Umpiring with rubber baseballs in Xi’an, China

Wed 28 Aug 2019

British baseball umpire Thomas Haywood, a member of BaseballSoftballUK’s LGBT Panelhas recently returned from umpiring at the Under-18 International Rubber Baseball Organisation (IRBO) Tournament in Xi'an, China, home of the world-famous Terracotta Warriors.  Thomas takes up the story:

Once the tournament was confirmed there was a lot of visa application bureaucracy to get round.  In two months flat, the hosts had built two full-size baseball fields side-by-side using astro-turf (on a concrete base) with full-sized backstops, cut-outs and foul poles.  Prior to that it had been farmland!

Having said that, there had been a few construction short-cuts taken (e.g. no drainage in one of the cut-outs on one field).  We arrived at the field on the day before the tournament began to find a few finishing touches being completed.

At the start of the tournament there were two teams from China, the Under-18 National Teams from Korea and Chinese Taipei, plus teams from Hong Kong and Singapore.

The umpires came from the USA (two former Minor League umpires, Luke and Brian), Singapore (Matthew), Chinese Taipei (Brian), Finland (Tony), the Netherlands (Jules), Malaysia (Winson and Aman) plus me, Thomas from Scotland.  These umpires were to be supplemented by some local Chinese umpires of whom at the time little was known.


The format of the tournament allowed for play on both fields, with two or three games a day of two hours maximum duration, each using a four-umpire system -- though this was often extended to a six-umpire system because the Chinese umpires were keen to participate!

One umpire who shone above his Chinese colleagues was Max.  Apparently, he had learned from reading and by watching videos on the internet on how to umpire.  His English was very good too.  He was extremely keen to learn from us and to umpire.

The organisers were soon persuaded to let him umpire with us despite the fact that he was supposedly there just to video some of the games.  Umpiring is a brotherhood: we look after our own!


Then there was the weather, a very British talking point!  During the day it was generally a constant 33 degrees C and 23 degrees at night, but on the second day of the tournament the whole day was lost to rain.

A normal western approach would be to shunt games around to make up time and everyone would be happy.  The Chinese answer: disqualify one of the Chinese teams!  To say that the designated team was annoyed was putting it mildly!  But it's a cultural thing: in China, things are often dictated to you and you don't have an option.

The shame was that this second Chinese team was actually quite good.  As a consolation, they were allowed to play against the Chinese Taipei team, which turned out to be a very good exhibition game.

The tournament

The strong teams in the tournament turned out to be Korea, Taipei and the Chinese team that had been allowed to remain in the competition.  Singapore and Hong Kong sadly did not have the pitching or the quality of fielding needed.  Games against these last two teams tended to be lop-sided.

Rubber baseballs are hollow like a tennis ball.  They do not give a crack when hit by a bat; more like a dull "boof" sound and they do not fly as far.  Often, when they are hit by the bat, they can really spin, so the umpires have to trust the reactions of the players (on hit by pitch etc) and have to wait until the ball has spun in the direction it wants to go.

In all other aspects the tournament was played to OBR rules, and it was won by Chinese Taipei in a closely-fought final against China.  Korea came third.

It was a really good experience.  The umpires took the chance to explore the city of Xi'an, and there were certainly some really good shopping bargains to be had!

The Chinese did not waste time using the new facility after the IRBO tournament.  They hosted the Under-18 National Championships there two days later -- a 10-day tournament!

Photos from the tournament can be seen here and photos from the Xi’an Terracotta Warriors can be seen here.  

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