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Baseball rulebook not short on nuance

Baseball rulebook not short on nuance

Major League Baseball is holding its first-ever Umpire Camp in Long Beach, Calif. Steve Gilbert, who covers the D-backs for MLB.com, is taking part and will be writing a daily diary of his experiences.

LONG BEACH -- The Major League rulebook is relatively short by book standards; it's the size of a 5-by-8 index card and 104 pages.

However, it's anything but an easy read.

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Each day here, we've gone over a few rules and though the copies they gave us supposedly are written in English, it may as well be a foreign language. It reminds me of one of those legal documents you begin reading and about a paragraph in you feel like the sole purpose of the language being used is to keep lawyers in business.

"It's a mess," one of the veteran big-league umpires said during our opening session.

And in some places, it contradicts itself.

We've all heard the phrase "the tie goes to the runner." Is it true? Yes. And, well, no.

Rule 6.05j states that "a batter is out when after a third strike or after he hits a fair ball, he or first base is tagged before he touches first base." OK, so the tie really does go to the runner.

Now when you flip ahead to rule 7.08e it states that "any runner is out when he fails to reach the next base before a fielder tags him or the base..." So, the tie doesn't go to the runner in that situation.

The point is that while it's important to know the rules, one of the most valuable things an umpire can posses is good judgment and the ability to react to a situation that is not covered specifically in the book and, perhaps, one he might not have seen before.

Umpire Tim Tschida, a veteran of over 20 years in the Majors, said that it was once determined that in a ballpark with standard dimensions, there were 2.6 million possibilities that could happen when a pitch is thrown. So you really have to appreciate the ability of these guys to think on their feet, react and make quick judgments when they're faced with unique situations.

Paul Nauert is without a doubt one of the best teachers of the rulebook and the two-man umpire manual that we have here. All you have to do is take a look at his copy of the rulebook to realize how many times he's been through it. The pages are dog eared, and it is filled with highlighted passages, notes in the margins and cross references from one rule to the next.

We spent this morning going over the umpire's responsibilities with runners on first and third and runners on second and third, which leaves only the bases loaded situation yet to be covered.

It's a lot to remember, and it will be interesting to see how much of it I can remember when I'm on the field for Friday's game.

One person who is definitely looking forward to being out on the field is Dustin Tibbitts. Tibbitts says that when he watched baseball as a kid, he was always fascinated by the umpires and found his eyes following them around the diamond.

Then, after a game at the Astrodome a number of years ago, he and his father ran into veteran umpire Harry Wendelstedt and Eric Gregg in the parking lot. They stopped to talk and share some stories and it made an impression.

Now, years later, Tibbitts is here to hone his skills before heading to Wendelstedt's camp in January and -- he hopes -- a pro job next summer.

My day was a little bit different because MLB.com's Ben Platt showed up with his film crew. They're putting together some video to go with this daily diary, and you should see it posted in the next few days.

I did my work in the cage today with Tim Timmons again. When we got done, he told me, "If you could teach me to write as well as I've taught you to umpire, I'd win a Pulitzer Prize." I'm not sure if he was complimenting me on my umpiring or making a statement on his teaching abilities, but I'm guessing the latter.

The Q&A sessions at night with the big-league umps are a fascinating mix of anecdotes and advice. Thursday night, Jerry Layne, Larry Young and Jeff Nelson talked about the pressure involved in umpiring during the playoffs.

Layne worked his first World Series in 2005 and was behind the plate for Game 3. You might remember that one, it lasted 14 innings and 5 hours, 41 minutes. Imagine having to concentrate fully for that long of a period of time knowing that a worldwide audience is watching.

"I was completely spent after that," Layne said.

I have a feeling I might feel that way after Friday's live game. OK, so I'll only be working a half-inning behind the plate. I'm pretty sure it's going to feel a lot longer.

Steve Gilbert is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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