The Intent of the Rules

Some of this material taken from 8/13/19

When studying the rules, make sure you consider the spirit and intent of the rule. It would be easier if every rule was black and white and there is no “wiggle room.” We either have a look-back rule violation or we do not. The pitch was either legal or it was not. But that is not the case.

If it were, anyone could be a sports official, or umpires could be eliminated altogether, and robots could do our jobs. But being strictly “black and white” isn’t the reason we have rules or umpires, regardless of the rules code. This could be said for any sport, not just softball.

The rules provide a framework for how the game is played, and some parts of the rules’ framework are more rigid than others. We might consider the more rigid rules as the foundation of that framework. For example
• An umpire calls the infield fly rule when appropriate. No room for interpretation; it is black and white.
• A team is permitted one conference per inning. Again, it is black and white.

But there are other components of our rules’ framework, and they extend beyond the black and white. These components are often called “gray areas” in clinics, training materials and rules discussions. But are the rules really so bland, coming only in the colors of black, white or gray? In short, the answer is, “No, the rules are full of color!” If an umpire joins the ranks for college softball umpiring, and is a “Rulebook Charlie” who is a by-the-book enforcer, he/she does not last long.

Understand the full purpose of a rule’s spirit and intent

Let us take a step away from the black, the white and the gray and look at the more colorful side of the rules. It starts with understanding their “spirit and intent” — in other words, their purpose. Why does the rule exist? What is the rule trying to accomplish or prohibit? When and how is the rule applied? Are there exceptions to the rule? There is a general philosophy that applies to virtually all rules — to ensure fair play for both teams. That is their intent. Another way of looking at it – use the advantage-disadvantage philosophy, which tells us to use the rules as tools to keep one team from gaining an unfair advantage over the other one. 

But what about their spirit? Go back to the look-back rule mentioned in the opening paragraph. Play: on a pick-off play the runner slides awkwardly into a base and is called safe; the defense immediately throws the ball back to the pitcher in the circle. The umpire notices the runner as she takes  a little time and struggles to get back on her feet; in so doing she slightly loses contact with base. Should the umpire declare a look-back rule violation? No, that is not the purpose of the rule, nor is it the spirit or intent of the rule.

So, where are the various shades of color? They are right there in the rules! Was the runner obstructed? Was that pitch illegal? Did the batter check her swing or not? These types of decisions involve a lot of gray areas because 1) judgment is involved, and 2), the experience of the umpire plays a factor. This is where things are far from black and white. That doesn’t make these situations gray areas; in fact, they make these decisions more colorful (and perhaps some colorful words from a coach)!

What about the timing on conferences or defensive meetings? The rules are fairly black and white in describing how many offensive and defensive conferences a team may take. But how long should a plate umpire allow a defensive time-out to continue? There are no guidelines in the rule book except for the ones involving the flow of the game. We have to take other factors into consideration.

For example, it is the third time in an inning that the catcher has requested a time-out to talk to her pitcher, but it does not appear that she is trying to slow down the offensive team’s momentum. Preventive umpiring would have the plate umpire tell the catcher after the second request, and when she gets back to the plate are, “we cannot keep stopping the game like this.” So, now it is appropriate for the plate umpire to go out with the catcher on third time and break up the meeting quickly.

Or it is the bottom of the seventh inning and the offense has bases loaded with two outs in a tie game. The defensive coach has not had a defensive conference for the last few innings. Perhaps it is an umpire’s best discretion to allow that coach a little more time to talk to his team in this vital, and possibly a deciding part of the game.

Some would say the above situations are gray areas, but with the number of options at your disposal, and based upon your experience, this situation seems to be more colorful than gray.

And speaking of color, what about those discussions and/or arguments with the head coach? The rules describe behavior that could result in a warning or an ejection. But at what point does an umpire decide the coach has crossed the line? There are many differences among umpires as to how they handle coaches, and what is their “line.” An umpire’s experience plays a big factor, as well as the past experiences between that coach and umpire. Some umpires can control minor behavior issues with a few words or a well-timed “that’s enough coach”. Other umpires are quick to give a formal warning.

One last example of how the spirit and intent influence the administration of the rules: A pitcher has her hands together ready to start the pitch. A bee flies by her head and she reacts by swatting at the bee with her glove while keeping the ball in her hand. Technically, she has separated her hands without starting the pitch. It would not be appropriate to call an illegal pitch; call time-out and start over.

When we talk about “gray areas” there is an implied sense of vagueness, ambiguity or fuzziness. But we could dig into virtually every rule and find some color. It is that color which enables us to manage and facilitate a game. Truly learning the rules, not just “studying” them, should lead us to understand their spirit and intent. And once we understand that spirit and intent influence interpretation, those fuzzy gray areas clear up a bit. We start to see some color, and this helps us be better administer the rules with fairness while becoming better game managers.