Umpires must continually work to master a million small skills. Everyone knows umpires focus on balls and strikes, safe and out. However, no one tells you everything else associated with being a baseball arbiter. One of the most visible of these skills in need of mastering is training yourself to not flinch or duck when a pitch is aiming straight for your face.
No one likes getting hit in the face, not umpires, not fighters, not anyone. Luckily baseball has learned over time that using protective equipment is a good idea. No matter how good the equipment or slow the pitch, taking a baseball in the face hurts. There are massive differences between pitches thrown by a 9 and 19 year old. The 9 year old will knock sweat in my face and maybe move my mask. The 19 year old will move my mask as the inside of my mask sounds like a car crash.
Fortunately, thus far in my umpiring career I have avoided serious injury. I have weathered every shot to my head well, the worst being a foul ball to the throat. Baseballs have rearranged my mask. I have stumbled due to resting on my heels, instead of my toes. The time I need after getting drilled in the face has been to check my mask for damage and to clean the sweat off my sunglasses. I have never had my bell rung or felt concussed.
Despite the fear and danger, umpires must train themselves to accept the punishment while doing their job. You must trust your equipment and the catcher. Umpires can only control their equipment; properly maintaining and replacing as necessary. They can never control the catcher. Even the best catcher will miss a ball from time to time, they cannot block everything. Sooner or later every umpire gets hit in the mask. It is a matter of time. Trusting the catcher to do their job is sometimes about lying to yourself as your equipment and body take the pummeling.
Umpiring can be painful when the baseball misses the bat and the catcher. (The Winning Run/ JJ)
Flinching means you missed the pitch. The eyes are the camera umpires use to call balls and strikes. If the camera is moving it is impossible to accurately call close pitches. Pitches two feet outside or down the middle are easy, pitches on the corner turns umpiring into a verb.
There are two primary reasons I flinch, although I flinch less now than when I began umpiring. The first reason is obvious. A pitcher is throwing fastballs you can hear coming. Rule #1 of umpiring is self preservation. Stay down and make the call, but never trade your long term health for one pitch. A pitcher, signed to play Division I baseball, throwing 90 MPH, the pitch is coming towards my face, and I have the slightest doubt about the catcher’s ability. Yeah sorry people, I am ducking. There is usually minimal grumbling, but I know I must plant myself behind the plate. If I stay in position while my mind is screaming for my body to move, I will flinch less and gain confidence. Players, coaches, and fans do not agree with plenty of calls, even correct ones. If you lack confidence to make the difficult correct calls, what other calls are you missing? Confidence and ability breed each other, just avoid overconfidence.
The second reason I flinch is less obvious. I flinch more umpiring younger aged baseball, because the pitch is slower and the catchers tend to miss more pitches. I have time to think, which is one of the worst things to do on a baseball field. I will not move on a 55 foot fastball going 80 MPH, but I will flinch on one traveling 45 MPH. Remember Rule #1 of umpiring? Those 45 MPH fastballs will not break you, but they can be death by a thousand pitches. The younger baseball games are perfect for training yourself to not flinch. Staying in position prevents your moving into harm’s way. Raising up exposes your thighs and torso. Crouching keeps you safe behind your gear and stance. Raising up creates a larger target. Training yourself to stay down is critical in preserving your health and safety. People do not rise to the occasion, they sink to their level of training. Raise up your level of training.
Flinching and ducking are usually unnecessary. The catcher catches the pitch and you are safe. Pitches coming at your face often end high and/or inside to the batter for easy ball calls. However, coaches pick up on your habits and if you flinch and duck too often they have a reason to complain. If an umpire is not doing their job, countering the complaints becomes more difficult. Doing your job as an umpire is just like playing. The little things done well add up to successful.
I am undefeated as an umpire, every game I get better and improve. I have not made the correct call every time, but I learn from my mistakes. I never care who wins, regardless of what a few coaches have suggested. Umpires go unnoticed when they do their job well. Ducking your responsibilities is easy, but staying put and making the call is better.