I’m going to have to pay extra special attention to make sure I pick up on that in my next scrimmage.
From this point, we just messed around down the right field line for the rest of the game. Many of the instructors had to leave to cover other scrimmages, and eventually I joined them. Two umpires cancelled on a game at Cy-Ridge and the early crew needed replacements. Another rookie and I headed over and jumped in their places in the 2nd inning. Some of the parents expressed joy in knowing the current plate umpire was getting the hook. That made me feel good. The coaches were really laid back as well, so it made the transition into the game comfortable.
The game was a Varsity game, which will be one of the few I have a chance to umpire this season. As a rookie, all my regular season games will be JV, sophomore, or freshman level. I was actually surprised to learn the teams were varsity level after about an inning of calling the game. All the kids playing were so small. I should have guessed by the pitching that it was varsity though. While none of the pitchers blew me (or the batters) away, they were a lot more consistent than the scrimmage I was taking part of earlier at training.
I was behind the plate for this one. I figured I would keep working on my strike zone. While I’m not quite there yet in terms of being consistent, I can already tell I’m getting there. My partner was a good help. He tried to point out the things I missed, and for the most part, the two of us did very well.
One coach did start questioning my strike zone in the late innings. His catcher was lining up off the plate… well off the plate, and the pitcher was hitting his spots very well. The coach kept asking the catcher where he was lined up, insinuating that I was squeezing the outside corner. While I admit here that I may have missed one or two, it was really the catcher’s fault. The stupid catcher kept saying “I’m on the corner.” Wrong answer Bubba. You were 8 inches outside. The coach asked me about it between innings, and obviously not thrilled about it. I told him one, maybe two were borderline. He bought it.
I like that coach much more than the other. The other coach got pissed at me when I called time right as the pitcher broke his hands from the set. I thought I got it off early enough, but the pitcher stopped half way through the motion. The coach gave me the normal “protection” meme when barking about hurting the kid’s arm by calling it that late. Like I said, I don’t want to argue the protection, but I thought I got it off early enough. It’s another thing I’m just going to have to work on.
The game went pretty well. Both teams had some big innings. I don’t know what the final score was, but I think Cy Ridge might have won. It was really hard to tell as the scoreboard wasn’t on and it’s immensely difficult to think about score when umpiring. It was hard enough keeping up with my clicker for the count.
I noticed at the end of the game I started making my calls before the ball crossed the plate. I’m going to need to work on this too. It was predominately on balls that were no where near the plate, but the occasional strike call came early too. I’m also having trouble working with yelling the correct verbiage on foul balls. I called a foul tip on a play that I shouldn’t have, and I stuttered over yelling “FOUL!” when I was thinking about saying “FOUL BALL!” Once I get into the habit of doing just one I should be fine. Speaking of getting into good habits, I need to work on my strike call… especially strike 3. I’m not quite flashy enough. Occasionally I need to sell it. I’m not doing a good job of doing it crisply yet. That should come with time.
So that was day one as an umpire. Day two will come next week as I’m working the Bay City at Angleton scrimmage on Friday. I may post something if it gets interesting. I’m going to try to work the field so I can get comfortable with calling outs, timing of my calls, knowing my positions, and working on angles I take to plays.