Behind the Mask

PC: Walter Keller

It’s the middle of season so, whether you sit in the stands or on the bench, chances are better than not that a few choice words have crossed your mind, if not your lips, regarding an ump’s call. Christian Posny, author of “Umpire Training” and Member of the German and CEB Umpiring Commissions, has been behind the plate since 1992. He says it’s okay. He understands. It’s all part of the game.

How did you get involved with baseball?

There was a time when all the baseball games were broadcast for free on a TV here. This was my eye opener, the TV broadcast together with Walter Matthau being the drunk coach of the Bad News Bears (1976).

I always dreamed of going to the United States. I traveled on exchange to Idaho for one year. When I came back I said well I have to play baseball now. I joined the Senators as an outfielder. I surely was not the best player on the team but I knew I’d found the sport I love.

What about baseball makes it your sport?

The complexity of the game, of the way you can perform as an individual in the game but your individual performance does not count if you do not perform as a team as well. It’s a team aspect but still you can add to the team by individual achievement.

What are the most important aspects umpiring?

If you ask coaches about umpires mostly they say he must be approachable, honest and dedicated. They don’t say, he must know all the rules. We call this handling.

Be the calm factor in the game. Be impartial and be predictable. Everybody knows what to expect. The strike zone is, from one umpire to another, not the same. It’s important that my strike zone is predictable. Even if I call a half a ball outside a strike I should do this on every pitch. If you’re predictable they know how to handle you.

Can you briefly explain the different umpiring positions?

You have a crew chief, home plate umpire and field umpires. The crew chief is responsible for the coordination of the umpire crew. He will decide the crew’s rotation. When not specified, the plate umpire is crew chief.

The plate umpire takes full charge of the proper conduct of the game. They make all decisions on the batter, decide when a game shall be forfeited, announce any special grounds rules and make all decisions, except those commonly reserved for the field umpires.

Field umpires make all decisions on the bases except those specifically reserved to the plate umpire. They take concurrent jurisdiction with the plate umpire in calling time, balks, or illegal pitches. Except the power to forfeit the game, they have equal authority with the umpire-in-chief in administering and enforcing the rules and maintaining discipline. No call of one umpire can be overturned by another.

How does an umpire keep mental engaged, pitch-to-pitch, for three hours?

When the pitcher is ready, you have to be tense and focused. Once a pitch is thrown and you’ve made the call, relax. You cannot focus 3.5 hours or especially through double headers. You have to know when to focus and when not to.

Do umpires rely on other senses to comprehend what you’ve seen when your eyes aren’t able to keep up?

Baseball is a game of details and inches. You want to consider everything that is happening on the field. You put together those little details in every call but of course the main goal is to see everything.

What do fans miss from their vantage point?

They don’t miss anything. As a fan you watch the game totally differently. You have a favorite team. You’re distracted. You’re not in the same focus. You’re not on the same field level. You watch it, but you don’t hear.

An umpire is much closer. You hear what they shout from the dugout. On the second level in a stadium, you don’t hear that. As an umpire you really try to pay attention to the details. The fan does not and as a spectator, you cannot, because you are too far away.

Fans have the role to cheer, to boo at the umpire of course, they are part of the game and it’s great! As an umpire I wouldn’t say I love it but I accept it as part of the game. It is your challenge to block this out. It’s not always easy. If you umpire a game with 15 spectators you hear the mother of the son playing and she’s yelling 2.5 hours right between your ears. It’s hard to block this out.

A stadium with 15,000 spectators you cannot hear single voices anymore. Everything that is behind you is easier to block out. You don’t hear your colleagues shouting anything and that’s a different challenge.

What do you do to diffuse a situation when tempers arise?

First, I talk with the manager because he is in charge of the team. If he’s really upset, I let him blow steam off, no problem. I listen. Most umpires don’t listen. They try to defend themselves but there is no need to defend myself. When they feel listened to, most will calm down.

If you stay calm, this will calm things. Once he has had time to blow some steam off, I’ll try to explain the call. Of course there are some decisions, especially ejections, when there is no way of calming somebody down.

Do you ever give them your dad face?

I think if the conversation comes to a point where he says three times the same thing, I think my face would be rolling it’s eyes and saying come on, this is leading us to nowhere. Either you leave, or I make you.

Do you ever use humor or a conversational topic to diffuse a situation?

Yes, but then you have to know the person. With some it works. With some you better not, they get even more furious. I try to keep a smile but sometimes they say he’s arrogant, he’s laughing at me, so it’s always handling people.

For umpire training we make up four or five types of managers and give some handling guidelines for each.

The volcano He comes on the field and erupts like a volcano. He’s easy to handle because he’s blowing steam off. Eventually he’s stoppable. If he’s not stoppable he will be excluded from the game so that’s pretty easy.

The cicadas from the dugout, that’s what we call them. They chirp at you. ‘That ball was not low.’ This is constantly coming from the dugout. How do you correct this? You don’t want to take your mask off run into the dugout. Every fan watching thinks you’re the aggressor because they don’t hear this cicada doing his job.

What is very fundamental, as an umpire, is that you have to understand that the manager is doing a job. He is not trying to make you look bad or criticize you as a human being. He is doing a job and his job is getting the best out of the game for his team. Once you accept and understand this as an umpire, you can handle this professionally.

I would look in his direction with my rolling eye face and let him know that this will be enough, but you won’t approach the dugout.

The eye doctor He’s the one who asks you what did you see? He actually has no point to argue. He tries to make you talk. Many new umpires start explaining themselves. You explain the call but you don’t explain what you see. You called the ball and the batter or runner is out. Once you start talking he changes to the role of the lawyer. He tries to turn around every word.

Let’s say the ball is hit to the outfield. The fielder runs for the ball, the ball goes into the glove, he stumbles, he falls and the ball drops out of the glove. So, catch or no catch? No catch. The manager comes. He says well, what did you see? Yeah well, he caught the ball, then he stumbled and then the ball fell out of the glove. He’d say, ‘You just said he caught the ball so he must be out.’ Better wording would be he never gained control of the ball but as a young umpire you start talking and then the lawyer, he turns every word. If you’re very precise and short, if possible by the wording of the rules, the lawyer cannot work with you anymore.

What type of manager do you personally find most difficult to deal with and why?

I think the hardest one is the psychologist. After a call he comes on the field very quietly. There is no anger in his face. He approaches you and, in a very low voice, tries to get in your head.

He knows you will not reverse the call. He wants you thinking over what just happened for the next two innings. He tries to get so much into your head that in the next close call maybe you’re still influenced. I think this is the most difficult type of manager to handle and there are managers that are really good at it.

We often see umpire conferences in tight situations. Are they ever called specifically to help someone re-group?

Whether umpires gather after a disputed call is up to the umpire who made the call. If he feels that he maybe missed something, or that another umpire could have important information, he will initiate a conference. Only information in regards to the call will be exchanged. The umpire who made the call will then do the final call and, if necessary, explains it to the managers.

If one umpire thinks another needs assistance refocusing this is normally done between innings but never in the next half inning following a disputed call. This might look like the umpire is not able to handle things or is unsure about his decision. Such an impression would derogate the authority of the umpire.

What do you think about instant replay in baseball?

In the year 2016 all those technical things are available and you cannot say well baseball stays the same like it was 50 years ago. On TV instant replay is a good thing to entertain. It makes the product baseball more attractive, yes. Do I like it as an umpire to be played on a video screen, in the stadium, after I had a close call? No. Of course not.

This comes to a very important aspect which is respect. This is like a mutual agreement by everybody that knows baseball. Baseball is played and umpired by human beings and human beings, they tend to make mistakes, and we have to live with that. It will be hard to keep up this aspect of baseball, that human beings are involved, that human beings make mistakes.

An umpire is behind the plate 400 calls a game. There will be mistakes. The instant replay, maybe it will lead that those mistakes are no longer accepted but then a very, very fundamental thing of baseball will not be accepted anymore.