Glendora, CA: Keeping kids interested in playing the game of baseball is hard enough with all the distractions of other sports that they can play. Add the fact that the cost of being involved with travel baseball is so high, it has driven many good athletes, who’s family’s can’t afford the travel ball circuit, to other less expensive sports. Baseball is losing too many good players to these other sports. The amateur level is where major league stars are born and without them, there is no game. It is the lifeblood of baseball. And now a new problem is coming at the game faster than a toupee in a hurricane.
This week I spoke to recently retired NYS HOF umpire Joe Grady, a 48 year veteran official in baseball, football, wrestling and soccer. A past president of the Western Suffolk Baseball Umpires Association for 28 years and a board member of the NY State Baseball Umpires Association that is the governing body of all High School baseball in the state. Needless to say, he is the foremost authority on officiating.
I had sent him a picture of an advertisement I had seen here in California on a backstop of one of my granddaughter’s 12 U softball games. It stated that you can earn $500 a weekend umpiring. I told him that I had never seen that before. He told me that, “It is getting harder to find umpires at every level of amateur baseball in NY State and Long Island and it is happening across the entire country as well.”
Mr Grady states that, “Little League baseball has gone the way of travel teams that keep both parents tied up all week. With pitching, hitting lessons and team practices during the week and games every weekend, there is no time to get involved with becoming an umpire.” He also stated that, “With Covid we saw many umpires unable to do games and when restrictions were lifted many called it quits. Leaving a void that has had associations scrambling to get games covered.”
We discussed how it takes umpires many years to become good officials. They have to keep up with rule changes and updating their equipment including uniforms and plate equipment. And now traveling has become an issue as we have seen gas prices jumping through the roof. So why is this a problem for baseball?
Here is why. All of this has a toll on young kids who are working hard to advance to the next level every year. When you get to high school ball the quality of the umpiring is critical. It could be the difference of getting a scholarship to a division 1 school or a sub division school. The ability of umpires to make good calls at that level is so important for players who are trying to impress a college or pro scout.
Grady made a point that, “Pitchers at this level throw harder and have more movement on the ball.” And that, “Umpires have to do hundreds and even thousands of games to be able to recognize these pitches as balls or strikes. It is not something that can be done that easily or learned over night.”
He explained that “Base umpires have to know the correct position to be in to make those close calls at every base. Most games at the HS level are done with two umpires who have to cover a larger playing field than a four or three man crew and learning all of that takes years of doing games. Because of that they all attend clinics throughout the year to learn new techniques that will make them better umpires. It’s a lot of work and takes time.” Something we are finding we don’t have a lot of today.
Grady stated that, “Knowing the rules and being able to issue a ruling is not that easy either. You can’t just pull the rule book out of your pocket on the field and expect everyone to wait for you to look up a rule. All HS federation umpires have to pass a 100 question test on the rules and situations every calendar year. There are rules changes that have to be explained and members must attend a required amount of meetings to keep in good standing with the HS sections and the association.” All of this stuff is a lot to take in for a new umpire and other umpires have told me that if a person is in it for just the money they will struggle and not last long.
Good veteran umpires are retiring faster than new ones are joining. Recruiting new umpires is one thing but keeping veterans in these associations is becoming a bigger problem. Joe said that membership in his association has gone from a one time high of 162 members to a little over 80 today.
This may not seem like a problem for some people but the bottom line is, you can’t play the game without umpires at any level and if you can’t play a lot of games you can’t develop good players who fill big stadiums.
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