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High school baseball and softball

Diamond shift: Plate umpires may move to help social distance from players

Move proposed due to status of pandemic, may change before start of regular season
By Zack Miller | Apr 01, 2021

With high school pitchers and catchers gloved and throwing for the first time in a year, the diamond student-athletes standing on the baseball mound and in the softball circle, as well as crouched behind the plate, may see umpires in different positions in the spring of 2021.

Just as everyone has had to cope with changes to sports seasons due to the pandemic, baseball and softball umpires learned in March their traditional field placements may be shaken up.

Traditional placement always has had umpires directly behind the catcher to call balls and strikes, as well as an additional umpire in the field, but, for now at least, home plate umpires will be placed behind the mound.

In softball, plate umpires also will be behind the pitcher, but a proposal was submitted to the Sports Medicine Committee of the Maine Principals' Association to position plate umpires for softball back behind the plate six feet behind the catcher, which will be considered when the committee meets in mid-April.

"I’m not a fan of [the changes], but I also understand the conditions in which the Maine Principals' Association and the state health [agencies] are putting that guidance forward on," said Paul Gimlewicz, Midcoast Umpire Association president. "I think it’s going to be difficult to call balls and strikes primarily.

"I think for softball, for example, the current guidance is the umpire needs to position himself six feet behind the catcher. So, if you think about that, if I’m six feet behind the catcher, who is sitting in front of the plate, you pretty much have lost the entire plate. It’s going to be difficult and be a lot of guess work, and [we are] not [going to] be able to pick up the corners for balls and strikes.

"I think for baseball it’s a similar issue, which is behind the pitchers mound is where the current guidance has the umpires standing. That means you’re roughly 70 feet away from home plate, and the ball isn’t coming towards you, it’s going away from you."

Prefer behind plate

"For me personally, I prefer, and I would say most of my fellow umpires prefer being behind the plate," said Chris Barstow, association baseball interpreter. "That’s not only a comfort level, but the training and the mechanics show you’re going to get better judgement calls being in the right position as the pitch comes into the plate. At the same time we understand we are in a time of change and need to have flexibility in order to do as much of our 'normal life' as possible."

Gimlewicz — primarily a baseball umpire, but will add softball to his resumé this season — had practice with the new setup in the summer of 2020.

"There was a small summer league last summer, and I did six games last year behind the mound with a mask on, and all of the protocol, and as soon as one of the kids kicks dirt on the plate you can’t see the plate," Gimlewicz said. "It’s not optimal in terms of accuracy, but I think going into the season everyone has to understand that it’s better than nothing, and last year the kids didn’t get an opportunity to play at all."

The reasoning for the changes is social distancing, where in normal times, home plate umpires are stationed inches away from the backs of catchers to get an optimal view of the plate and strike zone.

The umpire changes present a mechanics issue in baseball, since the home plate umpire moves behind the mound, which, in turn, keeps the field umpire on first base for the entire ballgame.

"We just had an entire conference with the state interpreter on [March 21] where we went over the mechanics, because that first-base umpire doesn’t leave that first base foul line, where before he would drift to second and third base," said Gimlewicz. "Now, the official who was previously behind the plate, really has the lion’s share of officiating the entire game from behind the mound, because he has to cover second and third base, as well as plays in the infield. It’s going to present some challenges."

In softball, the mechanics do not change if the proposal put forth is approved, since the home plate umpire is still stationed behind the plate, but six feet behind the catcher.

"Calling balls and strikes will be more of a challenge, as will be getting out of the way of a foul ball back towards you," said Lee Smith, Midcoast Umpire Association softball interpreter. "It’s going to be an adjustment, and I know the state interpreter was hopeful we’d be behind the catcher, but right now that’s not the case, and it could change as we get close to the season. It will be an interesting transition for sure."

With the change on hand, Gimlewicz noted the association — which has "35-40" members and covers high schools and middle schools from Searsport to Wiscasset — has set up a "clinic" to get the umpires up to speed.

"We go to a vacant field that’s centrally located for the association, and we’ll walk through the different positions and scenarios," Gimlewicz said. "There’s also a power-point slide presentation we can view, so if I was to do a game tomorrow, I might take a peek at those slides, which outlines the new mechanic behind the pitcher and the other guy on first behind the bag, to refresh my memory."

Six feet back

Smith — who is also a high school and middle school softball umpire during the season — sees being six feet behind the catcher as a challenge, and is not "personally excited about that."

"Even if you are a couple feet back from the plate you can’t see the corner, so if you are six feet back it’s going to be tough," said Smith. "We all have to be doing [the umpiring] the same way."

In the discussion stage of the changes, Smith said the topic of having softball umpires behind the pitching circle came up, but was not settled on because "that came down to more safety."

"I honestly don’t know what the thinking is behind it," said Smith. "There are baseball and softball committees that meet separately, but USA softball really wanted us behind the plate, so they really pushed to get umpires [for that]. That could be why the softball umpires are behind the plate, but I don’t see how it’s going to be better if we have to stand six feet behind the catcher."

According to Barstow, part of the reasoning behind softball's proposal to position the umpires back behind the catcher was due to safety, since "there is less room" on a 60-foot softball diamond between the infield and pitcher, compared to baseball's 90 feet between bases.

Barstow — a baseball umpire, but will fill in for softball if needed by the association — said proposals originally came forward to have umpires behind the plate "for both sports" and "in front of the infielders."

"In regards to baseball, it’s my understanding that when the Sports Medicine Committee meets in mid-April again, when they consider that softball proposal, there still might be an opportunity to go back to the traditional behind-the-plate mechanics for the plate umpire," said Barstow.

With the start of the regular season still a few weeks away, the changes for the officials may not happen, depending on what the MPA and Sports Medicine Committee decides.

"The other thing provided on [the March 21] conference is it could change entirely by the start of the season," said Gimlewicz. "I think it’s going to be driven by vaccinations and the spread of the virus. We may actually be behind the plate at the start of the season, but as it stands right now we will not be."

"A good amount of time is being devoted towards the newly-created, two-person mechanics with a plate umpire behind the mound, because that’s going to take a lot of adjustment and a lot of learning for our members to be trained and proper in regards to administering that if we go that route," said Barstow. "However, if we get to mid-April and we are getting ready to start preseason games, and the MPA and their Sports Medicine Committee gives us the green light to go back behind the plate, I’m personally going to be supportive of that. I know that many, if not all, of our members would be supportive of that, and we’ll adjust as necessary."

Despite all the changes and new training, one goal has been kept at the forefront, namely, it is all done for the student-athletes.

"We obviously selfishly enjoy being out on the field as part of the game, but at the same time if we need to make changes in order to ensure safety and allow the kids to play, we’ll make those adjustments and be supportive of that going forward," said Barstow.

"Even though for the umpires, coaches, and probably for the players as well, no one thinks this is the best setup, but we have to remember it’s what we have," said Gimlewicz. "I’m trying to remember that it’s not about me, it’s not about my accuracy or my ability to run a tight strike zone, it’s about the kids."

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