A Baseball Umpire’s Guide to Neutrality

Be Invisible, Defuse Conflict, and Value Safety Above All Else

What does neutrality look like from the umpire’s perspective? Calvin Wells (above) shares his philosophy on calling a fair game. Courtesy of author.

Can we, and should we, ever really be neutral? In a new series, Zócalo explores the idea of neutrality—in politics, sports, gender, journalism, international law, and more. In this essay, umpire Calvin Wells explains why his role is more than just calling balls and strikes.

Umpiring baseball games is the only job I’ve ever had where you’re expected to be absolutely perfect on day one and continuously get better each and every day after that.

That might sound like a paradox. But that pressure to be ever more perfect is tied up in the idea of the umpire as neutral. Both are equally unnatural and maybe even impossible to ask of humans. And yet both are vital on the field because they render the umpire invisible. Which is necessary because the game is about the players.

When I first started umpiring as a young adult Little League volunteer, being neutral seemed easy. I was neutral because I couldn’t have cared less who won or who lost. But I did care that kids had fun. To do that, I needed to keep the game moving quickly. And I had to teach the kids and volunteer coaches—nearly all of them parents—the rules of the game, so they could enjoy their time on the field.

About 10 years ago, I retired and got into umpiring full-time for high school and college. I also run leagues and train umpires. Sports have changed and so has umpiring—becoming specialized and professionalized, even at the amateur level. Umpires are no longer volunteer kids who come out of the stands to call balls and strikes. Even in youth baseball, most umpires today are paid. That raises the stakes and makes it even more important that umpires embody neutrality.

I teach the umpires I train, and I adhere to three prongs of neutrality.

The first prong of neutrality is invisibility. I don’t want people to notice me out there. I don’t want to be remembered for a bad call that costs someone the game. And I want the game to go by quickly and efficiently, so no one complains. I do have to hold people accountable and enforce the rules, but I want to do that in ways that are quiet and don’t attract much attention.

I don’t pay attention to things said off the field. I let coaches who are arguing have their moment to disagree, but that’s it.

The second prong of neutrality is safety. Someone getting hurt is the worst possible outcome. So, I maintain a zero-tolerance policy for safety infractions—kids need to keep their helmets on, for example. Anything that creates a danger for players, coaches, spectators—I have to stop immediately.

Part of safety is avoiding conflict. Sometimes a small thing—like a pitch thrown over a batter’s head—will escalate into words or a fight or even a bench-clearing brawl, if you don’t act quickly to defuse it. I also try to intervene early on when I see players or coaches starting to lose composure or act out. I don’t want the outburst or confrontation to escalate to the point where I have to eject someone. Ejection always feels like a failure.

The third prong of neutrality involves taking care of your fellow umpires. These days, officials in any sport take so much abuse—from people yelling and screaming and carrying on in crazy ways—that they are tired of it. And unfortunately, we have some officials who respond to abuse with abuse or take pride in giving a team or coach who treated them poorly a hard time. But that’s a mistake—then you get anger and feuds and damage to reputations.

That’s why it’s important for other umpires to step in, talk to one another, and hold each other accountable. It’s also important for the people who assign umpires to games, at every level, to have the guts to red-line officials—to keep them from going back to referee teams with whom they’ve recently had problems. Also, it’s important to be aware of conflicts of interest—should you really umpire the game of your beloved alma mater?

When conflicts do arise, I rely on the thick skin I developed from my years in the fire service, where I encountered people at a terrible moment in their lives. I’ve also taught myself, and the umpires I train and work with, to “not hear beyond the fence line.” I don’t pay attention to things said off the field. I let coaches who are arguing have their moment to disagree, but that’s it. If things get heated, you call time out and say, “Let’s have a grown-up conversation about this.”

But you can have too much conversation. If I talk too much to one coach or player, people on the other team will say that I’m too friendly with the opponent.

I do try to counsel kids who get upset. I see a lot of kids going through difficulties these days.  But kids have to learn—and it’s a hard lesson to teach in this everyone-gets-a-trophy society—that the game is difficult and that things don’t always go your way. The best coaches talk about how hard and disappointing baseball can be, and explain that even successful hitters fail seven out of 10 times.

Baseball is a game of failure for everyone—except umpires.

Calvin Wells is a retired Pasadena firefighter, a Pony League president, and an umpire.
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