Friday, May 7, 2021

Analysis of Texas Softball Umpires' Foul Ball Confusion

Today's Ask the UEFL concerns a softball video many of you sent in from Texas in which umpires appeared to allow the offense to run the bases and score runs during a foul ball wide of third base, an ensuing overthrow intended for the pitcher, and a ball thrown onto the field from the stands.

The Play: With runners on first and third base, the batter hits a ground ball to the outside of third base—a foul ball. The left fielder retrieves the ball and throws to an infielder, whose throw back to the pitcher goes wild as a second ball is thrown onto the field, seemingly from the stands. The offensive team runs the bases on the overthrow, with both runners and the batter coming around to touch home plate.

Aftermath: The umpires confer and, although the video ends before the final resolution is given, the offensive team's reaction suggests the umpires rendered a ruling in which run(s) were permitted to score.

Analysis: First and foremost, softball or baseball, the ball is dead on a foul ball and during a dead ball, no bases may be run, as in Official Baseball Rule 5.06(c) [similar NCAA softball rule is 6.9.5]: "While the ball is dead no player may be put out, no bases may be run and no runs may be scored, except that runners may advance one or more bases as the result of acts which occurred while the ball was alive (such as, but not limited to a balk, an overthrow, interference, or a home run or other fair ball hit out of the playing field)."

As this game was a high school affair between Jefferson High School and Ysleta High, the relevant NFHS rule is 5-2-2-b ("a runner may not advance").

Gil's Call
: I am known in the officiating world as what's called an over-communicator: I am of the mindset that mechanics are made to be used and I might give signals that other officials might deem superfluous or unnecessary. Some officials take to the mindset of only give signals as absolutely necessary, and that's a valid stance as well; I've simply found that it doesn't work for a kinesthetic learner as myself.

The way the communication philosophy relates to this play is thus: Unless a foul ball is exorbitantly obvious (such as a batted ball out of play), I "go through the motions" of putting my arms up in the standard "Time" mechanic, to signal a dead ball. I likely won't verbalize "Foul" or anything to that effect on a play where the ball is plainly foul, like this one, but I nonetheless put arms up if for nothing else than for my own edification.
The way that helps, occasionally, is A) A player unable to see, for whatever reason, whether the ball was fair or foul, and, more importantly for this play, B) if I get confused about a team suddenly running the bases after a foul ball (as occurred here), I will remember that my arms must be in the "Time" pose for one reason or another, it is a physical cue or mnemonic device regarding a dead ball. Even if I don't immediately remember the ball was foul, I know that once "Time" occurs or the ball declared dead, it cannot be made live again until the plate umpire puts it back into play with the pitcher on the mound and engaged.

The confusion here continues when the fielder hands the third base umpire a second softball, possibly thrown onto the field from the stands. When this occurs, the umpire's attention relative to the offensive team's illegal running of the bases during a dead ball shifts to the presence of a second ball on the field. When both the defensive coach and offensive third base coach approach the umpire after the play, this further complicates matters and separates the umpire from the earlier play and unsung call of "foul."

Teachable: When the home plate umpire convenes the crew, the defensive coach attempts to discuss the play with that umpire as well—as previously stated, a coach's argument prior to a crew consultation that has already been called serves little purpose (from an umpiring psychology standpoint) except to further confuse the umpires and separate them from the play that has occurred. In some cases, it might even cause an umpire to forget what just happened.

To remedy this, a coach requesting a crew conference is fine, but after the umpire has made the decision to confer with crew-mates, the discussion with the coach must terminate until after the umpires have conferred. And, certainly, a coach should not be permitted to speak with one umpire (third base umpire) and then proceed to speak separately to a different umpire (home plate umpire) about the same play, before the crew has conferred, even if the coach may be correct in argument.

To review, we seem to always return to a chain of critical events that contribute to misfires. Here are the events for this one:
> Ground ball is hit foul of third base
> 3B Umpire does not signal the ball dead.
> Fielder throws game ball above pitcher's head and past first base.
> Offensive players start running the bases.
> A second non-game ball appears on the field and the defense presents this ball to the 3B Umpire.
> Coaches from both teams approach the 3B Umpire after the play.
> Defensive coach approaches the HP Umpire before the umpires confer.

In my opinion, if the third base umpire signaled the ball dead, even with a passive or minor mechanic, the second critical event from the chain would be removed and, possibly, the crew would have emerged with a foul ball call.

Video as follows:

Alternate Link: Analysis of a peculiar RBI foul ball error softball play (CCS)


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