by Elliott Finkelstein, Director of Fastpitch, Triple Crown Sports
All eyes in the college softball world certainly turned a glance toward one of the most storied and anticipated matchups this postseason, when Arizona and UCLA squared off for a berth in the Women’s College World Series. One could argue that it all started with these two programs, who own more D-1 collegiate softball championships than all other programs combined (19 of 35). Who would earn the trip to OKC and the WCWS? How will they get there and what will be the biggest surprise? Turns out UCLA has the best, final answer. But what about the 800-pound gorilla in the room – postseason officiating!
Some would argue that the rules mysteriously change during the playoffs, leaving some to ask if there’s an unwritten unpublished postseason rule book. And could we get a copy? I’d like a to be a fly on the wall at the pre-tournament umpire meetings. Do the nationally seeded teams get “special treatment?” Do home teams get “home cooking” on the close calls?
This year has been full of game-deciding calls. Obstruction, out of the batter’s box, and of course illegal pitches, seem to rule the day. I have been told there are points of emphasis each year when it comes to rule enforcement. Huh? Shouldn’t all rules be enforced? If not, why have them at all? It’s fairly common to see basketball officials “swallow the whistle” late in lopsided games or during the playoffs. We’ve all seen expanded strike zones in games where the outcome has been decided early, but the mercy rule is not in effect quite yet. Whose judgement do we question then?
Judgement is the key to many calls, but unfortunately there are many levels of judgement ... good, bad or apparently none at all. No different than real life. It’s loud and clear when coaches, fans and players don’t agree with umpire judgement, it’s just there are some rules that just flat don’t compute. It’s probably time to question some decisions from the rules committee. Couldn’t we just move the pitching rubber back 2 or 3 more feet and get rid of the “crow hop” rule? I have a hard time finding two officials describe an illegal pitch the same way on the same call. The rule never seems to be applied consistently and certainly not equally from pitcher to pitcher. How about out of the box, when there are clearly no chalk lines left to see? The plate umpire has a difficult enough time getting the strike zone right without having to watch the batter’s feet. Could there be electronics in the not-too-distant future? Then there is obstruction! This could be the worst of the judgement situations. Did the ball get there first? Was the defensive player blocking the base? Rarely do I see this called correctly. I miss old school defense.
How about hitters and their “Evo Shields.” Given enough protective gear we see hitters lean into pitches all the time. Umpires rarely call the batter for being in the strike zone. Remove the armor and lean in all you want. I hear pitchers and catchers now calling for an “EVO” … which means a girl is about to get plunked.
It’s an American pastime and a right of admission to vocally question an official’s judgement. We have all seen poor positioning and really bad calls change the outcome. Interestingly enough, 98% of all calls are probably correct, but there isn’t any fun in talking about that. We celebrate .400 batting averages and .700 winning percentages; however, if an official is 90% right he/she is horrible. If the rules committee was held to the same standard as those who participate in the game, perhaps we could get a set of simplified rules and let the game be decided by the players.
At the end of the day the officials have a job to do. Enforce the rules, even the bad ones.