Cleaning Up Baseball

August 7, 2017

This article first appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Athletic Management

The 2017 high school baseball season in North Carolina was unlike any before it. Shaking up long-held norms, coaches and players operated under new rules that limited their interaction with umpires.

The changes are part of an effort by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) to strengthen sportsmanship in all sports. “We started to notice that the penalties we had in place to deal with unacceptable behavior had some loopholes,” says NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker.

Many of the biggest loopholes, she explains, were in baseball, since the sport has long tolerated arguing with officials in a manner that would produce penalties in other sports. “We used to allow baseball coaches to go all the way out to second base and confront the umpire,” Tucker says. “And I know that purists in the baseball world might say, ‘This is baseball. The coach has to run out there and protest that call.’ But we’ve put a stop to that.”

The new rules spell out exactly how teams may or may not question an umpire’s call. Most significantly, only the head coach can request a conference with the umpires. To do so, he must go to the foul line in front of his dugout, midway between home plate and first or third base. Any move by a coach to enter the field of play results in his automatic ejection, as does the use of inappropriate language.

Assistant coaches may not argue calls in any manner. Any challenge of an umpire’s decision from the field of play or coach’s box leads to immediate ejection. If an assistant coach contests a call from the dugout, he is restricted to that area for the remainder of the game, and he is ejected if he commits a second offense.

When it comes to players, umpires were asked to strictly enforce a rule that calls for automatic ejection due to inappropriate language. Verbal or physical dissent towards the umpire requires restriction to the dugout, and players are ejected if it happens again.

“We want our young people to understand that disagreements will arise, but there are ways to deal with them in a level-headed manner—without raising your voice, without swinging your fists,” says Tucker. “When they get out into the real world after they graduate from high school, we hope their behavior will be better because they have learned to deal with conflict.”

The first year of the new rules proved to be a learning experience. “During the first couple of games this past season, I would walk out to the line and then ask the umpire, ‘Now, help me out here. What do I do next? Can I ask a question?’” says Mike Hennessey, Head Baseball Coach at Charlotte (N.C.) Country Day School, which has one of the top programs in the state. “And the umpires were great about that. We were helping and teaching each other throughout the season.

“With regard to our assistants, they previously had some leeway to argue a call or start a conversation with the umpires,” he continues. “Now, I’ve had to be clear with them that they don’t address the umpires at all.”

Hennessey feels the changes have had a few negative effects, but he is on board with them. “It’s taken a little bit of energy out of the game,” he says. “When you go out to question a call, the process we have to follow slows the pace down. But if these rules are for the good of the umpires, I understand the importance of that.”

Tucker believes the changes have been effective, noting that the number of ejections in baseball fell in 2017. “Anytime you get in somebody’s face to question a call, emotions on both sides rise,” she says. “But if the field umpire is called in to talk to the coach, this gives the coach time to cool off, so he doesn’t get ejected, and the heat of the moment disappears.

“We’ve also asked our officials—in all sports—to try to respect the coach,” Tucker continues. “If a coach asks a question, give an answer. Let’s open those lines of communication when you’re calling a game.”

Overall, the NCHSAA has heard some grumbling over the new initiative, but most coaches are working hard to adjust. “We felt that in education-based athletics, we had a duty and an obligation to try to re-emphasize positive sportsmanship and refocus our membership in this area,” Tucker says. 

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