One of the most important things a new umpire needs to do is to get a good grasp on the rules. Unfortunately, this isn’t always as easy as it seems.
Little League’s rulebooks for both baseball and softball are derived almost directly from the Major League Baseball rules. This has some good points – for example there are more than 100 years worth of interpretations on how the rules should be applied. The bad part is that most of these interpretations have never actually been written into the rulebook. Thus, in many respects, the MLB rulebook is incomplete, and the Little League rulebooks echo this particular defect.
As a result, new umpires really need additional resources – not the least of them experienced umpires – to help them learn the way the rules are really applied. In addition, things are complicated by the fact that there are, in fact, more than one set of baseball rules. Although many rule sets are derived from the MLB rules in the same way that the Little League ones are, there are other rule sets that are completely independent.
Most prominent among these is the National Federation of High School (NFHS or “Fed”) rules which are used by most states for High School baseball and softball, and for many other organizations such as AAU. While the very basic rules are the same (three outs in an inning, etc.) there are a number of places, such as appeals and balks in baseball, in which “Fed” rules differ from Little League rules. This causes occasional problems for everyone involved, because it can be easy to mix up one rule with another.
So how do you get started? Well, the first thing to do is obviously to get a rulebook. Sometimes that’s more difficult than it seems – for some reason, leagues frequently seem to forget that they get several rulebooks for each team they charter. Certainly, if you’re going to be kind enough (or be forced to) umpire, then it’s only reasonable for the league to provide one, however.
Second, read the book. But don’t start at page one and read straight through. Firstly, the beginning of the Little League rulebooks are the Regulations, which mostly apply to the league itself. Instead, start about a third of the way in, where the “real rules” begin. Secondly, don’t start at 1.00. Instead, start at section 2.00. Section 2.00 of the rulebook contains the definitions. Just like lawyers and doctors have special language, or use otherwise-common words in special ways, so do umpires. In this section, you’ll find the “official definitions” of many of the words used in the remainder of the rulebook. Without an understanding of these definitions, the other rules may be harder to comprehend.
Next, as you’re reading each rule, try to envision the play to which it applies. Virtually each and every rule in the rulebook was put there because somebody, at some time, thought that something that happened on the field didn’t pan out in a way that was fair and equitable. Somebody, somewhere, somehow did something that just didn’t seem right, so a rule was adopted to govern that situation.
Don’t try to read too much of the rulebook at once. The language is kind of stilted (another similarity to the language of lawyers, perhaps), and there’s a lot covered in a very few number of pages. Take it a bit at a time, and when you start going “huh?” too often, put it down and come back some other time.
Finally, find an experienced umpire with whom you can discuss the rules. As we mentioned above, sometimes there’s a difference between the way the rule is written and the way it is applied, or sometimes the different rules in the book “interlock” in non-obvious ways.
Following a game is a particularly good time to discuss rules, since you may have encountered a situation in the game where you weren’t sure of the rule, and going back afterward finding the correct rule(s) that govern that situation will help them stick in your head.