One of the most basic rules of baseball, whether written or unwritten, is that coaches and players aren’t supposed to argue balls and strikes.
It turns out that it’s probably one of the most-violated tenets of the game.
Such a situation precipitated two ejections during Saturday’s high school game between Portland and archrival South Portland at Hadlock Field in Portland.
A Portland player was tossed by the home plate umpire during the sixth inning of that game after he argued a called third strike. Portland head coach Mike Rutherford emerged from the dugout to defend the player and also was ejected.
“I had to go out and protect my player,” Rutherford told The Forecaster, who conceded that his player shouldn’t have argued balls and strikes. “I can get ejected because I don’t play. The team can live without me. Sometimes as a coach you do that to fire the team up.”
Later in the inning, a Portland player was ejected for making a hard slide into second base.
While Rutherford apparently intended to get thrown out of the game as motivation for his team, coaches and players usually are given some leeway in terms of how much griping is allowed and at what level.
Veteran umpire Ralph Damren of Old Town is the rules interpreter for the Eastern Maine Baseball Umpires Association. He said he will generally allow occasional questioning of balls and strikes.
“If you think about it, you get 150 balls and strikes during a game, on the average, probably more than that,” Damren said. “That’s a lot of decisions to make.”
There are as many as three phases of reprimands for coaches whose language or behavior does cross the line.
First, an umpire usually will inform a coach of a written warning for aggressively arguing anything, including balls and strikes.
In response to further outbursts or complaining, a coach may be restricted to the dugout or bench area for the remainder of the contest. In that case, a coach may continue to conduct regular coaching duties, but may not leave the dugout or bench.
An umpire may allow a coach back onto the field, but only an injury to a player. In fact, an assistant coach who is thus penalized simultaneously brings the same punishment on the head coach.
That’s two strikes. Any unsportsmanlike conduct after dugout detention can result in immediate ejection.
Then again, an umpire may at any time eject a coach or player whose behavior is deemed to be excessive.
“You get three hoops and if you’re crass enough, you can jump through all three hoops at the same time,” Damren said.
He explained that each umpire has a different level of tolerance, one that may be based on previous interactions with certain coaches or athletes who have been disruptive in the past.
“You’re playing Russian Roulette, in my opinion, when you start hollering at the umpires because some are going to have different threshholds than others,” Damren said.
His approach is to allow some occasional questioning of calls, provided it is done with some tact, restraint — or a smile.
Damren has witnessed plenty of subtle examples where coaches questioned calls and later admitted they were trying to energize their players.
Other than some likely embarrassment, the biggest issue for coaches and players who are ejected from high school games is the final penalty. They must sit out the next scheduled contest.
It is Damren’s hope that with patience, cooler heads will prevail on the diamond and it never comes to the point of expulsion.
In fact, he said some umpires will tolerate an occasional outburst if the anger and frustration displayed appear to be directed at oneself rather than at an umpire.
The moral of the story is, if you’re going to argue with or yell at a high school baseball umpire, you’d better choose your words, tone of voice and body languague wisely.
In Maine, three strikes and you’re out.