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INFIELD CHATTER: Young umpires need to be assertive — and loud

In my first month as a youth baseball coach, we had all of two practices at our regular time and place, lost both games opening weekend to freezing rain and a third last week because both teams were down at least four players to school conflicts. Still, we did manage to squeeze in four contests and it looks like I might finally be able to put away my long underwear for the rest of the season.

A few weeks ago I used this space to share some wisdom for my fellow coaches about working with young umpires, as I have much more experience calling balls and strikes than running a dugout. Now with a few games under my belt, I’ve got a few suggestions for my brethren in blue — some tips I pass along during pre- and postgame chats and some others I didn’t quite grasp until starting life as a coach.

The most important thing for a young umpire is to be assertive. Some kids think being loud is good enough — and it does go an awfully long way — but coaches and players can most definitely tell when an upper lacks the confidence to make calls. Most coaches I’ve worked with are clear in their willingness to defer to the teenagers out of respect for the inherent authority that comes with the job, but there are bullies in every crowd, and unfortunately they can sense weakness and pounce.

Assertiveness begins long before the first pitch. Umpires should try to be at the field at least as early as the teams. This gives time to connect with the head coach of each team and give the first impression of who will be calling the shots. None of this needs to be confrontational, but too many kids working their first games underestimate the value of walking up to the coaches and introducing themselves.

Sometimes, an umpire is unavoidably late. Juggling dozens of teams on multiple fields is a tall order, especially for umpires who also are playing at their own age level. We had an issue at Sunday’s game where a second umpire arrived in the first inning. The late guy took over home plate before the second, which was fine, but the other team’s coaches never noticed. So when our team grounded into a bang-bang play at first, the other coach didn’t see the field ump signaling safe.

The real problem, though, was the home plate umpire gesturing out. Although everyone on the field quickly agreed the field umpire’s call took precedence, the situation revealed a lack of communication — between the crew and teams as well as among the two umps themselves. The scene also revealed the importance of assertiveness. Had the field umpire loudly proclaimed “Safe!” there would have been far less confusion.

Standing in the third-base coach’s box has afforded a new perspective on how much noise comes form all corners whenever a hitter makes contact after what seems like four dozen pitches that result in no contact. Already I’ve lost count of how many youth umpires have correctly called for a foul ball or invoked the infield fly rule only to have it lost in the din of coaches, players and parents hollering.

(That said, I’ve also seen the infield fly rule totally overlooked, as well as umpires call a ball foul long before it’s stopped rolling and far short of first or third base. Conventional laws of baseball physics don’t necessarily apply to youth league fields tended by amateur groundskeepers.)

There are lots of smaller things to remember, tips even a second-year umpire probably has internalized to the point they’ve become instinctual. Always make sure the bat or catcher’s mask are well clear of home plate, even if it doesn’t seem like there will be a play at the plate. Don’t play any more than necessary without a backup game ball in your pouch. Be vigilant about the number of warm-up pitches between innings, especially on weekends when an entire league’s schedule depends on everyone finishing in a timely fashion.

As with the players, almost everyone understands the house leagues are developmental. No one is expecting perfection, just commitment and ideally growth.

And, most importantly, fun.

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