As college softball umpires, we study the rule book, case book and other resources in the hopes of getting all of our rule decisions correct. We do not just read the rule book; we study the rules, learn complex situations, review video, and get feedback from our fellow umpires. All that work does not ensure perfection. Nor does it ensure we will always be on the same page as our partners or that reasonable people cannot disagree on a specific play.
At the same time, there is this presumption in almost all sports that there is only one correct ruling for a specific play. You are either right or wrong. That is not true. Given the complexity of factors and the speed with which players run, balls are thrown and bodies come together, we cannot presume that certain movements or contact can always be ruled one way or another. Sometimes the play is a 50-50 call and we should remember that.
If you put 30 sports officials in a room, regardless of the sport, and watch a tight play on video, what happens during the dissection of the action afterward? A big argument, right? Some people think it was a checked swing. A bunch of others will think the batter followed through and the umpire should have called a strike. Roughly half will be adamant about obstruction while the others think it was just good defense.
College umpires know the strike zone. The pitcher has to hit a small area. If she is just off slightly, it will not be a strike. But there are edges to the plate. The ball is thrown at speeds up to 70 miles per hour. Pitches may curve and sink. Every umpire knows and recognizes those factors, yet we still expect his right arm to go up consistently only if certain parameters of the strike zone are met.
What about the ball that ever-so-slightly shaves the corner? Or the ball at 68 mph that appears to cut across the corner? Did the umpire see it perfectly? If not, he/she may see it one way, his/her base umpires may see it differently, and a camera catching the ball’s movement played back in slow motion may support one or the other or identify it as a 50-50 ruling.
We should stop beating ourselves up under the presumption that one ruling applies to all plays. There is no question that many, if not most, of our rulings are clear cut and should only yield one decision.
There are also times where the judgment is fuzzy and the call can go either way. A borderline obstruction violation fits the category, as does some illegal pitch violations. You can study the rules for decades, but when you head onto the field, there is so much action – the players are fast, the ball moves quickly and the distance between offensive players and defensive players can be small. So, you cannot see everything at all times. When you do, even with a great angle, you may not see a ball being bobbled in the glove, or a definitive “ball beats runner” versus “runner beats ball.” (Safe or out…can the human eye and brain combination always tell the difference between a tie at the bases? See the article “Tie Goes to a Runner” in the Rules Corner/Runners/Advancing section). There is judgment involved and you are expected to decide quickly whether to call obstruction or not, or call safe or out. Hindsight from video may clarify that the ruling should have gone one way or the other, but on the field, it was 50-50.
Keep in mind when you officiate that you will not always get 100 percent agreement with your partner(s), nor should you expect to on certain plays. Some are 50-50, and we should leave it at that.