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College Baseball Has an Umpiring Issue That Needs to be Addressed

What is an umpire's job? What is the NCAA doing to grow the game? If you ask an umpire, they will tell you that their job is to make correct calls. If you watch some of those same umpires, their actions will tell you a completely different story. While college baseball media and fans have embraced "growing the game" off the field, the legislation that polices the game on it seems to contradict those efforts.

Major League Baseball ran a campaign beginning in 2018 with the tagline “Let the Kids Play.” MLB ran that campaign to address the narrative that baseball was a dying sport, ran by traditionalists who pushed down the new school, modern era of baseball. While MLB has fully embraced the flair, swag, and style the younger generation plays with, the NCAA has put its foot down and gone in the other direction.

The NCAA’s mission statement is to, “Provide a world-class athletics and academic experience for student-athletes that fosters lifelong well-being". Despite their mission, college athletics as a whole has never been in more danger. College baseball has been growing in viewership at a significant rate despite the NCAA has enacting rules and regulations counteracting the elements that drew new fans to the game we love. Furthermore, umpires have seemed to overstep, cracking the whip both inappropriately and prematurely; is this a product of ego or a result of stingy legislation? Either way, the impact has been noticed nationwide.

George Walker IV /

The 2022 college baseball season was one of the most watched seasons in history, and a big factor in that was the excitement and emotion that the players on the field played with on a nightly basis. The face of that movement in 2022 was the Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols embraced the villain role they were labeled with by the traditionalists whom took it personally when a Tennessee homerun would result in the donning of a fur coat and "daddy" hat on the player who hit it. Whether people loved them or hated them they tuned in to watch, sparking controversy, but one that was great for the game. The Volunteers were not alone in employing on-field props to celebrate home-runs. Some of the other celebrations included Virginia Tech’s home run sledgehammer, Oklahoma State’s stick horse and cowboy hat, and Pitt’s mini basketball hoop slam dunk celebration.

After the 2022 season, The NCAA implemented two new rule changes that were a slap in the face to both players and fans of the sport. The first modification states “After a home run, scoring play or at the end of a half inning, teams shall not bring celebratory props onto the field of play. Celebratory props must remain in the team dugout during competition.” Immediately, props were banned from the field of play. While they were still allowed in the dugout, a celebration hidden from plain sight limits fan inclusion and minimizes social media impact, which are crucial for a game looking to draw fans in 2022 and beyond.

The second rule change states “To change the heading of Rule 5-17 Verbal Abuse (Bench Jockeying) to be more inclusive of unsportsmanlike acts such as use of props, signs, bat flips near or toward opponents, etc.” The key part of that change to rule 5-17 is the designation of bat flips as unsportsmanlike.

These changes have now led us to the 2024 season. This season is less than a month old, but the ejections are already piling up. Umpires have taken it upon themselves to flex their muscles more and more in an attempt to ban fun. The combination of a traditionalist and power hungry governing body, paired with a group of umpires who seem to not take an interest in giving players and coaches any flexibility within those rules has been damaging to the growth created through these actions that have been embraced at other levels of the sport. Why are professionals granted more wiggle room than college athletes?

In week one of the 2024 season, Ole Miss traveled to Hawaii to play a four game series. Both teams showed up in a big way for Opening Day on Friday night. In the 8th inning, Hawaii went up 4-3 and with 2 outs had runners on 2nd and 3rd. Hawaii was threatening to stretch the lead and get their first win of the year. Junior infielder Jordan Donahue stepped to the plate and after working a full count, drew ball four. The walk to load the bases was a high leverage, high intensity moment in that ballgame and reasonably, Donahue showed some emotion by flipping his bat and yelling. Apparently this reaction was just too much for home plate umpire Mike Fichter because he immediately ejected Donahue. This opening day ejection set a clear precedent for umpires across the country.

The following weekend, Grand Canyon was hosting Nebraska for a four game series. Nebraska took the first two games and GCU won game three. On Sunday, GCU had a chance to even the series and improve to 6-2 on the season. Nebraska went up early, taking an 8-1 lead in the 3rd inning. GCU chipped away and cut the score to 8-4 in the 5th and had the bases loaded with nobody out. Left fielder Tyler Wilson jumped on a 1-1 fastball and hit a game tying grand slam. As soon as it was hit, everyone in the ballpark knew it was gone. Home plate umpire Jason Rogers noticed Wilson decided to take a few steps out of the box before flipping his bat up in the air. As soon as Wilson crossed home plate, Rogers ejected him. While it’s a good thing Rogers waited for the run to score before ejecting Wilson, the ejection was still egregious.

Just two days later in a midweek contest in Knoxville, the Vols were hosting High Point. Vols third baseman Billy Amick has been on a tear to start the year and that Tuesday game was no exception. In the 8th inning, Amick hit a solo shot down the left field line that cleared all three decks and traveled 409 ft. Amick seemingly admired his work just a little too long because umpire Nicholas Katchur took it upon himself to tell Amick to start running before issuing a warning to Tennessee. Despite this incident ending in just a warning, the warning felt unnecessary and outside of the scope of an umpire.

The fourth example of umpire interference came on March 3rd. Florida traveled to Miami for an early season rivalry matchup featuring two very good programs. Florida and Miami split the first two games and headed into a rubber match on Sunday. In the 4th inning, right fielder Ty Evans hit a solo homer to stretch the lead to 3-0. Just two pitches later left fielder Tyler Shelnut deposited another home run over the left field wall. Shelnut flipped his bat on the way to first base and home plate umpire Brian Miller took exception to the bat flip and ejected Shelnut.

This past weekend had a pair of ejections because an umpire’s feelings got hurt. The first came in Knoxville when Blake Burke hit a home run to right field and, in a game that had been played with a lot of emotion, Burke said something to Illinois catcher, Cam Janek. Janek, among others, had been talking quite a bit during the early innings of the game but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Illinois was fired up in a big environment against a top 10 team that generally welcomes some extracurricular behavior. After Burke’s words, Janek was seen pleading with home plate umpire Kevin Sweeney to eject Burke. Janek seemed to get his way as Burke Burke was ejected upon reaching the dugout. The ejection was unwarranted and it is one that would never be seen in any other sport besides baseball, which is also the sport that demands the most personality.

The second ejection of the weekend came in the 8th inning of a one-run ball game of the rubber match between top-ranked Wake Forest and 15th ranked Duke. The Blue Devils had a 9-8 lead in the bottom of the 8th. Wake had the bases loaded for Seaver King with two down in the inning. King has been the best hitter in the Wake lineup thus far and was in a position to retake the lead. Duke pitcher Owen Proksch threw a 92 mph fastball on the outside corner that looked to be strike three. Home plate umpire, Joshua Clark, called it a ball and in a moment of passion and emotion, Proksch yelled in the direction of his dugout. As seen across the country, umpires have taken stands against emotional outbursts. Clark took it upon himself to go after Proksch and begin yelling at him. Duke head coach Chris Pollard came screaming out of his dugout to protect his pitcher and was immediately ejected. The umpiring was not only egotistical, but it was downright horrendous in the biggest series of the year to this point.

There is an ongoing power struggle to inject more fun into the game and continue to grow a sport that has never received the attention it deserves. There are a lot of umpires who have situational awareness and understand the passions of college athletics, though just as many seem stuck on the rigidness of the rules enacted by the sport's governing body. The job of an umpire is to make calls and never be noticed, but many struggle with the anonymity aspect of umpiring. Whether you want to blame the NCAA for enabling terrible calls and ejections or blame the umpires for poorly enforcing the rules, one thing is clear: College baseball is a lot more fun when it is played with passion.


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