When in Doubt, Call Them Out or…Sell It as a Safe?

Reference: article in Referee magazine, Baseball section, March 2023

We cannot always attain the perfect distance and angle on close safe-or-out plays. This is especially true in the 2-umpire system. What should you do when you did your best to get the correct distance/angle but could not see the entire play as it unfolded? Many umpires will state emphatically that we are never supposed to guess on the field. That may seem to be a good philosophy, except for the fact that situations will happen where we do not have definitive knowledge of what transpired on the play. We have to make a decision with the information at our disposal.

With the proliferation of video replay at many of the college games now, we are even more “on-the-spot” with getting the call right. The first thing that you should be thinking is whether one of your partners might have had a better look at the play and seems to be in position to assist on the call. Whether you go to your partner for a quick and transparent “did you see a tag” or other verbal for help on the play, depends on your personal game management skills, your confidence in your partners, and the importance of the play.

The key to this situation is to make an educated guess based on the information you have on the play, the players’ reactions and what your instinct tells you. Is there some guidance we can use to help make a decision on this play? Let’s take a tag play as an example – a late swipe tag attempt just as the runner is sliding into the base. Is there more credibility if you call safe or call out?

You make an out call

If video review shows, or your partner is sure, the fielder missed the tag, both coaches will most likely be questioning your judgement on future calls. The defensive coach is not going to be happy that the original call is reversed. The offensive coach, despite the fact that the call is now going in his/her favor, will be thinking…how can you rule there was a tag and an out when you never saw tag? The reversal of the call confirms you made a guess on the play and you guessed wrong.

If you call the runner safe

The defensive team might have been able to see the tag during the play and the defensive player is probably gesturing to the coach that the tag was made. Your partner or video review confirms the tag before the runner attained the base. The call is reversed from safe to out, so here comes the coach of the offensive team. You will allow the coach to talk to you briefly about the reversal if there is no video repaly at your game. However, we know that a coach may not argue a call that has been reversed by video replay and will be ejected if they do so immediately after the reversal of the call. But later in the game the coach may approach an umpire in a quiet and professional manner and ask about the reversal of the call.
The best way to explain the reversal to the coach is to say that from your angle you could not see the tag and that is why you ruled safe. The video showed (or my partner told me he/she definitely saw) the tag so the call was reversed. Although the coach is not going to be happy, the difference is that you are not having to admit to making a guess about something that did not happen. Instead, you are admitting you did not see something, which is a reality every umpire faces on occasion.

On those hopefully rare occasions when we do need to flip the coin and make our educated best guess, make the guess that is less likely to cause your credibility to come into question. At the end of the day, it is better to have them questioning your eyesight than your integrity.