I've Gotta Be Armed: 5 Realities Of A Little League Umpire
It's hard to imagine a more thankless task than being a sports referee or umpire. At least 50 percent of the calls they make are going to upset somebody. And the moment you blow a call, the last 1,000 calls you got exactly right mean jack shit. Oh, and the job doesn't exactly make you rich. We sat down with a state-certified high school umpire from the Midwest to find out what it's like to make a whole stadium full of people hate you, day after day.
Enraged Fans Can Be Terrifying, And There's Not Much You Can Do
Having a 30-something dad threatening to rip your head off because you're ruining his third-grader's baseball career can be traumatizing, but most of the time, they'll back off with a little verbal warning. So why are they so nuts about little-kid sports, aside from being generally unhappy with their lives?
Well, I mean it literally when I say the third-grader's career. There are some parents out there (especially on the rich kid travel ball teams) who see their child as an investment. If that kid gets a shot at the big leagues maybe 10-15 years down the road, his parents are set for life. Even if all he lands is a college scholarship, that's still a ton of money they'll save. One dad specifically told me that the money he's spending on his kid right now to play high-level travel ball is money he expects to see back in the form of athletic scholarships.
"Three strikeouts? Looks like you've just lost Christmas gifts."
Basically, money talks, and the problem with amateur events is that the umpire doesn't have the power to do much more than verbally warn parents and crazy fans. If I'm working a higher-level game, like a high school or collegiate event, I might have the authority to eject a fan, but even that requires actually filing paperwork on the incident after the game, and that simply isn't worth the hassle. I'd much rather wait it out and later drink away the memory of your crazy, purple, screaming face.
One shot for every psycho dad who tells you to shoot yourself.
On the other hand, the only options left if a fan won't calm the hell down are to hope for intervention from somebody -- anybody at all -- or to call the police. I've never had to do it, but that's what the local umpire union advises. Some places like Florida have at least somewhat streamlined the incident reporting process, but after you submit the form, it's entirely out of your hands. Not to mention how you may have to deal with that team again later on, and as mad as that angry fan got at you before, they're going to be worse the next time.
So how bad can it get? Well ...
Many Of Us Carry Something For Self-Defense
The fan who's most scared me so far was a guy about three times my size -- a big 350-plus-pound dad whose hand-eye-coordination-challenged son was having a particularly bad night at the plate. Naturally, the blame rested squarely on me, my soon-to-be-dead grandmother, and my hooker girlfriend. After a few innings of hearing about it, I asked him to go to his car to cool off, and I think he did.
"That's your third hit since that screaming asshole father of yours left us alone. I'm sure it's a coincidence."
I was working the game alone, so afterward I made sure I walked back to my car with a group of coaches. I was taking off my pads when I heard Jumbo begin lumbering over in my direction and call out to me, "Hey Blue."
This was not going to be a friendly confrontation. I quickly pretended to be having trouble taking off my chest protector, and slid one hand over into my trunk to grab an aluminum alloy baseball bat I keep in there.
"Heads up, I swing better than your kid."
Fortunately, the guy's wife had sent him over to apologize. He was just there to hug it out with little old me, but that situation could've gone way worse. Yeah, please don't think that I carry the bat because I have fantasies about smacking loudmouths in the jaw. Twenty-three states have realized that parking lot assaults on sports officials are enough of a problem that they have enacted specific legislation pertaining to attacks on us. My state is not one of them.
I'm not the most fight-ready person out there, but I know of other officials who pack heat, or at the very least carry a knife for the express purpose of self-defense. My baseball bat was the closest I'll ever get (my knife was in the front seat), but I'd have used it if I'd needed to.
Because why should racing officials have all the gun-toting fun?
Oh, and keep in mind that these umpires they're screaming at are often kids themselves. I started doing this when I was 14, and I took the state High School Athletic Association certification course a few years later (minimum age: 16). A lot of us aren't grizzled veterans used to this kind of thing; you can get this job (even with certification) with one 24-hour course and a little field work. No, they don't teach you how to defend yourself if you're jumped by a drunken dad after his 10-year-old got called out at the plate.
Some Guys Seem To Think It's A Good Way To Meet Women
While a lot of the rec-league games go to the under-qualified teenagers I mentioned above, things like travel teams' games will often go to middle-aged guys in sort of low-paying day jobs who do umpiring on the side for extra money. Most often, they're schoolteachers or mailmen or other nice guys who legitimately enjoy working with kids. But regularly, I'll find myself working a game with a guy who'll make sure he takes nice care of the team with the most attractive moms.
The kid wasn't hustling, but the umpire sure was.
These guys seem to have read from some book that recommended umpiring children's sports as a prime pick-up opportunity. ("Women love a man who can make their child cry with a mere hand gesture! The chest pads make you look big and strong, like a bear!") One umpire I worked with tried to get me to observe a signal indicating that he'd noticed a really nice-looking mom in the stands. He'd pat his knees twice, and then pat his chest thrice. He'd then point to one side of the stands, and then hold up a number on his fingers, indicating on a scale of 1-10 how attractive he thought she was. Nobody would have any clue what was going on, because it looked like some stupid umpire shtick, but he wouldn't let the kids play until I'd given a response. This happened two or three separate times during the first few innings, until I guess he'd finally finished scanning the bleachers.
Either that or every woman there deduced what was happening and made light-speed trails for the parking lot.
This was not an isolated incident. Another ump once taught me to check the coach's ring fingers while establishing ground rules before the game. No ring on a dad/coach's fingers likely indicated a divorced mom in the stands somewhere. It should be noted that I was around 15 at the time, years away from having any (realistic) thoughts about divorced moms. It's like he looked at me behind the plate and thought, "Oh yeah, we all know why that kid's here. Don't worry, there's plenty of MILF for all of us!"
Nobody Has Any Clue How to Deal With Injuries (So I Have To Do It)
Considering how often there are injuries in baseball, particularly in kids' leagues, an astonishingly low number of moms know how to do anything beyond apply a Band-Aid. That's better than a lot of dads, whose solution to scrapes is often to rub dirt in the open wound. I cannot tell you how many times I've seen this and had to lend a kid my water bottle to wash it out. Is this the kind of nonchalance toward blood that you develop as a parent?
"You got a Band-Aid AND a back pat, but your head wound is still gushing? You're on your own."
What's even worse is that, thanks to both the control issues of amateur pitchers with tired arms and the lovely example set by professional ballplayers with vendettas, kids take a lot of pitches to the head. Yeah, they're wearing helmets, but this is what a typical helmet looks like on a kid:
He might as well donate his brain to science now, for all the good it's about to do him.
That piece of plastic is wobbling all over the kid's skull. Parents buy helmets with the mentality of "He'll grow into it," and eventually he does (I still fit in the helmet my parents bought me in first grade), but that thing only does so much against concussion protection. I've seen kids fall to the ground from a pitch, and usually a coach just tells the kid to "Walk it off" and head to first base, which is the opposite of what you should do.
No eight-year-old can take a 40-50 mph pitch to the head and not cry at least a bit. Their pain tolerance isn't developed that high yet, so I taught myself to give brief concussion tests through tears, which is a different animal with children compared to adults. I'd ask coaches to keep the kid out for at least a full inning and give them some instructions on care so that I could monitor the kid while I officiated the damn game.
"Alright, let's get some dirt on it. Ump said not to, but he's also not a doctor."
Of Course We Screw Up Calls (Yes, Sometimes On Purpose)
In probably 95 percent of games after I got certified, I was working more than five miles outside of my hometown. I had pretty much no connection to any of the teams I was officiating, so I was able to stay impartial. But if I'm being honest, there were definitely times I got sort of mentally invested in what was going on. And look, we make probably over a hundred calls per game -- statistically, we're going to screw at least one up. And a lot of it is unconscious.
This was harder for me, especially at the beginning when the kids were younger. You can't help but take pity on some of the ones who are openly struggling to even lift a bat. Occasionally I'd let a kid take a "pity walk" to first, just so he has the experience of being on base, but only if the pitches were close. I'd say 99 times out of 100, it wasn't going to impact the final result, so I would let the struggling kid have the borderline calls.
You can see similar pity walks on TV whenever someone officiates a Miami Marlins game.
I think the worst problem here was the Mercy Rule. This will end the game if one team has, say, a 10-run lead after five innings. Umpires aren't supposed to keep track of score, but we can definitely tell when one team is really getting the shit kicked out of them (or there's, you know, a scoreboard somewhere). If it gets to be the third inning and the run limit has been met for an inning or two, you'll realize you might be able to get out of work early that day, and you might call the game accordingly.
"OUT! Because Game Of Thrones ain't gonna watch itself, that's why."
You have to be fair, but you might give a borderline call at home plate a call of "safe!" out of a subconscious desire to reach that 10-run limit faster. It's almost nicer of you to put a team out of their misery for an afternoon rather than let one team pile it on. Hey, sometimes fairness means bending the rules a little. Just make sure you've got a weapon stashed afterward.
Isaac has seen more musical theater performances than World Series games. Follow him on Twitter or check out his blog.
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