Behind the Mask, Part II

By: Tome' Higgins - January 8, 2015

There are a couple do's and don’ts coaches should refrain from when questioning a call. First, do not shout from the dugout how bad you think the call is. Yelling and shouting will typically get a warning thrown your way. Make sure a timeout is granted and walk to the umpire who made the call if there is a question. Running toward an umpire will get coaches an early exit to the bus or locker room. Running shows that you are the aggressor. Coaches should also refrain from bringing rule books anywhere near the field. Umpires go through intense on-field clinic and classroom sessions. Hours are spent teaching and learning the rules of the game. I can guarantee you that if it is in the rulebook, umpires have covered it multiple times. 

When it comes to calling balls and strikes, I am sure every coach and umpire will say they would rather have strikes called. An umpire’s best friend on the baseball field is a pitcher that can throw strikes and a catcher than can catch those strikes. The more strikes a pitcher throws, the more of a pattern I get in as an umpire. Tome2It’s like muscle memory. I often refer to it as singing a song behind the plate. I will be the first to admit that my strike zone is a little larger than others. Nobody comes to the ballpark to see walks. We all love to see batters hit the ball. The average high school baseball player has thirty inch arms and swings a thirty two inch bat. It is not fair to force a pitcher to throw the ball over a seventeen inch plate.  It not my goal to take the bat out of a kid’s hands by forcing him to swing at balls that are ridiculously out of the strike zone. I often tell umpires to call that ball two and a half balls off the plate. He may get a few weird looks by the batter at first and the coach may toss a few words his way but if that call is made consistently, batters will begin to tell his teammates that pitch on the outer part of the plate is being called so swing the bat. Games tend to go a little smoother and I find that more balls are being put in play. 

Over the years I have always heard people say that baseball is a game of inches. I find that to be very true. Well it is also a game of superstitions and myths. After a batter has gotten hit by a pitch on or near his/her hands, I am sure you’ve all heard someone yell, “The hand is a part of the bat.” I have heard it too many times. Well, I wasn’t a great student but I remember my science teacher telling me that the hand was a part of the body. How about when there is a close play at first base and someone tells you that the tie goes to the runner? I have read many rule books and I can’t even remember seeing the word tie in any of them. I have never heard an umpire make a tie call. The runner is either out or he is safe.

Contrary to what a lot of people think, umpires don’t play as big of a part in a game as most people may imagine. The game typically governs itself. I have worked quite a few baseball games by myself and in several of those instances I have been told by coaches that they didn’t notice there was one umpire on the field until around the fifth inning. The job of an umpire is a little like a police officer. We patrol the field keeping everyone safe and abiding by the rules. The baseball, bats nor gloves are ever in our hands during a live ball moment in a game. 

I have come a very long way as an umpire. When I first started I didn’t know what a timing play was. During one of my first scrimmages my partner signaled to me that the timing play was on. Well to signal the timing play one points at his wrist area. I thought my partner was asking me what time it was! I immediately called time out, took my mask off, and uttered to him, “It’s six thirty.”  From the look on his face I knew I screwed something up.  

Twelve years later I have umpired some of South Carolina’s biggest state championship games and traveled to some of the country’s premier baseball venues. I have had the pleasure of working from historic Riley Park in Sumter, SC to Cooperstown Dream Park in Cooperstown, NY where I was inducted into the Youth Baseball Hall of Fame in 2011. I have been asked many times why I work multiple games during the summer in over one hundred degree heat index. Many people have speculated that I do it because the money is great. Well, I am not a huge fan of the heat. I like the idea of sitting by the pool with an ice cold drink a little better. After factoring in travel, weekly professional cleaning of all uniforms, and food I wasn’t making too much money either.

I came to the realization that I umpire baseball because I love the game. I have a passion for it and do think I am pretty darn good at it. I have had the opportunity to umpire teams coached by former Major League players such as Pat Borders, Tom “Flash” Gordon, Orlando Hudson and Tony Womack. I have the pleasure of umpiring games that Matt Wieters, Justin Smoak, Jordan Montgomery, Chris Owings, Matt Price and Michael Roth have played in. I’d say that alone is worth more than any amount of money in the world and worth standing in some intense heat.

This has been a little insight on my approach and experiences of being an umpire. Do not expect all umpires in the future to work or address the things discussed in this article the exact way I address them. This is what works for me. I thank you for the opportunity to share my views and experiences. I hope to see you all on the diamond soon!

View Part I