Umpires are the lymphatic system of the baseball diamond

When I go to a baseball game, I try to remember to watch the umpires. They move around in a counter-intuitive way: They don't run toward the ball. They don't run toward the runner. Even when the ball is far away, the umpire runs from what appears to be one irrelevant position on the field to another equally irrelevant position. Yet no matter what eventually happens, there's always an umpire there to make the necessary call. (As opposed to the players on the field, who sometimes forget to cover third base.)

That's because the umpires aren't playing the game of baseball as it happens on the field. They're playing a different game altogether: They are continuously positioning themselves to see what needs to be seen right now (did the runner leave the bag too soon?) as well as anticipating what they will need to see five seconds from now.

One of my colleagues is also a Little League umpire, so I get to satisfy my curiosity about this underappreciated profession at the lunch table. I learned that a large part of the job is actually psychology, convincing the players that your decisions should be accepted. And that umpires are watching for things that players and fans take for granted (like making sure the runner touches all the bases).

One thing that I found interesting is that the umpires don't know what the score of the game is. They are worried about strikes, balls, and outs. The score is entirely irrelevant to the job of an umpire until the game reaches the final inning, when it becomes time to decide when the game is over. And then if you're near the scorer's table, you may hear the following conversation:

Umpire: "What's the score?"
Scorekeeper: "22 to 2."
Umpire: "And who's winning?"

My colleague points out that the official scorekeeper is sometimes surprised by that last question. I mean, anybody who's been following the game knows that it's a complete blowout. Anybody, that is, except the umpires: The rules of the game don't change based on the score. Three strikes and you're out; doesn't matter if your team is winning or losing.

One of the repeating principles I noticed in the rules of baseball is that starting the next play implies acceptance of the results of the previous play. For example, pitching to the next batter removes your right to claim that a runner failed to touch a base or left a base too soon, or that the previous batter batted out of turn. Not only does it simplify the process for addressing a rule violation (you never have to rewind more than one play), it also reduces the amount of state the umpires needs to carry in their heads.

The infamous Pine Tar Incident combines many of these little tidbits about baseball rules and umpiring. When the illegal bat was identified, only Brett's most recent at-bat was affected. The results of earlier at-bats with the illegal bat remained valid. When the game was resumed a month later, the umpires were armed with statements from the previous umpires confirming that Brett had touched all the bases. They didn't have to include statements about prior events in the game, because the fact that the game continued put those decisions beyond appeal.

I was reminded of this topic when I ws alerted to the book As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires. The NPR book review contains an excerpt in which the author Bruce Weber discusses the amount of detail involved in the seemingly casual action of removing one's mask. You can also listen to an interview with the author on the March 28, 2009 edition of Only a Game and the March 20, 2009 edition of The Leonard Lopate Show.

Bonus chatter: I attended a little league game which my friend was working as an umpire with the intent of watching the umpires rather than the game. It takes some effort to not watch the ball as it sails into the outfield.

Comments (19)
  1. keith says:

    It’s interesting to consider that as much as Americans claim to dislike lawyers and court, it’s still the case that the legal system is an important tool for Americans in the overall course of their lives, and that in two indigenous sports (baseball and NFL football), the act of contesting a call engages a very formalized shadow-puppet version of the US legal system, with precedents, appeals, statutes of limitations, in football "loser pays" court costs with a timeout and so forth.  

  2. nathan_works says:

    Did you observe any players/coaches/parents/spectators giving your friend grief during the game ?

    [As far as I could tell, the umpires were treated with respect throughout the game. There was one erroneous call that was reversed, but it was handled with civility. -Raymond]
  3. Eric Mason says:

    Is it just me, or does Raymond seem to be describing some of the duties of an Engineering Architect (what I do) during the development phase of a project… The design phase makes the rules, the development phase has the developers (players) making the product (release) according to those rules and we, the architects, oversee that creation according to the rules we made during the design phase (or adjusting them as necessary). Programmers often attempt to cheat… each other, themselves, whatever, by taking shortcuts or interpreting the “rules” (designs) as they see fit.

    Is it me or am I over-engineering Raymond’s post?

    [You’re over-thinking it. It was just a personal entry, not an allegory. (I don’t think I’ve ever written an entry that was an allegory.) -Raymond]
  4. bahbar says:

    I do have to ask, what does this have to do with the lymphatic system ?

    It feels like there is more to the analogy than just the fact that the umpires enforce the game rules ?

    [Just that the lymphatic system is a parallel circulatory system that plays a vital role but which nobody pays attention to. -Raymond]
  5. jeffreys says:

    I was the umpire at the game Raymond saw, which was a rather routine game.

    I’ve been yelled at, but it’s quite rare and gets rarer with more experience. The more games you work, the better you get at controlling the overall flow of the game and doing subtle things that reinforce the umpire’s authority instead of undermining it.

    I’ve also seen other umpires handle situations poorly, lose respect and control, and get verbally abused to the point that they refuse to do it any more.

    Certainly some games are less fun than others, but overall I enjoy it or I wouldn’t keep doing it.

  6. DavidRa says:

    Forgive me for my lack of knowledge – I grew up with cricket instead of baseball. But in reading about the Pine Tar incident, I see that the illegal bat was used to make a 3-4 deficit into a 5-4 lead; then when the bat was ruled illegal, the 3-4 deficit was reinstated.

    That being the case, why did the game resume at 5-4? Surely the bat was illegal; shouldn’t the game have stood at 3-4, and someone should have needed to score a run?

    [The decision of the umpire on the field was overturned, and the home run was permitted to stand, restoring the score to 5-4. It was a very confusing game. -Raymond]
  7. Gabe says:

    Is there really an appeals process? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a play changed because a player or manager disagreed with an umpire.

    [You cannot appeal a decision that is based on the umpire’s judgement; you can only appeal decisions based on misapplication of the rules. For example, if the umpire awards a runner the wrong number of bases after the ball leaves the field of play. And then of course there is the appeal play. -Raymond]
  8. Dan says:


    The appeals process is typically about asking related questions rather than changing the actual call.  For example, the classic appeal that happens constantly in MLB games is about whether or not a batter successfully checked his swing.  The home plate umpire has the initial call but the player can ask for a ruling from a different umpire.  Similar appeals are involved with situations like when a runner skips a base.

  9. GregM says:

    "That being the case, why did the game resume at 5-4? Surely the bat was illegal; shouldn’t the game have stood at 3-4, and someone should have needed to score a run?"

    David, I think the decision was that the umpire was incorrect in ruling that the illegal bat caused the play itself to become illegal.  I believe that as soon as the play happens, the fact that the bat is illegal is irrelevant.  The manager would have had to challenge the bat before it was used, which would have resulted in the bat being removed from the game.

  10. DWalker says:

    The book "As They See ‘Em" is a fascinating book.  After reading it, now, while watching a game, I often notice umpires moving around so they can get in position to make a call.  Before reading the book, I didn’t pay attention to that.  Knowing why the umpires are moving the way they are makes the game more interesting.

    One thing I didn’t know before reading the book is how thankless, poorly paid, and grueling minor-league umpiring is (driving your own car 400 miles between games, and sleeping in cheap motels, for example).

    One interesting thing mentioned in the book featured a reporter interviewing the (I think) third base umpire about some call or other during a game.

    The umpire informed the reporter that he wasn’t actually at third base for the call in question, since he and all of the other umpires had "rotated" during the play, as the play unfolded, to be in the best positions to see what might happen.  They were all in the right place, just not in their original positions, where the reporter thought they would be.

  11. NickG says:

    GregM is correct. The penalty for using illegal equipment is to remove the illegal equipment at when it is discovered. The umpire cannot nullify any play that occurred using the illegal equipment prior to it’s being discovered — even if on an adjacent play.

    This is covered under Rule 1.10. See particularly 1.10(c)-Note.

    [Note that Rule 1.10(c) was added as a result of the Pine Tar incident. At the time the incident occurred, the penalty for hitting the ball with an illegal bat was that the batter be declared out. -Raymond]
  12. DWalker says:

    "You cannot appeal a decision that is based on the umpire’s judgement."  Very rarely, though, an umpire will huddle with the other umpires to talk, and they’ll figure out who had the best view.  They sometimes reverse one umpire’s initial decision after this kind of conference.

    In order to instill their authority, however, they almost never reverse their own rulings just because a player or manager yells at them or questions them…  Which makes it hard to understand why players and managers yell at the umpires so often.  One Atlanta Braves player came from Cuba, where, apparently, the players can intimidate the umpires.  He liked to argue with them, presumably expecting them to reverse a ball and strike call.  That never happens.

  13. Gregg Tavares says:

    Could you add a new Suggestion Box link? (or remove the current one if you are no longer taking suggestions)

  14. Lawrence says:

    To me, the most amazing part of that Pine Tar incident was that a sports game somehow involved the *Supreme Court*, and not because of a murder or anything, but in the course of the sport itself.

    Then again I’m not an American.

  15. Jeff Yates says:

    That’s the most interesting thing I’ve ever seen in relation to baseball. Just not my game, but you managed to make it intriguing.

  16. James Schend says:


    Congress also did hearings on steroid use in baseball only a couple years ago, if you’ll recall.

    Just another way to waste their time and our money.

  17. Mike K says:

    I saw a successful reversal based on a manager yelling for the first time this summer in an MLB game.

    Joe Mauer of the Twins was hit by a pitch and the umpire made a call that the pitch didn’t hit him as the batter was trotting to first base.  The manager came out screaming about it, and eventually got the umpire to notice the giant swollen red lump on the batters hand where he had just been hit.  I was pretty amused.

  18. Someone You Know says:

    @Mike K

    That reminds me of a famous incident that occurred during the 1969 World Series.

    I’ve forgotten who the batter was, but he claimed that a pitch had struck him in the foot, which the umpire denied. The umpire reversed his decision after being shown the ball itself, which was now adorned with a large smudge of shoe polish.

    [Ah, the Shoe Polish Play in 1969, which echoes a similar incident from 1957. When you watch the clip, notice that the manager who prevails is the one who remains calm, not the one who comes out yelling. -Raymond]
  19. Eric Mason says:

    Well, Raymond, you may not have intended it as allegory, but, upon further thought, I see it as more and more accurately recognizing the actions of a line architect… I’m constantly correcting "players" regarding the "rules" and they regularly yell at me for it, but cannot win… I have to predict where the "play" will be and ensure that I am there long before the "players" arrive to make sure that things happen correctly and legitimately. I am, more or less, outside the engineering management circle, subject to a different set of management.

    Hehe, without intending it, I think you pulled it off…

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