Many spectators think it’s easy to know how to umpire a baseball game. The truth is a little different, however. Umpiring a game takes concentration, commitment, and skill.
- The strike zone. If you want to umpire behind home plate, you need to know the location of the strike zone. The difficulty in recognizing the strike zone is that it is dependent on a batter’s individual size. The top of the strike zone begins at the halfway point between the batter’s shoulders and the top of his pants. The zone ends at the bottom of the batter’s knees. The strike zone is as wide across as home plate itself. As the umpire, you have to watch the ball and call balls and strikes according to the height of the pitch and its location relative to both home plate and the batter.
- Use your ears, not just your eyes. If you’re a base umpire covering first, second, or third base, it’s only a matter of time before you will have to make the call on whether a runner touched the base before or after the fielder caught the ball. Common sense would dictate that you pay attention to the play with your eyes, and if you’ve watched the play the entire time then you should get it right. Sound will benefit the umpire more, however. Listen for the sound of the runner’s foot touching the bag versus the ball landing in the fielder’s glove. These sounds can come a split second apart from one another, but by listening to the play as much as watching it, you can get a better grasp at which action occurred first.
- Judging balls. If the batter hits a line drive down the first or third base line, you as the first or third base umpire will need to watch for where the ball hits the ground. If the ball hits inside fair territory between home plate and first or third and THEN bounces or rolls out of bounds, the ball is fair. You indicate a fair ball by pointing toward the infield. This also applies to a line drive that first touches the ground in the outfield past first or third base. It only needs to touch the ground in fair territory on the first bounce to be considered fair. It is also considered fair if it touches the white chalk line. If the ball first hits the ground in foul territory, it is foul and you indicate it by pointing toward foul territory. If the batter hits a ground ball, however, you cannot rule it fair or foul until after it passes first or third base. The exception to this is if the ball strays into foul territory before reaching either base.
- Calling swings. If you’re a first or third base umpire, you’ll often be called on to help determine whether a batter swung on a pitch for a strike. If a batter breaks the front plane of home plate, it’s considered a full swing. If you rule it a full swing and they did not make contact with the ball, then it is a strike, even if the batter did not complete the full motion of their swing.
- Determining home runs. Depending on the ballpark and league in which you’re umpiring, sometimes a high fly ball to the outfield will make contact with the outfield wall. If you’re a first or third base umpire, you’ll need to watch carefully for where the ball makes contact. If the contact is registered high enough on the wall, the hit is a home run. If it is lower than the home run threshold, then it is a base hit and the outfielder must make a play on the ball. Sometimes the ball is so close to the threshold that the ultimate determination will need to be made by you as the umpire.
If you want to umpire a baseball game, you need to keep constant attention on every detail while the game is being played. Baseball is a game of inches, and you must train yourself to think and work in those terms.