Two Strikes, You’re Out!

By Staff

Coaching Management, 12.7, September 2004,

When the number of high school baseball coaches ejected for unsportsmanlike conduct hit 16 during the 2003 season, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association decided enough was enough. The association’s baseball and sportsmanship committees met to work on a solution, and the “Strike Two” program emerged.

Under the program’s rules, an umpire can issue a “strike one” to a coach who engages in inappropriate verbal or nonverbal behavior. The strike is recorded in the official scorebook, and both coaches are notified of the infraction. A second instance of bad behavior—strike two—and the coach is ejected. Umpires are still free to eject a coach immediately for flagrant misbehavior.

The program was adopted for the 2004 season as an experimental rule. While the final results aren’t in yet, the program seems to have worked: Ejections are down.

When it was first proposed, the rule met with skepticism from coaches and umpires alike. “A lot of coaches thought that this suddenly put a lot of power into the hands of umpires who would be making very subjective decisions,” says Bob Ashley, President of the Massachusetts Baseball Coaches’ Association and Head Coach at Stoughton High School. “There were coaches who thought, ‘I know this umpire doesn’t like me very much, so the first time I say anything, he’s going to give me a strike one.’”

Coaches were also worried that behavior they’d always considered acceptable would suddenly be earning them strikes in the scorebook. “To get a strike one, you don’t have to run out onto the field and have an argument with the umpire,” says Paul Wetzel, Media Spokesman for the MIAA. “There is a certain amount of moaning and groaning from the bench that has become part of baseball culture. I think that there was some concern about where the line was going to be.”

Umpires were uncertain as well. “Frankly, I didn’t think I was going to like it,” says Mike Evans, President of the Massachusetts Baseball Umpires’ Association. “I didn’t like the terminology, I didn’t like the way it was presented to us, and I didn’t think we had been given enough input in coming up with the program.”

After living with Strike Two for a year, though, both Ashley and Evans say they support it. “We had the most ejections of any sport in Massachusetts prior to this,” Ashley says. “That really makes baseball look bad, and something had to be done.”

“The more I thought about it, I decided this isn’t a bad way to go,” Evans agrees.

The program gives umpires a way to deal with marginal infractions—behavior that is inappropriate and shouldn’t be ignored, but that doesn’t warrant immediate ejection. “In basketball, a technical foul serves as a heads-up before any serious action is taken,” Evans says. “In baseball, we’ve never had anything like that to use. Nobody likes having to eject a coach, so this is a way of saying, ‘Okay, coach, let’s calm down and start thinking a little bit more,’ without having to eject him.”

A perfect example involves what Evans calls “chipping away”—a coach who constantly questions balls and strikes. “That gets annoying and makes it hard for the umpire to concentrate, but it’s probably not something we’re going to eject a coach for,” he says. “Yet, the rulebook does say that you cannot question balls and strikes, and now we can turn to a coach who’s chipping away and tell them it’s ‘strike one.’”

Coaches and umpires discussed the program in preseason meetings and Evans says umpires reminded coaches of it in pregame conferences. With three weeks to go in the season, there had only been three or four ejections, according to Wetzel. No data are available yet on how many times a “strike one” was issued, but Ashley says the added awareness, as much as the rule itself, prompted better behavior this past season.

Head coaches also spent more time this year mentoring assistant coaches about sportsmanship. “Many of the assistants were young, first-time coaches who don’t usually work in an educational environment and don’t know what’s appropriate there,” says Ashley. “They were making comments from the bench that were getting head coaches ejected.

“Head coaches have a responsibility to watch their own behavior and make sure their kids and assistants carry themselves in the correct manner,” he continues. “I think this rule made head coaches more aware of that.”

One question is how much that responsibility extends to the stands. Technically, an umpire can issue a “strike one” against a coach if a fan makes inappropriate comments. “You could have a rabid parent in the background yelling at the umpire, the umpire could issue a bench warning, and if the parent yells again, the head coach could be ejected,” Ashley says. “I’m not too crazy about that aspect of the rule, because I think it puts too much responsibility on the coach for crowd control.”

However, he didn’t see that scenario happen last season. “I think umpires will continue to talk to the athletic director on site if there is a problem with fan behavior,” he says. “I think common sense will prevail.”

The MIAA baseball committee will go over the numbers of 2004 “strike one” warnings when they meet in September to review the season. The association will likely experiment with the rule for one more year before deciding whether to make it permanent at the next rules changes meeting in May 2005.