Softball umpire Craig Roberts eyes a strike from well behind the plate during a scrimmage between Falmouth and Greely on April 3. This year, home plate umpires in softball are required to stand 6 feet behind the catcher. “It’s not convenient,” Roberts says, “but the powers that be have said it’s necessary, so that’s what we’ll do.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The coronavirus pandemic has forced changes in every sport throughout the year. And in baseball and softball, those changes have also involved home plate umpires.

Because of COVID-19 social distancing policies, they can not, at least for this spring, squat behind the catcher.

In baseball, the umpire calling balls and strikes is located behind, and to the right, of the pitcher, in what is now called the “C” position. In softball, the umpire calling balls and strikes has been moved 6 feet behind the catcher.

Neither position is preferred by the umpires. The Western Maine Board of Federation Softball Umpires, in fact, sent a letter to the Maine Principals’ Association requesting that the home plate umpires be allowed to move 3 feet closer, arguing that being that far behind the plate presented other problems, such as calling balls and strikes accurately and getting hit by foul balls. That request was denied by the MPA’s Sports Medicine Committee.

Mike Bisson, the assistant executive director of the MPA, said its main concern is the safety and health of all participants.

“The MPA’s response is that they cannot move within 6 feet,” he said. “That would make them a close contact in the event of a positive (COVID-19) case. We have told them they can be wherever they feel most comfortable on the field, as long as they maintain the 6 feet distance between them and the players. They can move into the field, like baseball. We are leaving that up to them.

“What we don’t want is to have a positive case and the umpires would have to quarantine for 10 days and then both teams would have to quarantine for 10 days because the umpire became a close contact for both teams.”

Dennis Crowe, the secretary of the Western Maine Board and a long-time umpire, said softball umpires are reluctant to be positioned next to the pitcher because of softball’s smaller infield. While a baseball pitcher is 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate, a softball pitcher is only 43 feet. And a ball off the bat will reach the softball umpire much quicker.

“That does make a big difference,” said Crowe. “I’d feel a little better 20 feet farther away.”

Crowe was a home plate umpire during a scrimmage between Fryeburg Academy and Madison recently. He said he got hit in the chest protector with only one foul ball but that calling pitches, especially on the outside corner, is difficult.

“It’s near impossible to see a down pitch on the outside corner,” he said. “You can see the inside corner, but the outside corner is a complete mystery. So the question is: Is it better back there or beside the pitcher?”

Brian Hink, the softball coach at Sacopee Valley, agreed that umpires will probably miss some calls. “Anything with movement on it is going to be tough,” he said.

But, he added, “If (the umpires) were in the field, I think it would have been worse. Over the season, we’ll see improvement and it will end up being OK. We’ll figure out a way to adjust.”

Because of social distancing protocols, baseball umpire Mike Hutchins calls balls and strikes from behind the mound during a scrimmage between Greely and Portland at Deering Oaks on April 7. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In baseball, umpires got a look at the new setup last summer, when home plate umpires moved out into the infield during summer league games. Kevin Joyce has umpired games at every level, including minor league baseball when he fills in at a Portland Sea Dogs game. He serves as the baseball umpire’s liaison to the MPA and understands why the move has been made.

“For the safety of everybody, we’ll start out behind the mound,” he said. “I have no problem with it. I know some guys don’t like it. It’s not only safe for us, but the kids.”

Joyce has done college baseball games this spring and calls the game from behind the catcher. But, he said, there is a difference between college and high school baseball.

“I have to get tested before every (college) game, the kids have to get tested,” he said. “It’s different in high school. We go to a high school game and we don’t know if these kids have been tested.”

He and Dan Deshaies, the rules interpreter for Maine high school baseball, worked together to come up with the mechanics of a two-man crew with the home plate umpire in the field – who will cover what bases and how the rotation will go.

Yes, he said, it’s a different perspective calling balls and strikes, and it will leave the third-base line uncovered to call foul or fair on hits down the line. But it can be done. He umpired 72 games last summer and, he said, “Nobody said a word.”

Deshaies believes that each regional board of baseball umpires in the state might lose some umpires who do not want to be in the infield calling pitches. But, he said, that’s better than the alternative.

“I look at it this way,” he said. “As an umpire (squatting behind the catcher), your head is within a foot of the catcher. And sometimes a half inning can last a half hour. So, we might lose two or three umpires the way things are now. But if you had to be within a foot of the catcher’s head, and there’s a case somewhere, we might lose more than just two or three.

“I think this will be a good thing. We just want the players to be able to play, the coaches to coach. And we want to be out there to umpire.”


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