Last fall one of my articles highlighted a technique called "situational football" that Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, uses to teach football players to think. I never thought about applying that thought process to the diamond. At camp we did just that, and I learned a valuable lesson.
When I played, "situations" were a part of the practice almost everyday and something I looked forward to. After my playing days ended, I didn't think about it, nor did I apply that line of thinking to the baseball field. Knowing the situation and the things you should do as an official are just as relevant for an umpire as they are for a ballplayer. I have come away with a new approach to the game and will include that type of training in every clinic we conduct for our umpires here in my association.
The concept is simple and is used by baseball coaches around the country to teach their players. Using a limited number of fielders, the coach hits balls to specific spots in order to create the learning situations he desires. At camp, two students served as outfielders and one of the camp staff served as a first baseman.
Before I go any farther, let me say this: Nothing takes precedence over the baseball and its location. Using that statement as a premise for the work, Naeurt, et. al., began the drills.
No, this isn’t a group of umpires being held at gunpoint. This picture is taken at Ogelthorpe University in Atlanta, and two of the groups are practicing their foul ball calls.
Editor's note: At least we can see the stadium. (grin)
The focus on the training was to emphasize the importance of the two things that an umpire must decide on every batted ball:
- catch/no catch
The night before we had covered the definition of a fair batted ball, a foul ball, and a catch. Right before we started drills, we reviewed those definitions.
We started with a simple ground ball down the first-base line. By hitting grounders, or "bounders" at first base, the clinicians forced the base umpire to make a decision. When fair, point fair; when foul, call and signal "foul" then point foul. When you made a call, Naeurt would call "why" and you were expected to tell him when the ball became fair or foul, using rule book terminology. For instance, a bounder is a ball that "is on or over fair territory when bounding to the outfield past first or third...." (OBR 2.00: Fair Ball). After we each had gone through an iteration of grounders, we then started working on fly balls to the outfield and catch/no catch.
The catch/no catch drill built upon the fair/foul drill. After reviewing the four reasons for an umpire to go out, Nauert would hit a fly ball over F3's head, and the fun would begin. You had to decide if you should go out or stay in. Then, if you decided to go out, you had to get set to observe the catch, signal fair/foul and catch/no catch; and if a catch, signal out. If you decided not to go out, you needed to pivot. After we each ran through the situation, Paul begin to mix it up. Some guys would get a grounder/bounder, some would get a fly ball to the gap, some would get a can of corn. The idea was to force the umpires into reading the situation and reacting.
It was at that point that the comedy of errors began. Guys were second-guessing themselves. Guys who got the fair/foul call correct forgot to move into position to make the call on the play at first. We had guys who would elect not to go out — and stand in the A position as if their job was over. There were guys who would go out to rule on a can of corn while F9 took a nap underneath before he caught it. At one point, I had smoke coming out of my ears as I tried to remember the definition of a fair/foul ball. But here's the bottom line: We learned from our mistakes and the mistakes of the others in the group.
For our final field exercise, the umpire rotation was kind of complex; but I will try to explain. You have four umpires: 1, 2, 3, 4. Umpires 1 and 2 are a team; umpires 3 and 4 are a team. Umpire 1 starts as the PU, umpire 2 starts as the BU. When their rotation is complete, umpires 3 and 4 replace 1 and 2. When 3 and 4 are complete, umpire 2 becomes the PU and umpire 1 becomes the BU. Got it?
The situations were more in depth. A local high school team fielded a full defense, less the pitcher, and Naeurt wielded his fungo with amazing dexterity. Each team of umpires would start with no outs and no runners,then with a play they would have to handle a runner on first and then some sort of combination of runners. In total, each team of umpires would handle about four situations before switching out with another group.
This proved to be an excellent teaching technique. Not only did we get the benefit of "situations," things happened in a game-like setting that forced you to react at full speed instead of stopping to think. My dad used to say: "Son, nothing good happens when you think." He was right about umpiring, at least.
Come back next time (19 April) and we'll talk plate mechanics.
Alan Roper, a relatively new official, has been calling baseball and football since 2001. He tells us he is constantly seeking to learn new things and help others avoid his mistakes. When not on the football or baseball field, you can usually find him standing over a grill cooking for friends and family. You can reach Alan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reprinted with permission from officiating.com
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