Stan Voit: Umpiring for amateur games fun experience

Feb. 18, 2013 @ 12:51 AM


The Pigeon Forge Parks and Recreation Department has been advertising in our paper for umpires, and each time I see it I am reminded of my own experience as an umpire for youth baseball and adult softball.

I don’t remember how I got involved, but for several years in the 1980s and early 1990s I wore the blue, bought a mask and chest protector — and a cup — and worked games in the heat of summer and the cool dampness of spring.

I worked with people really dedicated to doing good work, to knowing the rule book and taking the games seriously. I worked with fools who were in it for the money they got for each game. I worked under a supervisor who favored certain people and gave them more games than their skills deserved.

I dealt with loud and obnoxious coaches and fans. I don’t ever remember a young player causing trouble; it was always the adults. Yet overall I do not ever recall an unpleasant time, unless it was a bad call I made that stayed with me throughout the game and even into other games.

It must be hard to recruit umpires for youth sports these days. Maybe I should say good umpires. You can always find somebody to call balls and strikes and work the bases. The trick is getting somebody who will learn the rules and project command of the game. If a coach even of a youth team senses weakness in an umpire, he’ll work them good throughout the season.

I did learn the rules, although memorizing them is only half of it. Applying the rules is the trick. I never, ever carried the rule book with me during a game. You don’t want to be seen looking up something in the fourth inning of a tie game, even if a coach questions your knowledge.

The Pigeon Forge ad says the pay ranges from $15 to $30. That seems about what I was making 20-plus years ago. Nobody does it for the money. You do it because it’s fun.

Being an umpire of youth sports is quite a commitment. You need a job and an employer able to spare you evenings. You need to be in shape. Umpiring behind the plate is hell on knees and leg muscles, not to mention foul balls hitting your arm and other body parts.

You have to have thick skin, because even people you know will yell at you if they think you made a mistake. It’s funny, but every fan at a youth sports game is a good umpire from the stands, but only a few are willing to actually do it.

An umpire must be patient and accepting, because just like umpires vary in quality and skill, so too do coaches. To see a coach yelling and screaming at a child is unsettling to me, especially when it involves a meaningless baseball game few if any will ever remember. Kids play baseball for fun. Teenagers play for keeps.

Umps have to be part psychologist and part mediator. You can’t get through a game without somebody questioning a call or your overall judgment. The league officials have to back you up at every turn, and I have known some over the years who wouldn’t.

I once started a game involving teenager ballplayers and noticed the coaches for one team sitting outside the dugout. When I told them to get inside the dugout, they told me the league had given them special permission to be where they were. I declined all future assignments for that league.

I always enjoyed umpiring baseball, but I never grasped slow-pitch softball. I could never master the strike zone, with the ball coming in at such an arc. Fortunately everybody goes up to hit in that league; nobody waits for a walk or is afraid to swing as you sometimes find in youth baseball.

Umpiring amateur baseball is enjoyable, despite any unruly fans, the heat of a southern summer, the cost of buying your own equipment, the need to know different sets of rules, the unpredictability of a game played by kids, and the sheer physical toll it can take. In the end, you provide a needed service and help keep a game moving so kids can have a good time.

I wish I were still in shape to do it. But if you are and think you might be good at it, let them know in Pigeon Forge. We seem to have more than enough men and women willing to coach the teams, and there are plenty of kids who want to play. Having dedicated, conscientious umpires is an essential part of the equation as well.

Besides, it’s fun to yell out “Play ball!” Such power....

— Stan Voit is editor of The Mountain Press. His column appears each Sunday. He can be reached at 428-0748, ext. 217, or e-mail to Twitter: @stanvoit.