JULY 6, 2016 - MEN'S FASTPITCH
It is the morning after my first experience with the men's fastpitch softball game. I survived my first two games and actually came out unscathed. Was I apprehensive? Absolutely! The men's game is the pinnacle of softball officiating. The level of play is outstanding and they expect good officiating.
RESPECT - In the last couple of years I have been hearing the war stories from other respected officials about their experiences trying to garner their initial respect with the men players and coaches. I was told that the players love breaking in the "Fresh Meat" and then having some good stories to share as they hang out after their games. Here was some of the advice from my mentors...
1) DON'T HIGHLY POLISH YOU SHOES - The men are not impressed with an official who is sporting a spotless brand new uniform.
REALITY - FAIL - I polished my shoes perfectly. My uniform was clean, pressed, and sharp looking. I only had one chance to make my first professional impression. For me it worked because I knew that I looked the part and it boosted my confidence.
2) NO CHIP ON THE SHOULDER - Everybody on the field knows the rules and these are good athletes. I was told to not have a power monger attitude or God complex.
REALITY - PASS -I confidently made my calls and was both friendly and professional.
3) LOWER THAT UPPER STRIKE ZONE - I was advised to not call that pitch above the lowest rib a strike. This was a full ball lower than my normal highest strike in the upper division girl's fastpitch games.
REALITY - PASS -I did a good job on keeping it down. One pitch late in the game ripped through and it was a bit up and I called it a ball, much to the amazement of many of the players. I did not realize it but my partner, Larry Colledge, was out by the shortstop and Dusty Zundel said to him, "Do you really think that was a ball?" Larry told him that he thought it was just a bit too high, to which Dusty said, "Yeah, that is what I thought too." So at least 3 of us thought I called the pitch correctly.
4) FASTER PITCHING - I was told about how much quicker the pitching would be. Evan Quilter's story of seeing his first men's pitch and saying absolutely nothing. The catcher said to him, "Whatcha got Blue?" Evan shared that he said, "I don't know." The catcher said "Give him another one" as he threw the ball back to the pitcher with a big smile and a chuckle.
REALITY - PASS -The pitching was much quicker than other softball, yet I have seen some girl's Varsity pitching that is equally fun. The men can do things that aren't allowed in the girl's game. I found that the added speed was not an issue for me. This is probably because of all of the baseball that I have done. I was not distracted at all by the speed and was able to track it all the way through without issue.
5) ILLEGAL PITCHES - I was advised to not call illegal pitching at the Cottonwood Complex.
REALITY - PASS -I watched the pitching styles, motions, and movements very closely. The crow hopping, stepping back, and replanting options gave then men incredible advantages. Instead of illegal pitches I witnessed faster fastballs, incredible knuckle balls, dippers, rise balls, and curves with movement unlike what I had seen before. It was important to track the ball from the pitcher's hip all the way to the catcher's glove.
6) BE READY FOR THE COMPLAINTS - I was warned that the men could be really hard and mean.
REALITY - PASS -I really had no loud complaints. There were some grunts and groans over close pitch calls. The only Bozo type complaint came after the home team came back with 5 runs in the last inning to win the game. The losing third baseman made sure to come by and voice, "Pitches down the middle of the plate need to be called strikes!" I was taken aback by the comment spoken from afar because their loss had little to do with missed pitch calls and everything to do with the homes teams hitting, running, and scoring. The complainer's vantage point was from third base. As I heard the complaint I did not like my initial feelings. I wondered why he felt he even needed to take the effort to go out of his way to murmur. It was really kind of a gutless attempt to register a complaint. Up to that point I thought I had done a fine job... And yet his unsolicited comment came as I was grabbing my bag to walk off the field... I almost dodged the cheap shot, but then I guess I would have felt I did too good of a job.
7) GET TO YOUR POSITIONS - As a field ump it is important to move and be in good position to make your calls.
REALITY - PASS - The men are fast. These are good athletes. Their steals are quick and you have to almost be able to read their minds to get the needed jump. The other issue is that you have to position yourself so much deeper because they play so much deeper. The second baseman and shortstops also need so much more room in all directions. This makes it more difficult to get in position for steals and throwbacks. I am glad that I still have good movement and speed. There were a couple of second base steals that would have been bangers, but the defensive player dropped the throw and no call was needed. I look forward to figuring this out and getting in even better positions in future games, especially on the second base steal.
IN CONCLUSION - I am so relieved to have these first games behind me. I felt that the timing was perfect with my preparation. I was not overwhelmed and remained confident throughout both games. Yes, I was very apprehensive leading up to the games, yet my worries were put to rest as I followed the confident advice from Larry Colledge as he said, "Michael, don't worry about all that the others have told you. Just go out and give them your best game."
MENTORS - I have to give special thanks to several mentor friends who gave me the encouragement. Evan Quilter gave me the greatest boost of encouragement and confidence. I will always have Evan to blame for switching over from baseball to softball and he was the key mentor to get me to see that it was time to take on the men's fastpitch game. Phil Cappadonia has been talking to me about the men's game for the last year and a half and he has threatened to schedule me on several occasions and I politely dodged his request knowing that I was previously not ready. ASA Deputy Director Malcolm Boyles really talked up the men's game with me at both the National Umpire School last year and during his training visit at our Utah ASA Umpire school earlier this year. Utah ASA Umpire In Chief, Ralph Andersen, has been really supportive and told me to prepare and that I would know when the time was right. He warned that he had seen others try to take major officiating steps too quickly, to their detriment. The final burst of encouragement came from our Utah ASA State Commissioner, Steve Rollins, this past weekend at the Cedar City tournament. I listened to both Steve and Evan share several hours of fastpitch war stories going back to the 1980's. I shared my deepest fears and officiating inadequacies with them, and I left Cedar City knowing that the time was right. Within 24 hours I was scheduled for my first games last night.
MY LIMITED ADVICE - For others thinking that they would like to advance to the men's fastpitch game, my advice would be to not rush the process. The men's game is a natural progression step of which there is no reason to rush. There are lots of little milestones in officiating softball and this is not one that everybody even needs to experience. It is a side niche that some might enjoy and even thrive. I don't think the majority of umpires I have met in the girl's game would even enjoy the experience. The girl's game is a much more forgiving environment to officiate.
Was it fun for me? I'll let you know in the next few years. For now, it is just an exciting challenge. What I know for certain is that there is no way you can be successful officiating the fastpitch men without a strong desire to improve your game, know the rules, and master the mechanics.
Make it a great day!
Michael Leavitt - Orem, Utah