Unmasking Umpires

They can be the most powerful people on the diamond, and knowing how to communicate with them makes you a more effective coach.

By Kenny Berkowitz

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Coaching management. He can be reached at: kb@MomentumMedia.com

Coaching Management, 14.2, February 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1402/umpires.htm

What’s the best way to interact with an umpire? You could kick dirt on his shoes, call him something unprintable, or offer to pay for new glasses—but any of those might rub an umpire the wrong way—and maybe get you tossed.

Over 30 years of umpiring at the collegiate and high school levels, Ken Allan has seen all that and more. He’s argued countless calls, good and bad, thrown out his share of coaches, and somehow retained his love of the game. And when it comes to working with umpires, he can summarize his advice to coaches in one word: respect.

“I have tremendous respect for coaches,” says Allan, the California Interscholastic Federation’s Baseball Rules Interpreter. “I respect the incredible amount of time that coaches put into their jobs. I respect that they’re trying to win every ballgame. I try very hard to always treat them with respect.

“Coaches have to understand that umpires are not the enemy,” he continues. “We don’t have a stake in who wins. We’re just there to officiate the ballgame. And we need to be treated with respect, too.”

Allan recognizes that there are lots of reasons coaches come onto the playing field. They might want to contest a call, clarify a rule, or ask about the strike zone. They might need to stand up for their players, even if that means getting tossed from the game. Good umpires do their best not to take it personally—in fact, that’s an important part of their training at all levels of the game.

Good umpires, like good coaches, can also take constructive criticism and realize that their craft can stand improvement—last year’s Major League postseason showed that. But no matter how justified a coach may be, there’s a right way and a wrong way to approach an on-field official.

We’ve all seen the wrong way. But if an umpire really blows a call, what are you supposed to do? If his strike zone is too high, can you get him to lower it? If he doesn’t understand a rule, how do you explain it without getting tossed? What’s the best way for coaches and umpires to work together—for better umpiring, coaching, and competing?

Starting Out
According to Dave Yeast, NCAA National Coordinator of Baseball Umpires, lack of respect is a major contributor to high turnover among sports officials. Showing respect, he says, begins by understanding the pressures umpires face both on and off the field. First, coaches should remember that umpiring at most levels is an avocation done for love of the game.

“By the time an umpire shows up for a 4 o’clock start, he’s probably put in a full day’s work,” says Yeast. “Chances are, he’s rushed to get from work to the game on time. Coaches need to respect that dedication. And regardless of the level they’re playing at, coaches can help by making the environment as professional as possible. Even little things can show an umpire that you appreciate what he’s doing.”

When umpires arrive at La Quinta High School in Westminster, Calif., Head Coach David Demarest takes care of three little things by providing places to park, dress, and rest. “We have certain areas where it’s more convenient to park, which I tell the umpires about as soon as they arrive,” he says. “We have a clubhouse where they can change into their uniforms. We also have a snack bar that’s always open to them, carte blanche. If they need water or anything else, it’s there. If they want something to eat after the game, it’s there, too. And it has nothing to do with whether we win or lose.”

As part of his welcome, Demarest takes a little extra time with rookie umpires to establish a cooperative relationship. “I think about what I’d want if the roles were reversed,” he says. “If I was in my first year and I was working with an umpire in his 33rd year, it would be nice if he came over and started a conversation, told a joke, or did something to make me feel relaxed. The umpires can be just as nervous as we are before a game. And all it takes is to treat them with respect and remind them, ‘Smile, laugh, breathe. This is just a high school baseball game, it isn’t the end of the world.’”

Initiating an informal conversation with an umpire, agrees Allan, is a great start to creating a sense of mutual respect. Given the chance, lots of umpires are more than happy to talk about anything other than the game. But some umpires won’t be interested in conversation, especially if the discussion shifts uncomfortably toward balls and strikes. At that point, it’s best to back off and take your next cues from pre-game actions. For example, experienced umpires walk onto the field in a very confident manner.

“The pre-game meeting should be friendly but professional, just going over the lineups and the ground rules,” says Allan. “Most good umpires will stick to business. For them to tell you a lot you already know, either about the rules or about your role as a coach, shows a lack of confidence.”

Less-confident umpires may be more likely to take offense when none is intended, and may be less likely to change a wrong decision. When confronted with such a situation, Demarest asks the umpire in advance for the best way to contest a call.

“I want to make sure he feels comfortable with me coming out to talk during the game,” he says. And even though it’s already understood that a coach is allowed onto the field, by asking respectfully, Demarest sets a precedent that allows him to question the umpire’s decisions without causing offense. He notes this is especially helpful for new and less-confident umpires.

The key is to begin the relationship respectfully, says Ron Davini, Executive Director of the National High School Baseball Coaches Association. “At the pre-game meeting, show that you have confidence in him. If you show him you’re human, he’ll show you he’s human, too,” says Davini, who served as Head Coach at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, Ariz., from 1977 to 2005. “That’s the basis for everything you do from there on out: treating each other in a professional manner. If you show respect for an umpire, you set the tone for the whole game. Coaches need to remember that umpires are not bad guys and they’re not the enemy. They’re real people with real feelings, and they’re doing the best job they can.”

Allan encourages coaches to learn umpires’ names and ask how they’d like to be addressed. “Umpires hate to be called ‘Blue,’” he says. “If you want to call me by my name, that’s fine. Or you can say ‘Umpire.’ But don’t call me ‘Blue.’ I’ve got a name.”

Allan’s bottom line? “Just realize that an umpire has a job to do,” he says. “And help him do it.”

Questioning a Call
Some calls can be questioned, and others can’t: If a ball whacked down the third base line is called foul, it’s foul. An umpire can’t change the call, so there’s nothing to be gained by arguing. Just let it go, even if you know the call was wrong. As Davini puts it, “Take care of the things you can change, and don’t worry about the rest.”

The key, says Bob Brontsema, Head Coach at the University of California-Santa Barbara, is to pick your battles. “Before risking an argument, get to know the umpire,” he says. “The first time you work together is like going on a first date. Some umpires will allow some discussion, and some won’t. More than anything else, you need to know who you’re working with.”

Brontsema starts quietly sizing up an umpire before the game, and continues throughout the early innings. He’ll wait until he sees a second or third mistake before going onto the field. “There are close calls in every game, so I don’t want to go out the first time an umpire misses a call,” he says. “But once I see a pattern, I’m ready to talk.”

As a general rule, Brontsema advises other coaches not to argue balls and strikes. “Every now and then, you can argue balls and strikes without getting thrown out,” says Brontsema, who’s been tossed eight times in the last 12 years. “But you have to recognize that we don’t have a great angle over in the dugout, and eventually, you learn to accept variations as part of the game. Sure, it would be nice if the strike zone was completely consistent, but that’s part of what makes baseball great. Once you’ve identified the umpire’s strike zone, let your players know, because they’re the ones who will have to adjust.”

As the director of California’s umpiring clinics, Allan agrees. Instead of trying to change an umpire’s strike zone, train your athletes to mentally move from one zone to another. “If you see the umpire is calling low strikes, your job is to prepare your hitters,” advises Allan. “You’ve got to tell them, ‘Hey guys, you’ve got to look out for that low strike and be ready to swing at it. Don’t let it surprise you.’ The key is to encourage your team to adjust to the umpiring.”

The one thing you should never do, says Allan, is ride an umpire about blown judgement calls, especially from the dugout. “Don’t piss off the people who are trying to help you,” says Allan. “The umpire is trying to get the play right, so don’t yell, ‘You guys have been blowing stuff all day.’ Coaches need to remember that umpires are human.”

If you contest a call, make sure to control your emotions. Don’t scream on your way out of the dugout, and don’t run. Instead, as you walk onto the field, use those few seconds to gather your thoughts and construct the most effective argument you can. “Try to be as calm as possible,” advises Allan. “If you appear under control, an umpire is much more likely to listen to you. Going off the deep end is not going to help.”

The best approach, agrees Brontsema, is to appear reasonable—as if you’re trying to hold a conversation, not spark a fight. “Don’t go out without your wits about you,” he says. “If you go out there emotional and upset, it’s not going to work too well. But there are quite a few times when I’ve asked the umpire to talk to another member of his crew, and they’ll get together and change a call. It actually happens more often than you’d think. That’s really the best you can hope for: that they’re willing to talk to each other about the call and come back with a decision, whether they agree with you or not.”

So how do you ask an umpire to get a crewmate’s point of view without making him feel you’re challenging his authority? “Personally attacking an umpire means going out there and saying, ‘You’re an idiot,’ or ‘You have no idea what’s going on,’” says Brontsema. “Asking for help means going out there and saying, ‘Hey, you had a tough angle on that one. Did you get a good look at it? Because if you didn’t, your partner might be able to help you out.’ That way, you’re not starting an argument as much as you are trying to get some information.”

Being asked a question gives an umpire the chance to review the play in his mind, honestly think about his call, and determine whether another umpire might have had a better angle. But providing the umpire with some new information is an even more persuasive way to state your case. “I might not have seen everything that happened out there,” says Allan. “Give me the kind of information that will prompt me to ask for help. For example, suppose I’m the first base umpire, and there’s a pick-off play. From where I’m standing, I saw that the ball was in the first baseman’s glove when he tagged the runner, so I called him out.

“Then the first base coach starts shouting, ‘That’s a terrible call! You’ve got to go for help on that!’” he continues. “Well, with that kind of information, no umpire would go for help. But I’d have a totally different response if the first base coach said, ‘Kenny, you probably couldn’t see it, but the first baseman dropped the ball.’ With that kind of additional information, I’d probably go for help.”

In NCAA officiating clinics, umpires are trained to distinguish between sincere questions and those that are purely argumentative. “We teach them to listen to what the coach is saying,” says Yeast. “If a coach is asking a reasonable question, he deserves a reasonable answer. If a coach asks me where a pitch is, I’ll motion with my hand that’s it’s inside or outside, high or low. Then, if he says, ‘No, it’s not,’ I know he wasn’t really asking for my opinion. It wasn’t a question at all, it was a complaint.

“There are going to be times when we just simply disagree,” continues Yeast. “Is it sometimes reasonable to question a pitch? Sure. But if every time I call a pitch that coach is coming out to the plate, it’s not reasonable anymore. If I’ve answered the question, and the coach keeps repeating himself, then it becomes argumentative. So I say, ‘I’m not going to change that call. It’s my call, and I believe I got it right. Now we’ve got to get the game moving again.’”

How far is too far? Every umpire has his limit, but for Yeast, when a coach keeps arguing, he’s crossed the line. “If a coach truly wants to get to the bottom of what happened on a play, he can ask specific questions, like ‘Dave, what did you see on that play?’ or ‘Can you explain why you called that interference?’” says Yeast. “But when they get more and more agitated, I just say, ‘Coach, I’ve explained it. I’ve answered all your questions. I’m going to turn around, walk away, and end this conversation. If you follow me, I’ll have no choice but to eject you. This is your warning.’

“That gives the coach a chance to walk away, because if he doesn’t, he’s gone,” continues Yeast. “My advice to every coach is that if an umpire lets you walk away, walk away. We tell the umpires the same thing: ‘If the coach is walking away, don’t follow him, and don’t try to have the last word. It’s over. Get the game going again.’ As an umpire, the faster you can get that next pitch thrown after an argument, the better off we all are. Once that next pitch is thrown, everyone can return their focus to the game.”

Training Your Athletes
As a coach, it’s not enough to teach yourself to work with umpires. It’s your job to keep players from being ejected and teach them to show respect as well.

During 28 years at Corona del Sol, Davini taught his athletes that contesting calls was his job, not theirs. “If it was the kind of call I couldn’t argue, I’d tell a player to shake it off,” he says. “If I could contest it, I would. I’d say, ‘Let me take care of this, because I can stand up for you. I can find out why he made the call, and if I can’t change it, then we’ll both have to live with it.”

For Allan, who’s ejected only one player in 30 years of umpiring, the responsibility for maintaining order always sits with the coach. “The coach needs to get the player away from the umpire before he says something stupid and gets himself kicked out of the game,” says Allan. “Once the coach shows up to argue a call, that athlete should know to immediately get out of the way. The bottom line is that the spokesman for the team is the head coach, not the players and not the assistant coaches.”

At La Quinta, Demarest trains his athletes to control their tempers by deliberately making bad calls in the preseason. “We show players that umpires are going to make mistakes, just like the rest of us,” he says. “For example, we’ll make the wrong call to end the inning, just to teach them to hustle back to the dugout without complaining. That’s because this game is 90 percent mental, and they can’t let a bad call affect their performance. And whether we win or lose, we want our athletes to play the game with class.”

To teach by example, Demarest ends each game by thanking the officiating crew. “If an umpire does a good job, you’ve got to tell him,” he says. “It means a lot to them when you’ve lost and you still tell them they’ve done a good job.”

It’s all part of treating the umpire like a human being, whether you’ve won or lost, and no matter how tired or angry you may be. After decades behind the plate, Allan understands that coaches are sometimes unhappy with his performance—it comes with the territory—and nearly every call he makes is bound to make someone mad. But when coaches start to blame a loss on the umpire, Allan thinks they’ve lost sight of the true spirit of athletics, which is to use the game to teach their athletes about life.

“I had a game several years ago where I couldn’t get a good look at a trap in the first inning,” says Allan. “Then, in the paper the next day, after looking at a videotape, the coach said it was the worst call he’d ever seen in a high school game. They lost that game 9-1, and all that coach did was give his team an excuse for losing. Believe me, unless it’s the last play of the day, an umpire isn’t going to cost your team the game.

“Players are a mirror of their coach,” continues Allan. “When coaches complain about every little call, the players will do the same. When you get right down to it, a baseball game is a teaching situation for your athletes. And coaches need to remember that.”

Sidebar: The Catcher Connection

Of all your players, the catcher has the most contact with an umpire. That gives him a unique opportunity to build an effective working relationship with an umpire—or to destroy it. There are four ways for a catcher to make a home plate umpire’s life easier: blocking bad pitches, giving him a clear view of the strike zone, keeping the game moving, and helping him communicate with the coaching staff.

At the University of California-Santa Barbara, Head Coach Bob Brontsema teaches his catchers the fundamentals of always keeping the pitch in front of them. “Blocking balls in the dirt is a great way to make sure the umpire doesn’t get hit with too many wayward pitches,” he says. “We want our catchers to work with the umpires, not against them. Blocking balls is one way to show them this, and they really appreciate it.”

For Ron Davini, Executive Director of the National High School Baseball Coaches Association, the key is training your catchers to show the umpire the entire strike zone. “Give the umpire a clean look at a pitch,” advises Davini, former Head Coach at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, Ariz. “Stay low, stay solid, stay smooth. Don’t sway too much. If you’ve got a strike, hold the pitch so it stays in the strike zone and everyone can see.”

Another thing, says Davini, is to help keep up the pace of the game. “Some pitchers have a ritual they go through, and baseball is slow enough without going through the cycle every time you throw a pitch,” he says. “If they’ve got to go through the cycle, we ask our catchers to help make it a quicker cycle, and speed up the game a little bit. And we train everybody to hustle on and off the field to make the game go as quickly as it possibly can.”

The best catchers, says Dave Yeast, NCAA National Coordinator of Baseball Umpires, are trained to work in partnership with umpires to make the game go smoothly and communicate with the dugout. “Catchers need to have a feel for the strike zone, so if there’s a close pitch that I’m calling a ball, I’ll tell him, ‘I’ve got that pitch low’ or ‘I’ve got that pitch outside.’ And if he’s been taught right, he’ll motion to the dugout,” says Yeast.

“I’m building some trust with that catcher,” continues Yeast. “I know it’s working if the coach yells from the bench, ‘Dave, where was that pitch?’ and the catcher responds, ‘Outside.’ That way, I don’t have to answer to the dugout on every pitch, and that’s a good feeling. That’s when I know I’m doing a good job.”

Sidebar: Ejection as Motivation

Conventional wisdom says that getting ejected from a game can fire up your athletes. They see how hard you’re willing to fight for them and they respond by playing even harder than before. But conventional wisdom isn’t always right.

“I’ve seen it work and I’ve seen it backfire,” says Dave Yeast, NCAA National Coordinator of Baseball Umpires. “If the coach thinks he needs to be ejected to fire up his team, that’s fine with me. But I’ve seen it get into athletes’ heads, and that’s all they can think about. They see their coach upset, and instead of concentrating on the ball, they’re getting mad at the umpire. I’ve seen really good middle infielders miss the next ground ball, or miss the next pop-up, because they’re still steaming about what their coach said.”

Even when getting ejected succeeds in motivating your team, it can fire up the other team, too. For David Demarest, Head Coach at La Quinta High School in Westminster, Calif., watching the other team’s coach get thrown out of a game helps him teach his players how not to behave.

“Whenever I see poor sportsmanship on the field, I make sure my athletes see it, too,” says Demarest. “If there’s a batter on the other team throwing his helmet, or a pitcher kicking the dirt, or a coach losing his temper, that’s in our favor. We feed off that energy, and I tell our team, ‘See that guy on the mound? See that coach? See how bad that looks? That shows we’re getting to them.’

“As the coach, your athletes will feed off everything you do,” he continues. “If you rant and rave and yell and complain, that’s what they’re going to do. That doesn’t mean you can’t get upset. But you’ve got to remember that your kids are looking up to you. And as much as I hate to see bad sportsmanship by the other team, I’ve seen it work in our favor.”