The internet has been abuzz recently with this video of Fordham University shortstop Brian Kownacki somersaulting over Iona catcher James Beck in an airborne bid to score a run, and there seems to be some confusion among bloggers and commenters about whether or not it was a legal play and if the plate umpire made the right call. But there's a lot more to Kownacki's handspring and the events immediately before and after it than at first meets the eye.
One of the things I find so beautiful and fascinating about umpiring is that it offers me insights into not only what takes place on a ballfield so I can illuminate my friends about what just happened out there, but into human nature in general. Bruce Lee said, "All knowledge leads to self-knowledge," and this is particularly true of umpiring, an activity that requires, as one of my LinkedIn pen pals, Thomas McKenney, put it so poetically, "being centered in one's self to see what's around..." I learn a lot about myself as a person by paying attention to how I conduct myself on the ballfield and heeding the lessons inherent in an exciting and unusual play such as the Kownacki vault. To the casual observer or even the experienced baseball analyst, the play poses several salient questions. Is it legal for a baserunner to leap, tumble, somersault, do a handspring over, vault past, or otherwise jump over, a catcher the way Kownacki did over Beck? And if it is legal for a baserunner to do what he did, did the plate umpire make the right call - meaning, was the swipe the catcher made at Kownacki before he landed on the plate a legitimate tag, or did he miss him? Should the run have been allowed to score?
The answers to these questions are actually the easy part of understanding this play. (Yes, with qualifications, yes, and yes.) A more complex task is recognizing the tremendous skill and expertise it took for the umpiring crew to maintain order on the field, not just during the "discussion" between the Iona head coach and plate umpire Rob Harty that immediately followed the play, but during the ensuing action as well. To me, this play is all about the umpires and the actions they took to ensure that the game would continue without further delay or disruption once Kownacki unsuspectingly vaulted into cybercelebrity. And what's even more impressive about what they did is that their actions made it possible for the game to be completed in a safe and timely fashion. This is a concept fundamental to our craft, one that's key to keeping the pace and flow of a ballgame from stalling or reaching the boiling point.
NCAA and professional baseball rules permit baserunners to do what Kownacki did, but high school (Federation) rules expressly prohibit them from emulating his acrobatics. Diving head-first is forbidden in high school ball, although leaping or hurdling is permitted - but only if the catcher is prone on the ground. This is intended to prevent potential injury to both the runner and catcher, and is an entirely appropriate safety restriction for that age group. As a matter of fact, I wouldn't be surprised if as a result of all the fuss about the Kownacki vault, the NCAA rules committee decides in the near future to amend the college rule to more closely reflect those same safety concerns.
But it's not what Kownacki did during this play that stirs me to breathless admiration, it's what Rob Harty, Fred DeJesus, and Frank Endl did. They're the three umpires sent to Fordham that day by Nick Zibelli, president and assignor-in-chief of the CBUAO, the same college baseball umpires' association to which I belong and through which I get my NCAA assignments here in the northeast as well. Freddie and I have worked as partners in various local leagues over the years, and I get a kick out of working the National Baseball Congress tournament in Wichita, Kansas each August, because to the umpires out in the heartland, Freddie is a Noo Yawk legend. (And now to us here as well.) Harty and Endl are established NCAA umpires, and as a crew that evening the trio functioned like a well-oiled machine even though they had never worked together previously, although DeJesus had umpired with Harty once before. Frank Endl was the rookie on the crew, relatively speaking; it was only his second assignment working the three-umpire rather than the two-umpire system. Each umpire's ability to merge with his partners into a cohesive unit served as an efficient mechanism for keeping the game flowing smoothly. This ability to help a game progress undisturbed over the bumps and blips that can dull its intensity is an important component of every umpire's arsenal of tools and skills, and one that doesn't necessarily involve a display of force or throwing one's weight around. It's also one of the divine secrets of baseball, part of its magical mystery: that umpiring is about so much more than merely calling ball, strike, safe, out, fair, and foul, or showing the players who's boss.
Imagine, if you will, Iona head coach Pat Carey's mounting frustration at the moment Kownacki jumped over Gaels catcher James Beck. Iona had accrued a nine-to-one lead by the fourth inning - the Fordham starter, John Flanagan, didn't make it past the first two hitters of the third inning - then watched it evaporate in the bottom of the eighth while the Rams scored an impossible nine runs, building on three they'd scratched out one by one in the third, sixth, and seventh to take a 12-to-9 lead going into the top of the ninth. So Carey was definitely primed to explode about something, and the Kownacki leap was his tipping point. When the Fordham shortstop came up to bat in the eighth, he'd already gotten on base once that half-inning by being hit by a pitch. Now with two outs, Kownacki got plunked a second time, which landed him on first base and forced runners to second and third. The sacks were full of Rams, and the 6-and-26 Iona Gaels badly wanted the win they were about to let slip away. Fordham's season wasn't going much better, as they had eked out only a paltry 12 wins out of 22 losses. So conditions were ripe for an eruption of some sort from somebody - but the umpires were prepared.
"During our pre-game in the locker room, I talked to both my partners about a game earlier in the season where Pat Carey got ejected," Fred DeJesus told me by telephone when I called to ask him about his role in the Kownacki play. Freddie had been at third base and Manolo Alejandro at first for a Marist v. Iona contest during which plate umpire Rich Maggio, an imposing but amiable man, had tossed Carey after he came out to argue a call and wound up angrily hurling a piece of equipment. That act rated the coach instant ejection, a penalty from which no umpire could have absolved him, and Freddie spoke of the incident to give his partners an idea of the discontent simmering inside him, the kind that could make a man do something he might regret later. DeJesus wanted to prevent a repeat performance from happening on his watch in order to keep Carey in the game, not go looking for reasons to throw him out. This holistic approach to pre-game preparation is one of the most important yet invisible aspects of our job. It actually starts at home the day before, with adherence to good sleep, nutrition, and hydration habits, and continues with a detailed meeting in the locker room before a game starts during which we discuss anything and everything from weather and field conditions to which umpire covers what play on which rotation (a "rotation" being a sometimes intricate choreography that dictates where each umpire will go for what purpose on any particular type of play, whether it be a fly ball to right with runners on first and third, or a ground ball to short with a runner on second only) as well as news about any potential trouble brewing amongst the players or managers. For instance, when two teams with a combined record of 18-and-47 are playing each other, it's a pretty sure bet that something's going to pop. The trick is sensing when this is about to happen and knowing how to contain the damage an eruption might cause before things go to hell in a handbasket. The Kownacki leap highlighted exactly the kind of game and situation that could have ended very badly if not for the leadership and composure of the umpiring crew, who coolly defused the level of hostility and frustration instead of ratcheting it up. Even though there was only a half-inning left in the game after Kownacki's leap, which came with two out in the bottom of the eighth, it still could have disintegrated into an ugly meleé very quickly and ended on a decidedly down note instead of an upbeat one (at least for the Rams.) That it didn't, that play resumed without undue delay and nobody got knocked down or spiked or bloodied in the top of the ninth, speaks volumes to the preparedness and professionalism of the entire crew.
Within seconds of Kownacki's leap and Pat Carey's excited appearance at home plate to argue the call, DeJesus is seen hustling in towards the Iona catcher and pitcher, who have joined in their coach's chorus of protests. Freddie leads them towards their dugout, away from the plate area where Carey is in animated discussion with Harty. "I could hear Carey telling Rob he was out of position," Freddie reflected, a charge directly refuted by the video evidence, which shows Harty positioned perfectly to see the play. "Meanwhile, the catcher was telling me he tagged the runner. I didn't want to respond to him about the play while my partner was discussing it with the head coach, so I just told him, look, let's walk away. I told him and the pitcher, just go out to the mound and wait until this is resolved. They saw I was serious and did what I asked without griping about it, which I appreciated. It was a tough situation all around because of the standings of the two teams and the nature of the game, and my partners and I were mostly concerned with letting the players finish up and seeing everybody walk off the field in one piece." What the video doesn't show - it ends at 1:19, before Carey leaves the plate area - is DeJesus walking him back to his dugout once Harty signals the conversation between him and Carey is over by turning and walking away. "Freddie, I need this win," DeJesus recalls the beleaguered coach telling him plaintively as they approached the Iona bench. The confrontation that could have ended with at least one ejection, maybe more, was instead controlled by the umpires without anybody getting thrown out or hurt. Carey didn't get his victory that night; the Rams refused to relinquish the lead they had wrested from him so dramatically, and the game ended 12-to-9 in favor of Fordham with no further disruptions.
Back in the dressing room after it was all over, Freddie and his partners talked about what had just happened and how they had handled themselves. "None of us had any idea Kownacki's play would become such an internet sensation," DeJesus told me. "You don't think about that stuff when you've just lived through it. We were all just grateful we'd been able to keep things under control because it had been a long game, more than three hours, and it was after ten PM and everybody was mentally exhausted by the time it ended." The mental exhaustion to which he refers is a familiar by-product of the adrenaline and testosterone that flood the nervous systems of both umpires and players, male or female, during even the most unexciting of athletic competitions, and this one was about as far from unexciting as the first moonwalk or watching Willie Mays. It had supercharged everybody involved in it so that now, winding down afterwards and dissecting their own performance with surgical precision, the umpires could leave the ballpark confident they had done a good job, a superb job actually, of "managing" the game. Game management skills are a big part of what we do out there, maybe even bigger than making decisions about plays, because the tone for the entire game begins and ends with us. It starts in the dressing room during the pre-game conference and extends to the home plate meeting with the managers during which we have a chance to establish the fact that we're there to work in concert with the players and other personnel, not against them, and to ensure that everyone has a safe place in which to participate or watch the game. It doesn't end when we walk off the field, either. That tone, the atmosphere that umpires foster and encourage by virtue of our own conduct, can make or break a game, can turn a well-played contest into a nightmarish and draining experience for everyone as a result of just one player's bad behavior and the ineptitude or failure to take charge by an otherwise well-intentioned umpiring crew. But the trio of DeJesus, Endl, and Harty acquitted themselves not just admirably, but excellently, and their leadership skills helped them maintain order and civility at a time when those attributes were crucial to a good outcome. Theirs was textbook umpiring at its finest and most polished. Because of their actions, the world can focus on the visual appeal of Kownacki's tumbling act rather than the bad vibes left hanging over both teams as a result of some totally preventable altercation that might have ended a young ballplayer's career. That never happened, and it's due in large part to the expertise and teamwork of the three umpires.
The most important function they fulfilled that night was not calling a good game or getting the calls right; it was managing the game so it didn't get out of hand once it started approaching critical mass. They kept the tenor of the game from deteriorating into chaos and intentional retaliatory brutality by handling the situation with dispatch and aplomb. A better performance I haven't seen in a long time, and my cap is off to all three of them. The bottom line concerning Kownacki's leap: the umpires did an absolutely stellar job from start to finish, and while this play may be legal under NCAA and pro rules, it is totally illegal in high school and youth leagues. And however much fun it may be to watch and parse, it should also come with a caveat: DO NOT try this at home, or anywhere else.
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The day after Brian Kownacki etched his name into the cyberpedia of weird and memorable plays, Fred DeJesus and his partners were back to laboring on other fields in familiar obscurity, umpiring not for the gelt or the glory but for the pure love of the game. While Kownacki was being elevated to a dizzying level of fame few would have forecast for him twenty-four hours earlier, Freddie was cheerfully plying his trade at a Kutztown@Adelphi contest out in Garden City, Long Island. But that's the way it is with umpires, and the way it should be.