Sonny Fulks
Sonny Fulks
Managing Editor

Sonny Fulks is a graduate of Ohio State University and pitched four varsity seasons for the Buckeye baseball team from 1971 through 1974.  He furthered his baseball experience as a minor league league umpire for seven years, working in the Florida State League (A), the Southern League (AA), and the American Association (AAA).  He has written for numerous websites and outdoor publications, and for the past ten years has served as a regular columnist and photo editor for Gettysburg Magazine, published by the University of Nebraska Press.  Widely knowledgeable on that period of American History, Fulks is a frequent speaker on the Civil War at local roundtables throughout the Midwest. He and wife Mindy have two grown children and live in Covington, Ohio.

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On the subject of umpires and officiating, the question of “right” and “wrong” is age-old, but now there’s a different concern about where the next generation of officials is coming from, and what they know about the sports they work.

The umpiring crew that worked the season’s final series between Ohio State and Indiana struggled this weekend – really struggled!

There were the ubiquitous questions about balls and strikes, yes.

There were some issues about simple judgment on ‘safe’ versus ‘out’;  and a particular call early in Sunday’s game when a foul ball off the foot of OSU’s Jalen Washington was called fair, and Washington was called ‘out’ when the ball was thrown to first.  The three umpires were questioned, they huddled, they put their heads together, and in the end…no one seemed to know what had happened, so they changed nothing.  Washington was out!

There were some calls that required an instant, demonstrative call as a show of experience and confidence – a runner interference call on a batted ball along the first base line on Friday night – where the play was allowed to play out as if maybe no one would notice and the outcome would take care of itself.  OSU coach Greg Beals made sure that wasn’t the case.  In the end, the three umps huddled again, as if to reconstruct the scene, and Jalen Washington (again) was called out even though film and still shots later showed that Washington WAS running in foul territory and that contact with the pitcher was made AFTER he had failed to cleanly field the baseball, what would have been a split-second call.

And then there is the issue that I most notice…that umpires at every level of baseball fail to call enough strikes, a trend handed down from the major leagues because of the scrutiny of ‘K-Zone’, where each ump is graded on each pitch called.  Accuracy is the buzzword of the day, and if you’re not accurate enough, according to electronics, you could be out of a job.  Of course, amateurs umps have taken on this increased mantel of accuracy and now work the plate with an attitude “selecting” strikes, rather than just calling them.

It makes for laborious, long games, and increased stress on young pitchers who frankly lack the ability to thread the needle of a strictly enforced 17-inch-wide strike zone.  Some fear that it’s the reason that young athletes are steering away from playing baseball, deferring to basketball, soccer, and football.  There’s no fun in playing a sport defined by surgeon-like officiating.

OSUindiana3_inset4-0520When asked about the runner interference call from Friday’s game Greg Beals, a former high school, collegiate, and professional catcher,  considered the question and gave this answer.  “What I question most is the instinct shown for making calls on plays like that.”

What he means by that, of course, is the question of whether the umpires had previously ever seen such a play.  How do you respond on something you see for the first time?  And where is the experience within the crew to lend counsel?

Former National League umpire Eddie Vargo once told me that it takes a lifetime to become a good umpire.  A LIFETIME?

“You’re going to see something every day that you’ve never seen before,”  said Vargo.  “So it takes that long to see as much as you can.”

This, by the way, extends to other sports – football and basketball.  As older officials leave the court and field, they’re being replaced by younger, less experienced ones, and some who have never actually played the game.  They just decided one day that it would be cool to blow the whistle, get some exercise, and be part of the games, instead of an onlooker from the stands.

I still hear from some of my minor league colleagues, now working high school and college sports.  And it is a common opinion among them that many of the young officials with whom they work lack the actual, on-field instincts of a former athlete so necessary in interpreting what they see before they make a call.

To the point about balls and strikes, hall of fame umpire Doug Harvey once told me that working the plate is little more than “managing the game”.  Meaning, on a given day the strike zone might be a ball’s width wider when Tom Glavine pitched, thereby making hitters more aggressive, thereby make the game move along better, thereby making it better for everyone.  This was before ‘K-Zone’, of course.  And really, who could argue with Doug Harvey, then or now?

I also know that from talking with some of the contemporary umpires they all fall in line with the argument for accuracy, and cite “fairness” as the motivation to strict adherence.  If one team has a Tom Glavine and the other team doesn’t, you can’t penalize for that.  But they don’t reward, either.  So the game becomes a three-hour dirge that invites more question than is necessary…and a bore to watch!

sonny_inset0212I was told this spring by a former umpire from my generation who worked 20 years in the big leagues that he seriously expects that within ten years there will no longer be human beings officiating major league games – that somehow it will all be done by computers and cameras.  Or robots?  Everything will be subject to review.  And that the three-hour games of today will seem snappy compared to what that will lead to for the sake of increased accuracy and fairness.

And I suppose that my even writing about it, and questioning, is going to make for a very cold welcome someday if I get to umpire heaven.  None of us has ever been that open to criticism.

But I also wonder how we’re going to yell at the umpire when the umpire isn’t there?  Will you cuss the computer the same way I do this laptop when it doesn’t work?  And who’s going to sweep off the plate and yell, “Play Ball”?

Siri…or Alexa?

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