As surely as an umpire's word is law, on the next 10 close plays you see at first base where the ball clearly beats the runner, the umpire is going to call the runner out and everybody will be satisfied. Just as surely, they shouldn't be. In at least seven out of 10 of those plays the runner will be safe—definitely and unassailably safe. The reason: the first baseman took his foot off the bag a split second before either ball or runner got to him.
The observation was first made to me by an accredited, card-carrying umpire in the Open Classification Pacific Coast League. When he said it, I should have been shocked. I was a fellow umpire working in the same league. I wasn't shocked though, and now that I have had time to think it over I probably know the reason why. Watch first base closely and you will probably figure it out too. And the same applies to the steal down to second, and quite frequently to the double play.
Take the steal. The catcher's peg gets down there first, the tag is on, and the umpire's right fist makes the short pumping motion that means out. Yet the chances are excellent the man was not out. The umpire knows it, the second baseman knows it, even the runner knows it—but does not, for reasons I will get to in a second, protest.
For "tag" in this instance is a misnomer for the tagging motion. The rules state that the ball must make contact with the sliding runner. Common sense states that it had better not.
Similarly, in the case of the double play, the rule book has it that the baseman must be on the base and in possession of the ball simultaneously to effect the force at second. But if you think umpires always insist on strict compliance with this regulation, you must suspect us of a sadistic streak even baser than the one you accord us as a matter of course. Because the rule book, although fundamentally an admirable document, offers no provision for the first baseman who, as a consequence of his thorough lawfulness, has his foot maimed by descending spikes. Nor does it make mention of what or how often the wife and children of the shortstop (or second baseman) eat while he hobbles around on severed tendons.
Umpiring is by its very nature an arbitrary and dictatorial calling. An umpire is 1) rrright!, 2) the boss. In fact, it can't very well be any other way. But within this seemingly inflexible framework there are certain tacit agreements that, while they may upset the purists, are no more than practical applications of mercy and reason to justice. Thus, while it may be so that seven out of 10 out calls on close plays at first or second are miscalls, the umpires are morally without flaw. That is to say that the ball did beat the runner, which is the point the rule makers had principally in mind in the first place, and the baseman still is saved inestimable wear and tear.
Of course, if there is a flagrant violation of the letter of the law, if the first baseman meets the throw halfway to the pitcher's box or the man covering second elects to make no production whatever of his tag, that's different. A safe call is mandatory then. To my mind anyway, there must be a strong approximation of reality. If a player dogs his role in the ballet, he has waived his right to what I would call decent negligence on our part.
AN ACT OF NEGLIGENCE
It is on negligent acting, incidentally, that you get a rhubarb from the runner. I imagine each of you has at least once had the experience of watching a runner slide under a tag, yet accept the out verdict without a word. Perhaps you don't know why. How is it, you may ask, that this fireball who'll climb down an umpire's throat over a questionable third strike will still decline to make an issue over a tag that missed him by six inches.
The answer lies in the key word to all good and fair umpiring, and that word is "consistency." Consistency cannot be overemphasized. The point is that the base runner who is out even though he is safe knows that he is only complying with and being obedient to a code that ministers equally to all. In the next half inning, the very same call may be made on a rival, who will accept it with the same docility. If these unwritten and, except within scheming walls, unspoken understandings did not exist, legs and ankles would be chewed up within days. The fault, if fault there is, lies not with players or umpires but with the rules—or the assumption that these must be interpreted with hair-splitting exactness. Fortunately that assumption no longer exists. Call it what you will, winking at transgression or turning one's back on a niggling larceny, it works the same for both sides.