Monthly Archives: May 2010

If you’re going to umpire, know the rules

This weekend the team I’m coaching with now played its first tournament. (We managed a third place finish, but that’s a story for another day.) The tournament was put on by a local umpiring association, and it was an ASA Northern Nationals qualifier. So you’d expect that we would be playing by ASA rules, and that the umpires would know them backward and forward. No such luck.

Twice today we were told by the umpire in the pre-game meeting that no courtesy runners were allowed for the pitcher and catcher now that we were in bracket play. (We’d had continuous batting in pool play, so the courtesy runner was the last batted out.) The first time, our head coach went back to the umpire after she talked to me and asked about it again. He insisted no courtesy runners were allowed, so we played without them. I didn’t get it since they said we were playing by ASA rules, but whatever.

In game two the umpire correctly allowed courtesy runners. They had to be a player not in the game.

Then in game three the Blue once again told both coaches no courtesy runners were allowed. The opposing team batted first and got a pitcher or catcher on base. The first base coach asked the third base coach about a courtesy, and the third base coach made some gestures indicating it was possibly a sore point with the umpire.

Well, I’d had enough. I left the dugout to find the umpire in charge (UIC). I found him, and asked if we are playing under ASA rules. The UIC said yes, so I asked why we weren’t allowed courtesy runners. He said we were, so I asked him to inform the umpire on our field about it. He did, and we got to use our courtesies going forward.

But what I want to know is how could not one but two umpires at a tournament run by umpires not know the rules? The second guy pretended that what we got to was what he meant, but it was obvious to our head coach that he didn’t. I think that’s shameful, especially on something so basic. The courtesy runner rule has been around for many years now so it should be known by all. Even if different associations use different rules they should know in ASA ball that you can run for the pitcher and catcher at any point.

I thought they did a good job on the other aspects of the game, but this was ridiculous. Thank goodness the UIC was willing to come over and make the correction, because it was around 90 degrees today.

Knowing the rules is a pretty basic requirement. Hopefully we won’t have to deal with THAT again.


Coach learns a valuable lesson about the men in blue

Got an email today from the mom of one of my students about something that happened in a tournament. She wanted to know if I would talk to her daughter’s coach Kevin about it. I was a little concerned at first, but no need. She actually likes the coach, and it turns out he’s a fan of this blog. Of course I said “sure” — I would’ve done that even if he wasn’t a reader — and then waited for the call.

When he called he told me what happened. His team was at a tournament, and during a close game he noticed that the opposing pitcher was starting with one foot behind the rubber instead of both feet touching. Being the sort that believes people should play within the rules, he decided to bring it up to the umpiring crew — average age approximately 20. Yep, you guessed it. Big mistake.

The field and plate umps talked with him, and then the field ump declared the pitcher wasn’t doing anything illegal. Or at least he couldn’t see anything illegal about it. (He said the back foot was pretty obviously off, and I trust him on it, so it was more of a choice than an inability to see it.)

The next half-inning when his team took the field it started. The field umpire waited until the other team had a runner on base, then called his pitcher (my student) for crow hopping. Not once but twice, advancing the runner to third. Guess he showed Kevin!

I know this student very well, and she doesn’t crow hop. She may get a little airborne from time to time, which would be a leap, but you’d have to be looking awfully close to see it, and it’s nothing she does all the time. If the field umpire couldn’t see the other pitcher starting with her foot off the rubber, it’s unlikely he saw whether Kevin’s pitcher was leaping or not.

There was one other part to the story. Kevin told me there was a rather large rut coming off the pitching rubber, thanks to a general lack of field maintenance. So it’s possible that Kevin’s pitcher wasn’t even illegal since a pitcher is allowed to have her foot off the ground (level with where the ground would’ve been) if there’s rut.

The conclusion he came to was he probably shouldn’t have said anything about the other pitcher. It’s likely the umpire took exception to him bringing it up and decided to make him pay for it. (There’s also a possibility he got “homered” although he didn’t have any way of knowing for sure.)

Bummer, but such is life. Good umpires know coaches questioning things is part of the game and let it roll off their backs. After 15 years of coaching and never being successful in getting even an obvious illegal pitch called, I’d say it’s not worth it. If you see it, learn to let it go and hope the folks in blue care enough to keep the game fair and the playing field level. Thanks to Kevin for allowing me to share this story. And Kevin, if you’re reading this and have anything to add, be sure to leave a comment. The rest of you too!

Slappers don’t seem to be getting the advantage they should

Ever since we upgraded our cable package I’ve the opportunity to see a lot more fastpitch softball games on TV. Since most teams have at least a couple if not several slappers, I’ve had the chance to see many of them in action. It has led to an interesting observation.

My understanding of the advantage of slapping is that the hitter starts a couple of steps closer to first and gets a running start toward the bag. Now, the first part is a function of the setup of the field. The left-hand batter’s box is a little closer to first than the right-hand box, so no problem there.

It’s the second part that strikes me as odd. A lot of the slappers I’ve seen sort of walk to the front of the box, take a swing, then start running. As a result, they’re not really getting a running start. In fact, most seems to be pretty much standing in one spot when they make contact. So where’s the advantage. If they’re going to just stand there, why bother with the slapping technique? Might as well just set up in the front of the box and swing away.

Slapping is a difficult technique to pull off well. So if you’re going to go to that effort, might as well get the full advantage out of it. The more you can be at a full (or nearly full) run, the faster you’ll get up the line and the more pressure you’ll put on the defense. So despite what the old song says, run don’t walk when you slap.

I love it when the training takes hold

Had one of those experiences that makes a coach feel good — and guilty at the same time. We had a game today, with me coaching third.
We had runners on first and third, and there was a wild pitch. I sent the runner, who is not exactly fast, home as I could see the ball was slowly rolling back to the screen. I could see it was going to be a close play, so I stood there watching it like everyone else. The runner was safe at home on the toss. I then looked toward third, where I saw the runner who had been on first halfway between second and third, looking like she was not exactly sure if she should keep coming. I motioned for her to come and she was safe with no play.

It was a real heads-up play on the runner on first’s part. We’ve been talking about runners using their heads and making judgments on their own. We’ve also been talking about not settling for one base when you can get two. It was cool to see it actually happen.

The only negative was on me. While the play at home was going on, I stood their like a spectator. All I was missing was a box of popcorn and a Diet Coke. What I SHOULD have been doing was ignoring the play at home and looking to the trailing runner. Luckily, the runner was doing her job, even if I wasn’t.

With the A-Team movie coming up, I only have one thing to say about today’s play: I love it when a plan comes together!

Is Softball a Team Sport?

Guest post by Mike Hanscom

Softball is often a series of 1:1 battles.  The pitcher against the batter or the runner against the fielder.  I always used to say it was a team sport, because everyone else did too.  Then I started coaching and realized it is all about individual match-ups and got away from believing it was a team sport.  All you need to do is get a bunch of good individuals on the field at the same time so you can win more of those individual battles and then you will dominate, right?  I mean, if you win more of those 1:1 battles, how could you not dominate?

I would watch the opponents warm up and know when their individuals were better than ours, or vice versa.  I always knew the outcome of that game long before we played it, until we actually played it and it ended differently than I expected.  For those games I would sit there afterwards trying to figure out what happened and why.  I could pick out that certain player that made the critical error and privately put the blame on them, or on the #4 batter who struck out 3 times, or our pitcher who didn’t strike anyone out or the runner who got thrown out at the plate.  There was always another reason nagging at me but I usually ignored it.

That feeling that I would ignore was the underlying feeling that we outplayed them as a team or vice versa.  I wasn’t sure what that meant though – this sport is a bunch of individual battles – not a team effort.  Seriously, how many players really get involved on a typical play?  The pitcher pitches, the batter hits it, the fielder gloves it and throws to first.  Four players on the average play, but it was all sequential.  Nothing like football where you have running backs and lineman going one way and blocking just so you peel back and throw the opposite direction to a WR down the field.  That’s at least 8-9 of the 11 players all doing things at one time to protect the QB, misdirect the defense, free up the WR – now that is teamwork!

Luckily I was an assistant then and simply helped out where I could, and luckily I had other coaches to help show me what it meant to be a team before I became a head coach.  I realized that the feeling I was ignoring was the ability to have each player moving at the same time to accomplish a specific task.  

I previously only saw the 4 players in the typical play.  Now I was understanding that what I was missing was the right fielder moving to back-up the throw, the left and center fielders running to back-up the SS, the 2nd baseman covering 2nd in case the ball gets away and the runner continues to 2nd, the catcher yelling where to go with the ball, the third baseman staying close to the SS in case the ball caroms off the SS.  

That is 8-9 out of 9 players involved on the play.  Huh, now that is teamwork!  That is what I’ve been feeling!  Those good teams, they are the ones who have it all synchronized, their players are on the same page and move on every play – nobody is just standing there.  Softball isn’t just about teaching the typical play, it is about teaching the kids how to plan for mistakes and what to do when mistakes happen – because they WILL happen.  Sounds like a life-lesson if you can teach them to do that for life too.

It is teamwork that prevents the big innings, the big errors.  If your left fielder isn’t backing up SS, how far does that grounder that went through the SS’s legs roll and where does that runner stop?  Does she score because of it?  With teamwork that runner stops at first.  

Teamwork is that sac bunt that moves a runner over to get her closer to home to try to get that winning run in.  It is that solid hit off the pitcher that gets the bats going because hitting is contagious.  It is the batter who struck out on 3 pitches, who comes back to the dugout with her head held high (as opposed to sulking or crying) and tells the next batter what pitches to expect or how they move so she now has a better chance to get those bats going.  It is that 2nd baseman yelling the runner is going so the catcher knows to throw her out.  It is that catcher acting as a field general yelling where plays are to go that enable good plays to happen.  It is the 1st baseman going out for a cut-off to prevent the tying run from coming in.  If your kids are doing these types of things on a regular basis, then you are coaching a team and not a group of individuals.

You can see it in the teams that have good teamwork – there is a flow to them with how they warm up, how they encourage each other, how they huddle, how they communicate with each other on the field, how they know where to be in each situation.  

Some say it is good coaching, I say it is teamwork, I say it is attitude.  Some kids don’t get it – they are there for themselves and don’t care about the team and you can usually see those attitudes from far away.  They are the ones standing there without a role after the play has broken down.  

You know the kids who have the team attitude and give the extra effort.  Not in stretching a single into a double, but the ones who help the other players become better players, team players.  Those are the ones who help define that group as a team.  They are the kids who others listen to and want to learn from, not necessarily in technique, but in how to make the group of kids work together as a synchronized unit, as a team.  You need those kids to help the team be the best it can be.  They are the ones who in the end can make the difference between winning and losing.

So if you feel you have a good group of individuals on your squad, then you are probably winning games because you win more of those individual battles
(or a bunch of those games if you have that untouchable pitcher and you only need to score one run per game).  Are you dominating though, or at least winning the ones you should?  If not, then take a look at your kids and decide if you have a group of individuals or a team.  If you have a group of individuals, then find those kids who can help you make it a team and get them working on it.  If you are one of the better clubs in your area, then I bet you already have those team players on your team and are one of the better teams out there.

Coaching and adversity

Once after a loss, my friend and fellow coach Rich Youngman said one of the more profound things I’ve ever heard in relation to coaching, and certainly one of the most profound things he ever said. After there was some tension about the game, and our poor play, he said, “Adversity doesn’t build character. It reveals it.”

With the high school season well under way, and the summer season for younger players getting under way, those are words for all coaches to remember. It can be very frustrating when your team doesn’t play the way you know it can. It’s aggravating when they let balls go between their legs, or drop in front of them instead of catching them. It’s maddening when they’re taking called third strikes or swinging at balls over their heads. And when the losses start piling up it’s not very much fun to be in charge of the mess.

Believe me, I know. I’ve coached those teams. Sooner or later, most of us will no matter how hard we try to avoid it. As difficult as it is, it’s important to keep it together. You may want to yell, scream and disparage your players, especially if it seems like you’re the only one who feels bad about the poor play, but fight the urge and remember that this too shall pass.

Actually, let me amend that. Sometimes a little strategic yelling can work wonders — if it’s done as a “wakeup call.” What doesn’t work is the complaining-type of yelling, with put-downs and insults thrown in anger. You may feel better temporarily, but in the end it just helps you and the team circle the drain faster.

Once again, remember that adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it. When adversity strikes, what is it revealing about you?

Game for building communications skills

A few weeks ago the team I’m helping coach now played a practice game. I wasn’t able to attend the game due to a prior commitment, but I did get a report from one of the other coaches. He said one thing the girls had trouble with was communication on the field. Hard to believe, but our girls just weren’t talking.

I told him I have an idea how to take care of it, and asked him to tell the girls to bring a long scarf with them to the next practice. It was a game I improvised that would force them to communicate — a lot. We were going to be in a gym that day so it would be perfect.

When the time came I told them all to get their scarves out. Well, all but two players. I had them wrap the scarves around their eyes so they couldn’t see, and we proceeded to have a little soccer game with a beach ball. To score a goal, a player had to kick the ball over the baseline and betwen the lines of the lane.

In reality, it was really more like foosball. The two girls who didn’t have blindfolds — one on each side — had to direct all the other girls what to do. I told them to be sure they called the player’s name, and be specific.

It was something to see. There was a lot of talking and running around. Yes, there were some bumps and falls along the way but nothing serious.We had a couple of different “captains” on each team at different times, so a good 1/3 of our team had the chance to work on their communication skills. The girls had a lot of fun, and they learned a good lesson on the importance of communication — as well as some specifics on how to communicate. 

Today I found out that a couple of the girls had told their middle school coaches about the game, and they’re apparently going to do it in their practices. Gotta love when something off the top of your head becomes a big hit!

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