I have officiated literally thousands of baseball and softball games in my lifetime. I started when I was in college at the ripe old age of 19 years old and for the next several decades I still enjoyed the game so much, I put on my blue shirt, gray pants and grabbed my indicator and umpired when I could. When I left television in 2009, i joined the local TSSAA association to call high school baseball and softball games as well as ASA fast pitch softball. I was not a great umpire but I was fair and was always in control of my games. Very few coaches or fans complained about me calling their games but when I became too fat, too old and too slow to continue I retired and haven't looked back...the athletes on the field deserved better.
This past spring my former local umpires' association put just 38 umpires on the field for baseball That's down from more than 50 when I retired and down from close to 70 when I joined up in 2010.
If those numbers are not alarming, they should be. Baseball and softball participation continues to grow and grow on many different levels but finding good umpires is really getting to be a problem.
When I ask potential candidates or former umpires why they're not officiating anymore, the most often used excuse is, "I don't want to take the abuse from coaches and fans." This is a fixable problem, but contrary to popular opinion, the solution does not lie as much with the fans and coaches as one might think.
The pay for umpires is actually pretty good and is outstanding now on some levels. So, what can be done to attract young men and women to this job? Training and support. Umpiring baseball and softball games is more than just knowing the rules or knowing how to call balls and strikes and the worst umpire scenarios I have witnessed could have been avoided with proper training. Here's a laundry list of how some bad situations that might have been completely avoided with some proper training and support.
1) Don't put an inexperienced umpire in a highly competitive tournament game. Tournament Directors, it is your job to adequately provide the personnel and facilities for the tournament. You should plan for this before you accept team fees and gate admissions. If you cannot do that, then you are not capable of hosting that tournament. It is unfair to the kids who play, but it also is unfair to that kid you put out there, who may someday grow to be a great umpire, but after being put in a position that he is unable to handle, that young umpire will just say, "forget it". The great Terry Cordell always preached that you treat every game you umpire like it is the seventh game of the World Series. It means that much to those kids playing three games on 90-degree summer afternoons.
2) Train that umpire to BE IN POSITION. If the umpire is in position, fans have less of an argument over a play because the umpire was in a much better position to SEE the play than the coach or fan disputing the call. This is huge. Real world? A few umpires either don't move or don't know where to be in position to make the call. For many, it is not a lack of desire to do the right thing, it is a lack of training.
3) Appearance matters. Properly trained umpires know this and pay attention to this. I immediately make an assessment of an umpire's worth when he walks on the field based on his attention to detail to his uniform. I have seen umpires not wearing a belt, shirts half in/half out, shirts stained with what I hope was ketchup, a non regulation cap, etc. And I am not talking about rec league ball. I am specifically referring to big money making tournaments where teams pay hundreds of dollars to play. If one umpire has a blue shirt and the other is wearing a gray one, that tells me we're about the get the "budget" crew and that's never a good thing. The umpire immediately is at a disadvantage. Training and support can change this. Greed will allow it to continue.
4) Game management. So how do you train the umpire to handle that absolutely disrespective loud mouth in the crowd or in the dugout? Let's go back to training and support. You train umpires to use two criteria to determine the response. First of all, are you being called out by name and is it personally derogatory? There's a big difference between "C'mon Blue" and "Blue, you suck!". I might ignore the first one. Depending on the situation, I would probably talk to the head coach about the second. An experienced umpire once told me to "lose the rabbit ears"...that means don't listen to the crowd until it crosses the line. The second criteria is language. A fan yelling that a disputed call is a "sh** show" at a youth tournament is intolerable and when the umpire acts, he needs to know the tournament staff is capable and willing to support his actions. The umpire has power, but needs to feel confident in how to use it. Mouthy fans and coaches get the message quickly about who is in control of the game. It needs to be a well qualified, competent umpire.
This past weekend I saw and heard more complaints about umpiring youth baseball games than I have ever seen. Men in blue were called "dishonest and corrupt." They were also called "inept" and "unprofessional." That hurt me deeply to read that but I also saw with my own eyes what they were talking about. Older men who should have retired years ago were umpiring games all weekend wearing the same ill-fitting clothes that looked as if they never saw a washing machine. I appreciate their effort because they may have been all the tournament director could find to officiate. But the kids deserve better.
Training and Support. Each and every youth organization in this city needs to actively recruit young umpires both male and female. It shouldn't stop there however. When they're recruited, they need to be trained and I find that's one of the biggest problems. Paying umpires to attend a winter training camp would help. Properly training these young folks to be in position, to look and act in a professional manner is every bit as important as knowing the rules of the game. I know the rules of the game. I am no longer capable to umpire.
To those 38 TSSAA umpires who struggled through this past high school season, make yourselves available to help recruit and train young umpires. Hold clinics and teach positioning and proper mechanics not just for high school sports but for all the youth athletic associations out there. Make umpiring a desirable job once again because the future of officiating baseball and softball games is at stake. Umpires are never going to win the popularity contest...it is the nature of the job. But if you love the game and believe it is important to make sure that young men and women have an opportunity to learn and compete, then you are needed...desperately needed. Contact me. I will help you find your "position" in the game. On a final note, I salute those officials who do it right. You make a world of difference. Thank you.
Randy Smith can be reached at email@example.com