Managing Trick Plays

Deception is part of every sport and softball is no different in that regard. Clever coaches constantly think of ways to fool opponents and it sometimes takes a few years for rules makers to shut it down. We need to be ready for these plays and judge whether they violate a rule or not. If they do not violate any rule but the action is an unfair “stretch” of the rules that puts the opponent in a disadvantage, be ready to use the two important tools umpires have been given to rectify this situation:
• Make decisions on any situation s not specifically covered in the rules
• Not impose an effect on a team for any infraction of a rule when imposing that effect would be an advantage to the offending team

Trick plays are part of the game and some of the bizarre tricks date back to the origins of the game. Umpires must judge which are violating the intent of the rules and which are creative ways for a team to get a competitive advantage. Here are some of the trick plays which started in baseball; some of which have carried onto the softball field.

Coach pretending to be a runner

This was an early trick play in baseball but is difficult to execute in a softball game, because in many codes the baseball third-base coach is wearing the team uniform; softball coaches, on the other hand, are rarely dressed that way. In this play the third-base coach would leave the coach’s box and act in a manner to draw a throw, hoping for an overthrow. It became prohibited under pro rules after being in use for many years.

Running the bases in reverse order

Why do we have the rule which prohibits runners from running the bases in reverse order? Have you ever seen this happen in a game? (This rule is not meant to prohibit runners from getting into rundowns and we have a separate rule for the batter-runner stepping back toward home plate to avoid a tag.) In the early 20th century a player (German Schaefer), championed this trick when he occupied first base with the only other runner on 3rd base. He would attempt to steal 2b to try to draw a throw from the catcher. If his tactic was not successful, he would return to first to try it again. The rule for prohibiting this action was added to the pro book after a few years of his doing this. A modern version of this in softball is the play that many teams use with runners on first and third bases only – R1 advances to 2b after the non-contacted pitch but then stops short of 2b to get into a rundown, hoping R3 will score on this play. This is legal.

Hidden ball trick and the Miami play

The hidden ball trick in baseball usually involves the pitcher pretending to have the ball. Since softball has the pitcher’s circle and once the pitcher has the ball in her possession while in the circle, the runners must stay on the base they occupy. So, it is exceedingly rare (has anybody seen a college softball team try this?).

However, there is a variation of this type of plate, known as the Miami play, because it was made famous by the University of Miami in the 1982 College World Series. It involves a fake throw, not a hidden ball. The fake throw is accompanied by fielders simulating an effort to chase the ball down, and other fielders yelling such things as “Get the ball!” or “Where’s the ball”. This is legal as players are expected to know the difference between the voices of the coaches and that of opponents. A college softball team recently tried this, and it was successful – see the video on this Locker room (Videos/Game Management/General Game Management – Defense hidden ball).

Skunk in the outfield

We will use this phrase to designate this play as it is the name which baseball has for the play. Because, when a college team tried a similar play a few years ago, the name given to the play included the name of the team. This trick also involves the situation with runners on 1b and 3b only. R1 starts to steal 2b but instead of running toward 2b during the last half of the advance, the runner runs directly toward centerfield. The purpose is to make the defense throw the ball toward the outfield, giving R3 an advantage in advancing to the plate.

Although this play is still legal in baseball, the softball rules committee considered this action as a travesty of the game. They added this phrase at the end of the rule about running the bases in reverse order – “…or intentionally run into the outfield between bases to confuse the fielders…”

As mentioned in the first paragraph, umpires need to be ready for trick plays and any “outside-the-box” creative plays coaches may try. Judge whether the play violates a rule or not. If it does not violate a rule but the action is outside the intent of the rule, is a travesty to the game, or puts the opponent in a disadvantage, be ready to use the two important tools which were noted in the beginning of this article.