THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
By Jack Furlong
It was doubly late: late on a Wednesday night in late August when I went to my favorite watering hole to relax before calling it a night. The radio that was on throughout the restaurant caused the television sets above the liquor bottles to be muted, leaving me with only the away video feed (no audio) for the game between the visiting Arizona Diamondbacks and the host Los Angeles Dodgers.
Diamondbacks first baseman Christian Walker was at bat when home plate umpire Alex Tosi called a strike. Using the inaccurate graphic box that simulates the strike zone for visual context, the pitch was outside; it was a two-seam fastball that purposefully started outside the zone and sunk back towards the plate, but it was probably two inches away from the outside corner as denoted by vertical line superimposed on the screen. Tosi’s strike mechanic triggered displeasure from Walker.
Shortly thereafter, Walker grounded out. When the camera panned back to Walker putting his batting helmet away in the dugout, he was still yelling at Tosi for that call. Walker then slammed his batting gloves against the wall, shook his head again, and planted himself against the dugout railing overlooking the field. His eyes were fixated solely on Tosi as anger and displeasure emanated from every orifice on his head. The sweat that glistened on his bald white scalp wanted to turn into steam or smoke simply to escape the awkward tension, like a scared child that didn’t want to be around an inappropriately angry parent.
The camera would switch back to its normal angle in centerfield to televise each pitch, but the ten seconds of downtime in between each subsequent pitch would be filled with another shot of Walker. Without hearing the audio, I began to wonder about the impetus that would require the camera to continue its intent focus on Walker following his routine groundout. Was a director at the network controlling the broadcast and barking orders to keep focusing on Walker, encouraging the commentators to speak in favor of Walker and against Tosi? Or were the Arizona broadcasters going on an anti-umpire tirade that led the director to simply follow their voices with the appropriate visual shots? Regardless of whether control belonged to the director or the broadcasters, the schtick became saturated, causing me to silently beg the broadcast itself to focus on to the next batter and forget about Walker’s plate appearance.
The raging testosterone fueling Walker’s reaction became secondary to the fanning of the flames being done by the technicians controlling the video telecast. Even without audio, I was being told by the moving pictures to focus on Walker’s frustration and empathize with him, which might then manifest into a detesting of Tosi and perhaps all umpires. I wondered if there was a subconscious protocol being implemented by the director to truly influence the feelings and emotions of the viewers in a way that elevated one party on a pedestal and demoted another for the purpose of gaining ratings and revenue.
I considered myself lucky that I had the ability to abduct such information; the average viewer (especially with alcohol introduced into the equation) probably would never reach the same conclusion without being lectured. But the entire ordeal points to the potential that the media wields to control the narrative of the public. A simple repeated visual focus on an angry ballplayer yelling at an umpire, even without audio, can influence the way people feel, usually by invoking anger or a general uneasiness that points to conflict rather than resolution.
We may not be able to control what is put in front of us as we try to watch a game. After all, the media truly can control the narrative, regardless of whether the context is sports, politics, business, or anything else. But we do have the ability to consciously recognize these sleazy tactics. Perhaps the path to peace requires the vulnerability needed to acknowledge this social engineering, relying instead on our freedom to formulate our own opinions without subscribing to a phony gospel.
By Jack Furlong
Watch any Major League Baseball game on television and there’s a chance you will hear an announcer use a phrase that is equal parts passive-aggressive, patronizing, and poor sportsmanship.
“It didn’t have to be.”
The phrase usually refers to an opinion regarding an umpire’s strike zone. Television graphics have advanced to the point where many broadcasts overlay an opaque box from the centerfield camera that attempts to represent the strike zone, and the broadcasters believe that the graphic is gospel when helping determine whether the calls made by the home plate umpire are correct. If a pitch lands outside of the box, yet is called a strike by the umpire, broadcasters take the opportunity take a snipe at the umpire for, in their opinion, being incorrect.
“The 1-0 pitch is called a strike, but it didn’t have to be.”
The use of this phrase furthers the narrative that authority figures do not have to be respected. It is a snide way to take a cheap shot without repercussions at someone who may not have the same opportunity to respond to the remark. Broadcasters are placing guised opinions into the dissemination of information, very much like the biased news casts that come from both sides of the political spectrum, which subconsciously sink into the psyche of viewers and are imitated by the public.
However, rather than attempt to edify against the use of this phrase with opinions, a better method to explain why this phrase should not be used is to explain why the graphic on the screen used by broadcasters is faulty and should be discontinued. If the box is removed from the broadcast, perhaps the opportunities to use the phrase will disappear.
Let’s begin with the height of the box, which does not change from batter to batter. The strike zone for each hitter is defined in the rules as the midpoint between the shoulders and the waist down to the hollow of the knee (the adage being “from the letters to the knees”). As ballplayers are not robots designed with the same specifications, every hitter will naturally have a different strike zone. For example, the strike zone for Aaron Judge will be much larger than the strike zone for Jose Altuve. Yet, the box on the screen has not once changed in height to adjust for these differences.
Second, the strike zone is meant to be three dimensional. A pitch needs only to catch any part of this three-dimensional zone to be deemed a strike by the umpire. The box on the screen is two-dimensional, more like a windowpane with no depth that needs to be touched by the pitch. Further, much like the lack of adjustments made for height, the position of the box in relation to the depth of the plate is never fully clear. Sure, we can be told the box is placed at the front of the plate (or at least in the correct spot), but such a representation cannot truly be trusted, similarly to how the height of the box cannot be trusted.
Third, the statistical analysis of how human umpires view pitches based on their setup and mechanics behind the catcher has shown an exceptional number of trends that have been accepted via convention due to their consistency. That’s not to say that convention is a reason to blindly accept something; rather, this convention allows us to positively use analytics to help us better understand what is happening. Umpires are taught to set up in “the slot,” defined as the space between the batter and the catcher. Their eyes are then meant to split the inside corner, giving them an exceptional look at the inside pitch, but possibly sacrificing the best look at the outside pitch. On average, even the most consistent umpires tend to have a 2-inch margin of error on the outside corner that is widely accepted by all personnel. However, the box on the screen does not incorporate this. (Interestingly enough, this trend is most common for umpires who are right-eye dominant when right-handed hitters are at bat. When right-eye dominant umpires set up for a left-handed batter, a small margin of error develops on the inside corner as well!)
Fourth, based on the fraction of moments an umpire is given to determine whether a pitch is a ball or a strike, an increased value is placed on the reception of a pitch by the catcher (sometimes colloquially known as “framing”). If a “borderline” pitch is received by a catcher with significant movement on the catcher’s mitt, a subconscious message is sent to the umpire that the pitch was not a strike and the catcher tried to move it back into the strike zone to make it appear to be one. In turn, it’s not uncommon to suggest that professional umpires might etch a picture of the strike zone into their vision to combat this, which does not account for all the minor nuances such as the changing height of the batter. Players like Aaron Judge have suffered because of this: Judge has had the most strikes below the strike zone called on him due to his immense height and the need for an umpire to visualize the strike zone to combat improper pitch framing.
Finally, the system used by Major League Baseball to evaluate umpires on their plate scores is completely different than what is presented on television with these graphics. MLB adjusts the strike zone from batter to batter in a “postgame processing” protocol, then applies a two-inch margin of error around the entire zone before determining how many of the pitches were called correctly by the home plate umpire. The graphics used on television in real time take none of this into account, creating a public persona to hate umpires while cultivating a private system that lauds them and proves they are still more accurate than any computer calling balls and strikes.
Thus, it appears that broadcasters who claim pitches “didn’t have to be” strikes may react in the moment without the educational knowledge of how the process truly operates. These broadcasters choose to be “malignant homers” to appeal to their fanbase instead of objectively remaining true to journalistic integrity. Rather than seek the approval of viewers, perhaps a better strategy might be to emulate the legendary broadcasters whose words painted pictures and truly enhanced a broadcast through genuine excitement, comfort, and familiarity.
By Jack Furlong
Founder, President & CEO
In August 2022 at Chase Field, the Arizona Diamondbacks hosted the St. Louis Cardinals. The only thing hotter than the outside temperature were the tempers of Cardinals rookie manager Oliver Marmol and veteran home plate umpire C.B. Bucknor.
Marmol took exception to some of the calls made by Bucknor on balls and strikes, which led to Bucknor ejecting Marmol. According to reports, the heated argument that resulted included Bucknor commenting on Marmol’s tenure in the league (Marmol being in his first year as a manager). This led to Marmol’s reciprocal retort that demanded Bucknor finally retire from umpiring.
Fast forward to Spring Training 2023 on the east coast of Florida where Bucknor was stationed and assigned to be the home plate umpire for a game with the Cardinals. According to reports, Bucknor refused to shake Marmol’s hand during the pregame plate meeting. This led to postgame comments from Marmol that further questioned his ability to umpire in addition to his class as a man.
Major League Baseball investigated the incident and eventually came to believe everything was behind them, clearing the air and putting the entire soap opera to bed. However, as media members and fans alike began to dissect the timeline of events, the same refrain of hating the umpire rang in the rafters. The question these people asked was the same: on behalf of his status representing the sport of baseball, why couldn’t Bucknor just be the “bigger man” and forget it?
Can you recall a time when you held a job in an industry such as retail, food service, or hospitality? If so, can you think of an example during said tenure when a customer was nasty, either for no reason or provoked due to a minor mistake? Was your window of tolerance ever so small or closed that it led to a confrontation with the customer that became more than it should have ever been?
That might be an accurate comparison of what occurred between Marmol and Bucknor that day.
Everyone who has or has held a job that involves customers, clients, or other people who are served or serviced by such work usually must encounter people who simply do not understand that the combination of unprovoked poor behavior, finger pointing, and catching people at the wrong time can lead to disastrous results. Emotions and feelings begin to boil, calling upon defense mechanisms for support. Words fly from mouths and through the air with the intent to attack, defend, and wage war without the use of rational thought.
For example, imagine a restaurant customer sitting at a table. The customer is not thrilled with the service of the waitstaff and decides to complain in a belligerent and boisterous way to the manager, taking personal jabs at the waitress assigned to the table. The manager explains to the customer that the restaurant is short staffed that day, as a few workers are sick, and the waitress in question came in on a day off to help. Further, the waitress has been dealing with a terminally ill parent, causing her performance at work to suffer slightly.
The customer refuses to apologize and simply demands better service.
If that customer continued to come back to that restaurant while that waitress was working, what would be the probability that the waitress would refuse to serve this customer, let alone even acknowledge the customer, knowing that what was said prior was hurtful and inconsiderate of what was happening in her life at that time?
Oliver Marmol may have felt that his actions were justified that day for a myriad of reasons (like the “defense” of his players), but the fact of the matter is that his words clearly struck a chord that caused C.B. Bucknor to be quite offended. Even if Marmol was provoked by Bucknor, there can be quite a difference in tenor between noting rookie status and the aging process. Sure, that may not justify Bucknor’s comment, but there is a distinct difference between grotesque phrases that can boil down to not “earning one’s stripes yet” versus being put out to pasture, similar to the difference between verbal taunting and physically assaulting. Further, being the “bigger man” doesn’t always mean to forget that someone treated you horribly; it can mean maturely standing up for one’s feelings.
Perhaps the real sin (or where the line was certainly crossed) was when Marmol decided to question the integrity of someone tasked with upholding the game of baseball.
Imagine a teacher disciplines a young student for bad behavior in school. The student asks, “What did I do? What could I have possibly done to deserve this?”
The teacher responds, “You’re ten years old in your first week of fifth grade and you’re talking back to me. I’m not having that for this entire school year.”
The student responds, “Then you need to retire! You’re terrible at your job and you’ve been doing it for too long! If you won’t give me what I want or deserve, then I demand the school gives me a teacher who will!”
That is essentially what happened between Marmol and Bucknor.
Perhaps a better example would be to translate this to a situation where a police officer has pulled an adult over for a traffic stop. The cop says to the driver, “I saw you driving dangerously, weaving in and out of traffic in a very unsafe way.”
The driver responds, “That’s preposterous. There’s absolutely no way I could have done that. You’re not seeing clearly and should have your eyes checked.”
Here’s an example of what the cop absolutely will not say: “You know what? You’re right. I’m a terrible cop and need to get glasses. Excuse me while I go home and rethink my life.”
Although positions of authority are held by fallible humans who are no better than any other human, the position of authority must be respected, especially if dealing with a comparatively inconsequential environment such as sports. Teachers, police officers, and umpires demand respect when they are on duty or at work. It’s certainly possible that the person holding that authority is not as honorable as we would like, but the uniform still requires the respect it deserves.
Therefore, can anyone blame Bucknor for feeling so insulted that he would refuse to shake Marmol’s hand the following year? Such a personal attack really seemed to get under Bucknor’s skin. We have no idea if Bucknor was experiencing something that day that might make him more sensitive, but that point is moot when we begin to consider that we should simply be treating others the way we would want to be treated, regardless of circumstances.
By Jack Furlong
Founder, President & CEO
Time has passed since the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII in Arizona. However, many keep focusing on one penalty flag that was thrown towards the end of the game.
With less than two minutes left in the game, Eagles defender James Bradberry was called for a holding penalty, giving the Chiefs an additional first down that increased their chances of taking the lead with little time for the Eagles to respond. The penalty was criticized by many across the sports-talk universe and the blogosphere, but Bradberry admitted in a postgame press conference that he did commit the penalty and it was the correct call.
The excuses given by those who disagreed with the call included a lack of consistency from the officials, a lack of severity of the hold, and everything in between. Claims were made by some fans that the game was fixed so that the Chiefs would win. The streets of Philadelphia were filled with angry fans in protest of the game’s result. Regardless of the arguments made, everyone making them ignored one fact: it was the correct call, and the offender admitted it.
Unlike many other topics in the public arena where facts and opinions are commonly confused and cause constant conflict, sports align more with inconsequential “watercooler talk.” They are a common topic of entertainment that break the ice between people who wish to socialize, and yet they are worshiped like gospel and must be protected from heretics. This begs the question of why sports are so sacred to so many, leading to outcomes like the denial of a penalty to make sense of a situation.
The answer boils down to a study of projection. Fandom develops through projection: people like to be associated with winners or with other brands where a common bond exists (family, location, school, etc.), so they project themselves onto those entities (be it a person or a team). This explains why many people across the globe become fans of teams such as the New York Yankees: their brand is the winningest franchise in the history of team sports. Similarly, people born and raised in the greater New England area (or with parents who were born and raised there) are usually rooting for the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Celtics, and the Bruins, either due to the ties in proximity or loved ones. Along the same lines, the students, faculty, staff, and alumni of any college or university (or even high school) will tend to support the athletics of said school out of a pride like the bonds caused by family or location.
As these cliques of fans develop and grow, any perceived slight against the team automatically becomes a slight against the fanbase as well. A penalty flag thrown for a foul committed by a player on the Eagles might be viewed and interpreted as an attack against everyone who roots for them. This causes defenses to go up immediately and can result in poor fan behavior.
When this phenomenon occurs, those feeling attacked immediately try to deflect the attack back onto the attacker. In other words, the best defense is a good offense. The fans who feel attacked when an official penalizes a player on their team will point the finger at the official instead of objectively considering the facts that show the player might have committed a foul. Humans tend to lack the ability to look inwards at potential shortcomings and would prefer to point out the faults of others instead.
As if the simple examination of this experience with the fan base isn’t enough, the media has developed a reputation to make these situations worse.
Consider the number of analysts, talk-show hosts, and other media members who edified and opined about the call in question against Bradberry. Many of these voices lack the experience of officiating and do not necessarily offer their take with the proper background to justify their claim as to why the call may have been incorrect, citing opinions, feelings, and other intangibles with the hope it holds up in the court of public opinion. As a result, the arguments made were tailored to conveniently forget the rule that defines a holding penalty: they ignorantly ignore the fact that it was correctly enforced as well as Bradberry’s admission that it did, in fact, occur. This amounts to a defense attorney trying to sway a jury with emotion when a smoking gun is in their midst.
With the power the media holds in our society, fans tend to be more likely to blindly believe the words of these talking heads rather than to use their own critical reasoning to draw a conclusion. At this point, projection utilizes the “fanboy” experience, as fans pick sides on the opinion with the subconscious goal of ignoring facts simply to be on the correct or winning side of a debate. The resulting effect is a populus that declares the truth to be whatever the group decides rather than what the facts state.
None of this is to say that officials don’t miss calls. Incorrect calls are made, and officials tend to lose sleep over their mistakes. But officials make the fewest mistakes out of anyone on the field, pitch, rink, or court that day. Statistically speaking, players who strike out, drop passes, and miss shots happen all the time; are these failures not mistakes? Projection due to association causes fans to ignore these mistakes but recognize the ones from the officials which are few and far between.
It's always possible that an incorrect call could change the trajectory of a game, but the odds of it being the sole fulcrum that influenced the outcome of victory versus defeat is microscopic. Those who criticize the holding penalty easily forget that the Eagles’ defense was putrid that day: out of the 23 games they played all season (from preseason through Super Bowl), they gave up more than 30 points in six of them (including the Super Bowl), winning only two of those six. Regardless of the circumstances (preseason vs. postseason, for example), it’s very difficult to win a football game when your defense gives up more than 30 points.
It’s perfectly fine to be disappointed that the Eagles lost. It’s not okay to blame the officials when it was the correct call.
By Jack Furlong
Founder, President & CEO
Recently, I was fortunate enough to take a trip to see family in Arizona. The trip coincided with the championship game for the Arizona Fall League, which was an affordable way to spend a few hours at the ballpark bonding with relatives in Scottsdale.
For the uninitiated, the Arizona Fall League (AFL) is a “graduate school” for the best prospects in Major League Baseball. Held during October and November in the desert climate, six teams are stacked with an equal number of players from five parent clubs each. For this championship game, the Surprise Saguaros (made up of the Houston Astros, Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals, Philadelphia Phillies, and Pittsburgh Pirates) hosted the Glendale Desert Dogs (comprised of the Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, and Cincinnati Reds) at Scottsdale Stadium, Spring Training home of the San Francisco Giants. I sat two rows behind home plate, feeling like I was part of the game.
The AFL doesn’t just develop players. It gives MLB a chance to test new rules, such as the pitch timer, restrictions on defensive shifts, and larger bases. Further, it’s a necessary stop for aspiring umpires as they approach the opportunity to be hired to the fulltime staff. The umpires working this league usually fall into one of two categories: they’re either call-up umpires who have cracked the big leagues to fill in for the fulltime staff, or they’re the minor league umpires who would probably be next to replace the call-ups if they get hired.
The opportunity to officiate these special games is a reward to umpires who have had great seasons, much like how officials selected to work postseason games for all professional sports are rewarded for the same reason. It can also be a boost in confidence, demonstrating how the league values particular umpires with these assignments, rather than simply giving the assignments to the best umpires. For example, when the AFL hosted its annual “Fall Stars Game” one week prior, three out of the four umpires selected to work that game all had worked in MLB earlier that season. Thus, one might think this championship game would be officiated by umpires with similar experiences. However, the three base umpires were all unknowns, as opposed to the familiar faces working a week ago.
Nate Tomlinson (#114) was assigned to work home plate that evening. He was deputized during the 2020 shortened season as a triple-digit call-up and has been eligible to work games in the big leagues ever since. The league thinks highly of him, as he worked the Futures Game in 2017, which is not an assignment taken lightly. Being selected to work the plate for this championship game was no small feat, even for a guy who had a modicum of experience in the big leagues.
Nate had a great game. It wasn’t until the middle of the game that I began to hear the sarcastic chirps of fans complaining about the strike zone. “C’mon, Blue!” was the most common interjection. The game was tied in the later innings when the comments coming from the fans escalated with every close pitch.
A coach in the first base dugout said something to Nate about a strike call. Nate quickly turned to him (without removing his mask). “I’m not having any of that tonight!” he barked back, putting an end to any dissent.
The crowd around me amplified their displeasure with the call (which was correct). My blood began to boil as I witnessed the ignorance of the fans around me, leading them via peer pressure and convention to verbally berate a man simply doing his job. The crowd noise died down just as my instincts took over.
“Atta boy, Nate,” I said in a normal volume, perhaps just loud enough for those around me to hear.
In the matter of a mere moment, I began to question why I had just responded the way I did. My first thought was one of terror. I wondered if I had crossed a line by using his first name. I didn’t want to give the fans more ammunition in the form of his first name, even though it was announced over the public address system and was listed in the game’s box score. Many officials wish to remain anonymous, citing the fact that the biggest compliment an official can receive is the knowledge that nobody even noticed them. I thought Nate might turn around and have the stadium staff eject me for calling him by his name.
Then I thought of the respect I had just shown him. Had Nate even heard me, maybe his thought was, “Did someone in the crowd just cheer for me?” If I had been in his shoes, perhaps it would have been a welcome change from the vitriol that normally comes with the territory. Ultimately, I responded because I felt like I was being attacked. I projected myself onto Nate, as we shared a fraternal bond as keepers of the flame in the greatest game ever invented. Every derogatory comment at Nate was a derogatory comment at me, an innocent fan trying to enjoy his vacation.
Another close pitch came in. Regardless of the call, the fans of the Saguaros thought it was wrong. I looked into the first base dugout, thinking the same coach was about to chirp again. Instead, I saw something that was strangely comforting.
The coaching staff assembled on the side of the dugout nearest to me turned around and looked at something in the dugout, then turned back with a satisfied look on their collective faces. Then it happened again, even with the crowd becoming worse. It took me a few pitches of this same behavior to realize what was happening: a television monitor on a delay was behind them, and the coaches looked to see if Nate called the questionable pitch properly. Every time I watched the phenomenon, Nate got every call correct, leaving the coaches silent and content, but not the crowd.
A man one section over from me started making comments that increased on the scale of belligerence. “That’s the fourth strike of that at-bat, Nate!” said the man. I cocked my head to look at him while keeping Nate in the corner of my eye. I wanted to slap this stranger for the verbal abuse he was hurling at a man who has dedicated his life to the craft of officiating, sacrificing so much to trudge from city to city, hotel to hotel, just to live the dream that only so few could live.
My girlfriend leaned towards me. “Do you want to go over and say something to him?” she asked.
“No,” I said rather loudly, intent on having those around me hear what I was saying. “I don’t know if he’s drunk or if he has a gun or a weapon.”
A man on the other side of me turned to me. “Excuse me,” he asked, “but what are you talking about?”
“That man over there,” I replied while gesturing. “He’s being completely inappropriate in his comments towards the home plate umpire.”
The man became intrigued. “Do you know him?”
“I know some umpires,” I said. “I’ve been umpiring for fifteen years. I lead my local chapter of umpires. And I can say with certainty that behavior such as what that man is exhibiting is why we have a global shortage of sports officials.”
The gentleman became interested. He began to ask me about my background in the game, genuinely trying to learn more. He was one of the few guys who had heckled Nate earlier; after speaking with me, that behavior ended.
As our conversation about umpire abuse continued, an older lady behind me, perhaps in her early 50’s, chimed in. “That’s part of the game.”
At that moment, I refused to turn around and acknowledge such a ridiculous comment.
I began to wonder if most people around me felt the same way as her. If they did, they lacked the courage and fortitude to speak their minds. Most simply sunk in their chairs, choosing to focus on the game instead of the casual conversation I was having with a stranger. Maybe I was being judged, maybe not.
Although I wasn’t surprised, I was equal parts offended and angered that someone consciously believed that abusing sports officials was a right held by others. I was two time zones away from home, and I had encountered the behavior and opinions that I have sworn to change in others. Do I dare turn around and ask this woman, “Would you like it if I came to where you work and verbally abused you for hours on end?”
Our society has accepted the convention of poor sportsmanship in the same way many of our ancestors accepted racism as a convention. It is a learned behavior that is imprinted on our subconscious from our experiences. If our experiences consist of watching our parents partake in these behaviors, then we begin to mimic them as a way of fitting in with the adult crowd, begging for acceptance into the clique of cool kids. Whether it’s heckling umpires, booing players, hazing teammates, or any other accepted tradition, it’s time we stand up and speak the truth:
It's not part of the game.
By Jack Furlong
Founder, President & CEO
This is a true story that happened recently.
After already booking a tee time for a Sunday afternoon, I was asked the night before to cover a game in the early evening. Aware of the global shortage of officials, I took the game, aware that I would not play all 18 holes the next day. Tired, hot, frustrated, and hungry, I walked onto a field to umpire a baseball game between nine-year-old kids by myself. Hoping vulnerability would be my ally, I opened up to both coaches during our pregame conference.
“Guys,” I said, “I’m going to be honest with you. I was pulled off the golf course to cover this game by myself. I’m tired, hot, and hungry, and my golf game is absolutely terrible, but I know someone must cover this game since there is a shortage of officials. I ask that everybody play with good sportsmanship. And above all, please treat me kindly.” My wry smile was met with a chuckle, as both coaches were jealous that I had gotten onto the golf course.
Within two outs being recorded after the first pitch, the coach from the visiting team was complaining about the strike zone.
In the top of the second inning with two outs, a batter from the visiting team smoked a fly ball to left field. The left fielder made a fabulous catch to end the inning, causing the batter to begin to cry.
Is it childish to cry over this? Certainly. But the kid was also nine. If anyone is going to cry over this, a child would be the one to do it. However, the same visiting coach in question didn’t see it that way. He was having no luck calming the kid down, so he did what came natural: he fanned the flames and made it worse. “Stop crying, you baby!” he said.
Of course, this made the kid cry more. Now the kid refused to go out to center field out of protest. The coach sent a substitute to center field while making it worse. “You know what you are? You’re a quitter!”
Now the kid was sobbing.
The first pitch of the bottom of the second inning was popped up to center field. The new center fielder camped under it, only to have it go off his glove and fall to the ground. The coach turned back to the crying kid. “That’s on you for being a quitter!” he shouted.
Then I had to make a call at third base while standing behind home plate. “He’s out!” I shouted.
That same coach was now arguing from the third base coach’s box. “He dropped the ball!” he shouted.
I looked everywhere and could not see the ball on the ground. I stood by my call.
“The third baseman had to reach with his bare hand between the legs of the runner to pick up the ball! How can you not see that?” he argued.
“Look at where I am when I have to make that call,” I explained. “I can’t see that, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
The coach had a few more choice words not suitable for print media, then he walked back to the dugout in disgust.
The first batter of the next half-inning smoked a line drive to right-center field. I hustled from behind the plate for a potential play at second base, but the kid took a turn and headed for third. I jogged to my left and positioned myself properly. The runner slid under the tag. “Safe!” I declared.
Now the coach was irate. He and his assistants created a cacophony of complaints, causing me to become irate as well. “That’s enough!” I shouted back.
One assistant coach didn’t stop, though. I ejected him.
With my blood sugar dropping and significant fatigue settling in, I desperately tried to stop shaking and calm down. My skin was slightly burnt. I was out of water. And I wanted to get out of there badly.
That’s when a foul ball hit my collarbone.
Nothing was broken, and I was able to continue the game after a medical delay to make sure I was okay, but insult was clearly added to injury…or maybe injury was added to insult.
The visiting team, complete with crying kids and complaining coaches, ended up winning.
I hobbled to my car when the umpire assignor and the ejected coach approached me. The coach was nice enough to apologize, although it had to be accompanied by a statement that he had never been ejected prior and he didn’t think what he said warranted an ejection.
I took a deep breath, still in throbbing pain from the blow to my collarbone. “Look,” I began. “I’ve been doing this for fifteen years. I’ve worked many levels, from young kids through college. I’ve befriended professional umpires. I’ve studied the rule book. I’ve tried to understand human psychology as it pertains to competition.”
Both men stared intently at me, as if they knew what I was going to say next.
“This, gentlemen,” I said, “is the type of game that makes me want to quit umpiring.”
There was a brief silence. In that moment, I couldn’t hold back my vulnerable opinion.
“I don’t understand how coaches can abuse these kids verbally by calling them quitters. I don’t understand how you can’t see that we have a global shortage of officials because of this behavior. Nobody wants to come out here and endure this kind of behavior for $50. It is ludicrous.”
I honestly felt guilt and shame for expressing my opinion. “Coach your kids however you want,” I concluded. “But without people like me, you have no games.”
By Jack Furlong
Founder, President & CEO
If there’s one thing I’ve learned since March 2020, it’s that fear is one of the most, if not the most, powerful tool in the woodshed.
The concept of fear is rooted in our human ability to sense danger and to avoid it. Ancient man would fear predators in the wilderness for the sake of survival. Presently, we can use fear in more conventional ways, like when we feel uncomfortable around the possibility of skydiving. It’s quite a reasonable barometer in these contexts.
Fear usually encompasses the unknown: we fear what we don’t know. What will happen if I approach this predator? Could I sustain injury if I skydive? Even in situations where we have reasonable security that we can predict the outcome of actions, we’re never one hundred percent sure. A parent may naturally fear his or her child going away to college due to the unknown that awaits ahead, but the parent usually comes to terms with this, perhaps drawing on his or her own experiences, and understands that, although there is no absolute guarantee of safety, the odds are that the child will be okay.
On a simpler scale, fear of the unknown may be the motivating factor for a child to resist trying a new food. Young minds may default to not liking something simply because there is no experience of it yet. If we have yet to understand something, we tend to default to a dislike of it or a fear of it.
Sometimes, fear comes from trauma. If we are bitten by a dog when we have our first experience with one, the pain caused by the physical bite may cause us to fear dogs for the remainder of our lives if we do not work to overcome the fear. If fear can manifest from both the the unknown and the experience of trauma, we can see why fear is so powerful.
Where fear becomes abusive is when our human behavior is altered beyond reason for abnormal motives, such as control, revenge, or wealth. When fear controls us, we are the prime audience for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s quote: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
When the tool of fear falls into the wrong hands, it can be used in acts of poor sportsmanship. Sports teams can use fear to psychologically intimidate opponents, perhaps through embarrassment or threat of injury. Parents can use fear to try to control the actions of their children, causing the children to fear the repercussions if they do not do as the parents say. Coaches may fear their future when their job is on the line. Officials may fear the possibility of a player or coach arguing with them. The list of possibilities is endless.
If we consider the six roles discussed in my book, “On Sportsmanship: A Critical Reader and Handbook” (available now on Amazon for Kindle and in both paperback and hardcover), that encompass the first part of the text, we can see from the above examples that players, coaches, fans, parents, and officials can be affected by fear. What about the media, though?
The fact of the matter is that the media can manipulate the public through fear very easily, and that is an act of poor sportsmanship. These entities have the power to dictate to us how to feel based on what is reported, regardless of whether it is fact or not. If we are told that sports officials are bad by the media, then we can subconsciously begin to believe this. If we are told that our team’s archrival is the enemy, we may see them as opponents in a theater of war rather than on a field, court, rink, or pitch.
Not all media outlets are bad, and not all journalists are nefarious. Further, we can be our own worst enemy in terms of fear, hearing and believing only what we want and refusing to use the concepts of critical thinking and analysis to formulate new breakthrough thoughts.
Consider the path of fear that has traversed the public during this pandemic. We defaulted to fear because the virus was novel; without prior information or evidence, we assumed the worst rather than waiting to examine evidence and compare data. We feared what could happen to us if we left our homes: we didn’t know what might happen if we contracted the virus, so we forced ourselves to stay safe, especially without a cure or vaccine. We convinced ourselves that wearing multiple face coverings and social distancing would stop the virus while we diligently worked for a vaccine. What’s worse, though, is that we convinced ourselves that anything reported to us with a twist of fear had to be fact and, thus, feared.
Before the warmer weather of 2021 and the distribution of vaccines, plausible arguments could be made to support any claim on how to combat this threat; there was reasonable doubt and a lack of supporting evidence that allowed our fear to maintain its hold on us. In fact, fear spread quicker and did more damage than the virus could ever do, harming our mental states in ways that will stay with us for years, if not decades, after this story has run its course. However, we now live in a time and an environment where we have a choice. We have reached the fork in the road, to call back to our post from last month!
One path leads us to sanity. We will come to understand that we have the tools to live normal lives without fear of this virus. We have vaccines that work when we receive our full dosage and booster (not to mention that will continue to be studied since they were expedited without the examination of long-term data). If you’re not a fan of vaccines, we still have plenty of other things to help protect us, such as using good hygienic practices (washing our hands, not touching our face, etc.) and staying home when we’re sick. And we also have the medical tools to help us feel better when we are sick, either via at-home remedies or in medical facilities. We can take off the masks, throw them away, ditch the mandates, and be ourselves.
The other path leads us back to irrational fear. We can sit at home and not live our normal lives, afraid that the virus will get us if we leave the four walls that surround us. We can think that contact with anyone could lead to contracting the virus. We can think that the vaccine and all other methods of prevention and cure are simply not enough, perhaps tainted by other entities such as the government. We can wear multiple masks, believing that this piece of magic cloth has the power to prevent all illness and is the key to preserving what remains of life in this apocalyptic existence. We can never go back to the way our lives were because the fear of what if will keep us safe and prevent anything bad from happening. (Spoiler alert: said fear will not prevent bad things from happening.)
One path teaches us to fight fear the same way we fight poor sportsmanship: leading by example, empowering those who support the same ideals, and being beacons of good morals. The other path encourages fear and poor sportsmanship, promoting its growth and spread like a virus.
I know which path I’m taking. Which will you choose?
By Mark Gola
VP of Marketing and Publicity
There are moments in nearly every sporting event when a player, coach, or fan encounters a fork in the road. Do I take the path that allows my emotions to get the best of me and fall victim to a display of poor sportsmanship? Or do I take the path of discipline and show poise?
There are so many elements surrounding athletic events that we don’t control. Demonstrating good sportsmanship is a component that lies 100 percent within our control. When confronted with a situation riddled with turmoil, every coach, player, and parent gets to determine how they will handle their actions.
Let’s take a simple example of when an athlete encounters a fork in the road. Consider a baseball game where a batter is at the plate with the bases loaded and one out. It’s late in the game and the batter's team is down by one run. With a 2-2 count, the batter takes a called strike three. In that moment, the batter has a decision to make:
Listen, it’s not easy. Competitive juices are flowing; an opportunity to have a big moment was missed, composed with failure in front of everyone in attendance. But one must work at it, just like other aspects of the game. Further, any successful athlete will tell you that the most important play is the next play. If emotions can't be kept in check, the ability to focus on the next play will suffer.
Teammates will notice. Opponents will notice. Coaches will notice. Game officials will notice. Recruiters will notice.
Make the decision to become exceptional at sportsmanship. You’ll not only choose the right path at each fork you encounter, but you’ll begin to take others with you.
Topics like this and more are discussed regularly on How You Play The Game, the official podcast of OSIP. On January 1, OSIP founder Jack Furlong and chairperson Sean Ryan will produce their 100th episode of the program. Dale Scott will join them on the podcast, and Furlong will announce the release of his highly anticipated book, On Sportsmanship: A Critical Reader and Handbook. The mission of the book is to “reveal the steps to ensuring that each person does their best at treating others with respect in sports and competition.”
Tune in to listen to the podcast and also learn more about OSIP at osipfoundation.org.
As 2019 comes to a close, we wrap our year with one final topic before we move on: the ignorance of pundits to facts.
However, we're not talking about politics or the news. That's beyond the scope of this blog. The one item to address: Game 6 of the 2019 World Series.
In Game 6, the Washington Nationals almost self-destructed into handing a championship to the Houston Astros. Trea Turner was called out due to runner's lane interference by umpire Sam Holbrook, causing a frenzy both on the field and in the media. Manager Dave Martinez was ejected from a World Series game due to this. Fans all over social media were ready to lynch Holbrook. The championship of baseball was about to be determined by an umpire's call for interference...until Anthony Rendon hit a ball into the seats and extended the series to Game 7, where the Nationals would ultimately win.
The problem? The call was CORRECT.
Every person who complained about the call failed to realize that it was the correct call. The runner cannot run outside of the lane in the last half of the distance from home to first base. But even after cooler heads prevailed and Thanksgiving approached, Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo and his cohorts continue to harp on the fact that interference should not have been called.
Russo doubled down on his claim by stating that MLB officials were thankful for the Rendon home run because it took the focus off the play in question. Perhaps the statement was more opinion than fact, and perhaps MLB was prepared to stand by the call if necessary as the correct call, even if it meant the entertainment value of the sport was severely diminished. But the constant pushing of such an opinion rings of the older pundit who refuses to accept that the opinion is simply wrong.
Maybe this is a microcosm of our society in general. We dig our heels in when our opinions are challenged and claim that we are allowed to have our own opinions, even when they are wrong. Our defenses go up because our integrity appears to be challenged. It's a tired song and dance that speaks to our inability to have a meaningful conversation and progress as a society.
Note this, though: to progress as a society does not have a correlation to being a stereotypical progressive. It has nothing to do with the alignment with the left and the right of the political spectrum. It simply means being respectful to the facts and understanding that nobody will think less of you if you happen to change your opinion.
The issue is that it's easier to just turn off the television or the radio than to actually offer a differing opinion.
The fact of the matter is that we're not here to push an agenda. We're here to simply awaken people to civil reality and ask that they treat others the way they would wish to be treated. It has become a difficult task, but one we at OSIP are proud to undertake.
That's why we are here to announce that our blog, The Strike Zone, will be changing. Namely, the posts will be few and far between. The success of our podcast, How You Play The Game, has taken more of our attention, and there is only so much time to go around. Both the blog and the podcast duplicate the same purpose: for us to discuss issues of sportsmanship in a particular manner. We may continue to use the blog for some posts from time to time, and we will not be taking our posts down. But the regular posts on the third Wednesday of each month will cease, and we encourage you to listen to our podcast, which is released on the 1st and 15th of each month. And like we said above, perhaps we may change our minds later and come back to the blog. We know you won't think less of us!
Until next time, as we say on the podcast, treat each other with respect.
During the course of the 2019 MLB regular season, there was an increase in poor behavior that required policing, thus drawing the ire of the public and the media. But the ire was not drawn because of the behavior, but rather the psychological projection onto those visibly doing the policing.
The most obvious example is the New York Yankees, whose culture of class that was so prominent in the days of Jeter and Rivera cannot be matched by Judge and Gregorius. The "leaders" on the team, notably manager Aaron Boone and elder statesmen CC Sabathia and Brett Gardner, have led the team into being examples for kids that promote behavior that continues to divide our society and grow hatred rather than understanding. The umpires, who are the on-field police (as opposed to the league office, which is practically invisible), become the target of hatred spewed from the uneducated and primitively toxic men playing the game, and yet the umpires are gagged by the league to refrain from responding to such personal attacks.
The media perpetuates this due to their platform, mixed with their lack of research done on the subject of officiating. Not since the great Vin Scully has a broadcaster actually given the officials their due respect and silently demanded that those who listen to his voice do the same. And outside of our friends at Close Call Sports, rarely (if ever) has a journalist with prominence stepped up to the plate with the defense of the integrity of the officials.
What those who bash the umpires fail to realize is that the psychology of their words and actions speak volumes about their egos, characters, and personalities.
As Gil Imber from Close Call Sports has said in an eloquently written article (and quoted on his various audio/video posts), criticism of sports officials in a position of authority, especially in such settings with vehemence, is actually a projection of the dissatisfaction with oneself onto an innocent victim. To say, "I'm dissatisfied with this umpire," is really translated to mean, "I'm dissatisfied with myself."
Let's make a quick clarification, though. The above translation does not mean, "I disagree with this umpire." We are allowed to share a different opinion, especially if the call was incorrect. A pitch that is two tenths of an inch off the outside corner of the plate is, by rule, not a strike, regardless if it's "too close to take." But respectful disagreement can be communicated without the behavior of a petulant child.
Back to the psychological projection, though: we must also remember that the denial we may have in accepting this fact is par for the course. People are afraid to lower their defenses and be vulnerable, especially when it comes to the almost certain inner examination of one's shortcomings. If we can avoid feeling something bad, why would we put ourselves in a position to feel less than desirable emotions?
The first step to closing this division is empathy. Somebody has to extend the olive branch, and perhaps that someone is you. Can you feel empathy for the players who feel wronged, even if you don't agree with their reaction? Can you feel empathy for the umpires who are not out to be unfair towards a certain player or team? Can you feel empathy for the media members who are lost when it comes to discussing the topic?
The second step is to begin to stop identifying with your point of view or opinion on the subject. To identify with it means to be unable to separate who you are from that particular thought. When dissent occurs and it differs from our opinion, we take that other opinion personally and believe that others are out to attack us. This is what happens all too quickly on the field: players and coaches immediately believe that umpires are attacking them with their judgments and interpretations, as opposed to simply doing their job. When a player stops thinking that he has been "wronged" or personally offended by what he perceives to be a bad call, that player will stop projecting such dissatisfaction with oneself onto the entity he thinks slighted him.
The third step? Love. Sportsmanship. Practice what you preach.
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.