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MLB Catchers Should Say ‘Thank You’ When the Umps Give Them Balls

Courtesy may not get you the big endorsement deals, but it's the right thing to do.

Lesly Juarez / Unsplash

I'm still figuring out whether I actually like watching baseball specifically, or whether I just enjoy staring at extremely repetitive behavior on a grand stage, a kind of live-action screen saver that acts as a brain balm in troubled times.

One of the many baseball game routines that I noticed watching the Mets the other night, is the motion of the home plate umpire reaching into one of the two jaunty black bags attached to his hips, pulling out a fresh baseball, and gently depositing it into the waiting glove of the catcher, who then tosses it to the pitcher so it can be thrown, and hit, and replaced again.

Something like 120 baseballs are used in an average game. But here’s my question: Does the catcher ever say thank you when the umpire gives them a fresh ball? If not, they should start. 

This isn't a defense of umpires or their umpiring, which has been somewhat atrocious as of late. In fact, one thing that makes baseball special is that players and coaches get to scream into the faces of umpires for like, 15 minutes, if they're willing to be ejected. 

Screaming at people is as all-American as baseball itself, but it has to take place against a background of basic courtesy. This is a call to bring a little unexpected civility back into America's game, to subtly but meaningfully elevate it from an assembly line of Moneyball'd cogs into a group of human beings on a field of earth, and grass, and collaboration. Plus, it's just the right thing to do. Think about it: When was the last time someone handed you anything, and you didn't say "thank you"?

You thank a server when they refill your water. Well, these umps are refilling the game, hundreds of times a night, thousands of times a year, pulling out a seemingly endless supply of balls like some kind of masked and muscular Strega Nona, receiving armfuls of balls from the bat boys and bat girls and jamming them back into his oversized pockets, all so the catcher can then throw a fresh ball back to his pitcher. 

It is a simple and monotonous task, but at such a scale, it is significant. Those, uh, ball sacks are undoubtedly bulky, and probably heavy too. No one enjoys being saddled with this kind of administrative burden, and the umpire bears it silently, one warm leather ball after another. 

One counterargument for this kind of courtesy is that it could potentially delay the game. But no reasonable person would insist that the catcher turn around to face the umpire every time he gives thanks. A simple grunt or wave of the hand would convey all that needs to be said—after all, this is the very language the umpires themselves use to communicate with the players.

There is of course the danger that this gesture would itself turn into another one of the game's silly tics, tossed around like so many sunflower seeds from calloused lips. And to return to the water glass analogy, there are times at dinner when I am drinking so much water, and the server is refilling and refilling, and the very act of saying "thanks" becomes patronizing and frankly, a little weird. In these instances, it's OK to go without because you've paid your respects earlier in the meal. Can these catchers (and pitchers for that matter) say the same?

Attendance is down across the league this summer, and Major League Baseball is experimenting with new kinds of rules and challenges and timers and all sorts of novelties. How about trying the one thing that never goes out of style: kindness.  

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