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"Did He Go?"

The crowd was loud, very loud. The count was 3-1 on the batter, with 2 outs. The closer was throwing heat, heat and nothing but heat. It was one of those moments when the batter had to be prepared to swing at anything and the plate became a jumpy, twitching place as the offense moved on every pitch. Here comes the pitch, there goes another check swing. The ball squirts through the catcher's legs.

The moments that follow can seem like an eternity for the base umpire. You observed the plate and saw the batter's move. In your mind you have made a decision on whether the player made a valid effort to hit the ball or not. You know the age old "he-broke-his-wrists" has nothing to do with your decision. You know the announcer's and fans' "he went around" may also not the be correct determination. You have made up your mind, based totally on your judgment as to whether the batter struck at the ball, and you stand and wait.

After what seems like an eternity the plate umpire motions with his right hand pointing at you. You point at the batter, hammer the strike announcing "Yes, he went." As if it could get any louder, everything erupts. Unfortunately, that was not an appeal, it was the plate umpire sending the batter to first base on ball four. Here we go.

The Need for Consistency

Prior to the early 80's the plate umpire had to option of requesting assistance. In 1981 the checked swing appeal became entrenched in the rules of professional baseball and in the mechanics of the umpire. The problem is few umpires use a consistent mechanic for this appeal, and their inconsistency leads to potentially embarrassing situations on the diamond.

Some umpires take the check swing with almost no motion, a simple point from a bent elbow. Others stay behind the plate, nonchalantly point with either hand, remove the mask, keep the mask on, speak, say nothing. It goes further, some expect the base umpire to support their original ball call, a practice long frowned upon.

The Proper Mechanic

Let's start by making a very important observation: in the opening example the plate umpire made one critical error: he pointed at first base when he awarded the base on balls. This is a common occurrence for those who work developmental leagues where you often have to coax, even push the young batter to first. The plate umpire should never verbalize "Take Your Base" or point to first when awarding the base. Similar to "Strike Three, Yer Out!" this will become an invitation to future error.

When the appeal was mandated in early '80's plate umpires were instructed to:

1. Take their mask off with their left hand.
2. Step away from the plate, towards the proper base umpire
3. With the right hand point at the base umpire and ask, loudly and clearly
4. "Did he go?"

The response from the base umpire was just as strict:

* If it was a strike then
1. Point at the batter with the right hand
2. Loudly and clearly announce "Yes, he went!"
3. then come to a strike motion
4. the plate umpire would point at the batter and issue the strike sign saying "Then that's a strike! The count is ...."

* If it was a ball then
1. Announce "No, he didn't go." while almost simultaneously
2. Issue a safe signal
3. the plate umpire will usually repeat : "Ball; no, he didn't go." and give the count.

If only life could be this easy. The situation described at the start of this article would never have occurred.

Six Points to Consider:

1. The checked swing "appeal" which is found as professional rule 9.02(c) must not be confused with the "appeal play" as outlined in section 7.10 of the professional rule book.

2. Who can ask for this appeal? "An appeal may be made when the plate umpire calls a pitch a ball on a checked swing. In such an instance the plate umpire shall make an immediate call but must appeal to the appropriate base umpire if requested by the defensive manager or catcher." (NAPBL 1.12)

3. The umpire does not need to have the appeal requested. The plate umpire may, on his own volition, ask for assistance. This is a normal situation in youth baseball where the umpire's view may have been totally obstructed by the young catcher jumping up.

4. When the pitch gets away from the catcher the umpire is to ask for assistance IMMEDIATELY, without waiting for an appeal from the defense, so that everyone knows what the final call will be. (NAPBL 1.12)

5. When there are two strikes on the batter, and the pitch is in the dirt, you IMMEDIATELY go for help as the plate umpire...don't wait for an appeal. This allows the runner to have the opportunity to run to first on the dropped third strike rule, otherwise, he could stand there and wait for a few seconds, and then he's in great peril you are overturned. The mechanic...? "Ball, no he didn't go!...", then immediately point to the base umpire..."Bob, did he go?"

6. The decision of the umpire on the check swing cannot be appealed (unless the plate umpire has erred and gone to the wrong base umpire). If a manager or coach leaves their field position to argue this call then a simple warning that this is not permitted should be issued. If the disagreement continues then an ejection for arguing balls and strikes may follow.

Check Swings on Ball Four

Play: Runner on first is stealing on the pitch. The count is 3-1. The next pitch is a checked swing called "Ball Four." The catcher throws the ball to second to tag R1. Umpires need to be especially vigilant for this situation. What is the mechanic the crew should employ?

1. The base umpire should observe the play at second base and announce "That's ball four."
2. The plate umpire should commence an appeal on the checked swing.
3. If the appeal is "ball" nothing else happens.
4. If the appeal is "strike" the proper base umpire will immediately and decisively rule on the status of the runner at second base indicating the judgment as "safe" or "out."

Immediate Checked Swing Calls by the Plate Umpire

If the plate umpire calls the swinging strike on checked swing the mechanic has traditionally been to adopt a "Yes, you went, and I saw you do it!" attitude by:

1. Point at the batter
2. Loudly and clearly announce "Yes, he went!"
3. then come to a strike motion all the while looking at the batter.

If it was a ball then the plate umpire would announce : "Ball, no he didn't go!" and prepare for the defense to appeal the check swing.

One area of controversy amongst umpires occurs when the plate umpire makes the complete statement "Ball; He did not go." and this is followed by an appeal. Should the base umpire always agree with the plate umpire in this situation? Each crew will have to make a decision on this as part of the pregame conference.

In the early 80's umpires were instructed to remove their mask with their left hand before doing this. Modern practice leaves the mask in place. It was also common to point with the hand (ie: left for a right handed batter) closest the batter. This practice has also been individualized, most often the point and strike motion being done entirely with the right hand.

Why?

It is important that the proper procedure for handling the check swing be drilled, practiced and used at all times during a game. If the umpires becomes sloppy on these mechanics an important element of authority and control can slip from the crew's grasp.

It is equally important that nothing the umpire's repertoire of motions resembles the request for assistance. This is especially a concern for umpires who have developed a dreaded "Ball Four" motion or a strike motion that involves pointing. This is one reason for removing the mask when going for assistance. The base umpire can, over the loudest of cheers, read lips and make no mistakes about the plate umpire's intentions.

It is critical that the plate umpire accurately communicate when, at the plate, a strike has been called on a checked swing. The motion must be clear and with authority. Staying down on one knee and flicking a strike call is not acceptable. Complacency here is criminal and often leads to the count being in error across the diamond.

The appearance of confidence and control comes from many aspects of the umpire. Good umpiring demands consistent mechanics and attention to detail. How an umpire prepares for and responds to the normal parts of their duties is as important as the ability to handle the toughest situation. The checked swing, an element that will occur time after time in every game, is just one common area where the umpire can demonstrate competence and influence the tone and nature of the game.

.... written January 1, 1998
.... revisited August 3, 1999 & January 2, 2001
Bibliography
Umpire Development Program, N.A.P.B.L. Umpire Manual
Chicago, Ill., Triumph Books, Inc., 1996, ISBN 1-57243-132-6