It's something you hear at every baseball game. There's a close play at first base, almost instantaneous, and the crowd sides with the batter, assuming the batter gets that advantage. "The tie goes to the runner," as the saying goes. The only problem with that is the saying is wrong. By rule, the runner has to beat the ball to the bag in order to be called safe. If there's a tie, that means the runner did not beat the ball and therefore is out.
It's the first thing I was taught during my Little League umpire training back in high school in Maryland. I wore the blue uniform for two and a half years before I graduated and went to college out-of-state. I was good at it, too. I even worked a few All-Star games. I haven't thought much about that time in my life since then, but I still have my Olney Boys and Girls Club umpire shirt and my clicker, used for tallying balls and strikes.
Yes, despite all the guff you get from parents, coaches and even players — who usually have no idea what they're talking about — once you're an ump, you can never fully let go, something the guys who work the Lakewood Ranch Little League games know all too well.
Take Reggie Simmons, for example. Simmons moved to the area from Philadelphia five years ago. He was a veteran umpire, but when he moved to Lakewood Ranch, his first instinct was to leave that part of his life behind. He sold his protective gear. When he attended his sons' first weekend of Little League games, though, he couldn't help himself. He struck up a conversation with the ump working one of the games and told him he missed an easy infield fly call. That umpire turned out to be Jeff Parrill, the league's Umpire in Charge.
"(Parrill) told me, 'Give me your information because you're going to be doing this for me,'" Simmons said.
Just like that, Simmons was back in. He bought new gear. All these years later, he's still doing it, alongside other veteran umps like Jermey Metters and Guy Vilt. I talked with all three on April 7, before Little League games that were eventually rained out. That trio has heard more insults from parents than a stand-up comic dishes out on tour. Most of it is cutting if uncreative, curse words and phrases that begin with A or F that you can probably guess. When I was an ump, I threw a parent out of a game for telling me, a 16-year-old kid, to screw off (except he didn't say screw). In retrospect, this was the wrong move. I should have done what Vilt does and tell the coaches to control their parents or, if that fails, get the Umpire in Charge to handle it, avoiding direct contact. Umps have to block out the noise and concentrate on calling the best possible game for the kids, Vilt said.
Easier said than done. It's hard to resist the urge to talk back, even for veterans.
"Anybody can go stand on the field, but if you don't know what you're doing, it will show," Simmons said. "It's a job. We don't go to other people's jobs without any training and tell them what they're doing right and wrong. 'Oh, you just typed the number five? That should be a six. Come on, Betty, you're horrible at this.' It's ridiculous."
Despite getting criticized at every turn, umpires are what make the youth baseball and softball communities go. Without anyone to call the games, you can't play. Parents could come out of the stands and try their hand, but that isn't a good experience for anyone, most of all the kids who now have to deal with inconsistent calls.
Vilt said there are plenty of rules that seem to be misunderstood by parents and even coaches — many of whom have no prior experience and are volunteering because no one else would. The one that is the least understood, in his experience, is that a pitch that hits the batter's hands results in the batter taking first base. It's not a foul ball.
"There's a saying we like to use: Dick's Sporting Goods doesn't sell bats with hands attached to them," Vilt said. "Your hands are not part of the bat. Go take first base."
Vilt said there is a sense of entitlement from many parents that has increased in recent seasons. They paid for their kids to play so they believe their kids should get all the calls. The problem is the parents on the other side paid, too. And more than anything else, Vilt said, parents need to understand that umpires could not care less about which team wins. Their only goal is to call a consistent game. Parents expect perfection, and that's just not realistic. Vilt said an umpire can call 90 pitches correctly and two incorrectly and parents will remember the two over the 90. It's not fair, but it is how it is.
Vilt said the league has had trouble recruiting new umpires and as a result is short-staffed. Ideally, all games would feature two umpires, one behind the plate and one at second base. As it stands, the games on the league's bigger fields get two, but games on the smaller fields only get a home plate ump, who then has to make a lot of calls out of position. When things are at their most dire, an ump might be asked to call a game on the big fields by himself. There are similar problems in football where, even at the high school level, games have to be moved to Thursday nights so the few referees there are can work all the necessary games. It's a shame, but I also understand it. Why would anyone want to take the abuse if they don't have to? The answer for Metters is simple.
"I'm out here because I love the game of baseball," Metters said. "If I have a bad day of work, I can come out here and forget about all of it. If I have a good game, it can turn a bad day into a good day."
All three umpires agreed that the day they stop loving the game will be the last day they wear the uniform. When will that happen? It's tough to say. Maybe it never will. It's a beautiful game, after all. And there are good days on the job, too. Simmons said he knows he did well when he gets a "good job, blue" from both coaches, not just whoever's team won. That makes him feel good. It's also rewarding to watch the kids you used to umpire grow into phenoms, like former Lakewood Ranch Little Leaguer (and Lakewood Ranch High alum) Grant McCray, now with the San Francisco Giants organization. Sometimes, you even meet celebrity fans — like when Metters met Dick Vitale, who was onsite watching his grandchildren.
If you're reading this and are still unsympathetic to the plight of the umpire, why don't you try it yourself? As I said, the league needs more bodies. Reach out to the league. Go to an umpiring clinic. See how much you really know about the game. If you do well, consider helping out. It's good for the game and good for the soul to give back in this way.
Just remember, the tie does not go to the runner. Ever.
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.