THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
A media piece earlier this year submitted by Today/The Today Show finally provided some statistical data we suspected all along: we're losing a significant amount of youth sports officials at a rapid rate.
According to the National Federation of High Schools (NFHS, the governing board overseeing high school athletics), 80% of high school sports officials quit before their third year. The most common reasons are always the verbal and physical abuse from coaches and parents. In fact, many states are facing the crisis of having to postpone athletic events due to a lack of officials.
Fanning these flames are the threats of social media, where one call can go viral very quickly thanks to the recording capabilities on phones and other devices. Verbal abuse doesn't just occur on the field anymore: it's online.
The obvious solution is for people (players, coaches, parents, fans) to behave better. High school sports are an extension of the classroom. If you wouldn't act a certain way inside a school, don't act that way while at the field.
But another solution? If you think you could do better as an official, there is a class waiting for you! There are cadet courses always looking for more officials. Why don't you sign up and show everyone your skills?
If you're of a certain age, perhaps you've seen the movie "The Matrix." If you haven't, here is your spoiler warning...
Have you ever had a point in your life where you can't go back to things the way they used to be? Have you ever noticed that "life will never be the same?" That's what Thomas Anderson, a.k.a Neo (played by Keanu Reeves), experienced in "The Matrix" when he was awakened from the false reality and shown what life really was: a barren landscape left from a war between humans and machines.
There are a lot of points in my life where I felt that way. But when it comes to sports, I can pinpoint one moment where I experienced it: the moment I became a baseball umpire.
Since I started officiating baseball games, life hasn't been the same. Sure, I still root for the Yankees, but I watch umpires just as much. It's an odd situation where my friends give me a friendly about of grief for my knowledge about umpires!
In an article in Referee Magazine back in March discussing the integrity of officials, it was pointed out that some officials don't treat other officials with respect when they're watching a game, especially if it's a game involving their kids. For example, if I went to go see my proverbial son play a baseball game, it would be considered wrong if I berated the officials on the field when they know I'm also an official.
Officials are a special breed who are charged with upholding the integrity of competition. Whether we're on the field or in the stands, all officials have to stand together, like a fraternity of people sharing a common bond. We cannot complain about fans one day and then be those complaining fans the next.
That's how officials experience the Thomas Anderson effect. Life is never the same once you step on that field!
A few months ago, I was in line to check out at the store. There was a family ahead of me looking for any way to move faster in the line. The mom even asked a supervisor if he could scan all the items so they could keep moving since they had a baby with them. (The baby, for the record, was sound asleep and quite peaceful, which we all know can be a rarity!)
When the supervisor refused, instead offering the service the store has where the customers scan the items as they pick them up in the aisles in the hope of speeding up the check out process, the mother took it upon herself to continue to give a nasty look at the supervisor as she had to go through the normal process of paying for her groceries.
After I checked out, I went to leave in a long line of people with carts full of groceries, all moving as fast as they could in an orderly fashion as we all tried to get to our cars and back to our regular lives. A young man with a soda decided to just continue to cut in front of people since he was not pushing a cart. He saved himself a whopping three seconds by doing so.
While I was driving home, a motorcycle sped by me at a speed that could only appear to be at least 20-30mph over the speed limit on a four lane highway. When he came up to two cars that were practically next to each other heading in the same direction, the motorcyclist decided to take his own life into his own hands and weave in and out of the cars along the dashed line that separates the lanes in order to maintain his speed and leave the slower cars in the dust.
When we think about sportsmanship, we commonly think of athletic competition as the common arena to exhibit it. However, the same rubric of good sportsmanship can be used in so many other places in life. As we are all trying to achieve a goal in the above examples (checking out, leaving the store, and driving home), sportsmanship can be exhibited through the observation of cooperation. We are all trying to achieve a common objective, much like athletes have the objective to win. However, we are not competing with or against anyone. The goal to check out, etc., is the same for everyone, and one person's victory does not equal another person's defeat; everyone can be philosophically victorious. Cooperation (and, thus, the necessary patience) can go a long way to help everyone achieve the same goal.
In short, there's no reason to look for an advantage to check out quicker, cut in line to get to your car, or speed past other cars to get home unless there is a true emergency. In searching for these advantages, we actually put more people at a disadvantage because of the waste of time, the lack of guarantee that the maneuvers will pay off, and the upset nature that more people will exhibit.
The snow in New Jersey throughout March kept me from most of my baseball scrimmages, leaving me all of two games (only one behind the plate) to be ready for the regular season. However, one play during my final game proved a very important point.
With a runner on first base, the pitcher, while in the stretch, did not come to a complete stop. My partner correctly ruled it a balk as the pitch was delivered. The batter, however, swung and lined a base hit through the left side of the infield. Immediately, I came out from behind the plate and yelled, "TIME! DEAD BALL!" The first base coach, however, was already disagreeing with me. "You have to play that out! A balk is not a dead ball!"
"Yes it is, coach," I said. "In NFHS (high school) baseball, a balk is an immediate dead ball."
He immediately dropped his argument, which was amazing, in my opinion. But my partner took the time to explain it to him. The runner from first base was advanced to second, and the batter resumed his at-bat.
The conflict that arose is that, in OBR (official baseball rules, which is what MLB uses, as do many other forms of baseball), a balk is a delayed dead ball. That is, you wait for the play to be over before deciding to enforce the balk. In the case above, we would have let the play go, then given the offense the option of taking the balk penalty or the result of the play. However, high school rules do not allow this: they clearly state that the ball is dead immediately and the balk is enforced. It's an odd shame when something good happens, though...what if the batter hit a home run? You guessed it: I become the bad guy and have to nullify the home run to award the balk penalty.
Sometimes these rules don't make sense. But it's not my job, as the umpire, to debate the rules. I just have to enforce them. Further, the coaches should probably take the time to understand these rules as well. When offered a high school coaching job, it's not as simple as just teaching the game and leading the team. You have to understand that there are MAJOR DIFFERENCES between high school sports and other levels of those same sports.
As much as officials do their homework to know these odd rules, coaches need to do the same. After all, high school athletics are an extension of the classroom. They are another opportunity to educate student athletes on valuable life lessons. We, as coaches and officials, owe it to the kids to get it right.
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.