Triple Crown Sports is now several months deep in establishing the Protect the Game umpiring initiative, where veterans of US military branches are brought into high-rigor training to become umpires for youth baseball and softball.
The shrinking pool of officials has become a profound concern throughout youth sports; behavior changes from parents and coaches are driving qualified officials away, while also discouraging new ones from signing up. From a million miles away, the problems are undeniable, and Protect the Game is hoping to bring veterans (who often need a foothold upon their return to civilian life) into the loop as a potential solution.
Early in August, a training session at the TCS home office in Fort Collins, Co., included the wise perspective of Jim Evans, who was an MLB umpire for 28 years and worked in four World Series, three All-Star Games and multiple postseason series. An author, speaker and longtime instructor with stops around the globe, Evans spoke with PTG director Jordan Cohen during a separate umpire training session in Chicago where Evans agreed to share his insights with the vets.
To begin with, Evans agrees treatment of umpires in the youth market has decomposed rapidly.
“I think it’s a cultural problem. There seems to be a lack of respect for authority; it seems to be generational,” Evans said. “The parents aren’t being very good role models for their kids. It goes much deeper than Little League baseball – that’s what I’ve seen over the course of four decades.”
A former National Guardsman and captain in the Army Reserves, Evans appreciates how a military background might positively connect to the world of calling balls and strikes. His proudest possession is the flag presented to him and his family at the funeral of his father, a WWII veteran.
“I think for recruitment of officials, that veterans are a pretty good place to start. They have respect for authority and self-discipline, they foster teamwork. I think Triple Crown is on to something here as they try to recruit them,” he said. “This also provides an avocation for them; some of the guys coming back recently from Iraq and Afghanistan have some problems when they get out, and they need some kind of connection. That’s what umpiring is; teamwork, work as a crew, no one is an independent contractor, just the same as the military.”
While the training at Protect the Game certainly hits on how and where to stand, how you stand up to the inevitable disagreements with a call is a critical piece of success. In Evans’ experience, most umpires are in it for the love of the game, the passion they feel, and it’s a commitment. They don’t want to make mistakes.
“Anytime you have a close call, you won’t make everyone happy, and you must deal with criticism whether it’s fair or unfounded,” Evans said. “Training is so important; I’ve been to Japan 25 times, Europe nine times, and the problems are universal. It’s human nature, with very competitive, people want to win, and you always have a scapegoat with the umpire. It’s an important role, and we are often unfairly criticized.”
The training and “bonus” presence of Evans worked nicely for Tim Hosey, 57, who lives in Colorado Springs and retired as a Master Sergeant in the Army after 26 years in military service. Upon his wife’s suggestion he find some part-time work, Hosey tapped into his love and knowledge of baseball, having coached in The Arena club program and managed teams from 1984-2008.
“I love baseball, and it seemed like a natural fit for me to try umpiring,” said Hosey, who has already been contracted for umpiring work in south Denver. “I was just talking with some friends in Ohio; one has been an umpire for 40 years, one has been doing it since 1980s, and they said they have the same problem, having a hard time getting umpires for Little League and into high school.
“I thought it was fantastic training, and Jim Evans did a fine job, but all the guys were old ones like me. You should go for a younger market.”
Of course, umpiring in the youth ranks has been a job filled from the scrawniest 15-year-old doing summer rec programs to 60-somethings who know the rule book inside and out. Hosey mentioned the Army’s Soldier For Life Transition Assistance Program (a veteran outreach also found in other service branches), with a “number of individuals looking for employment, either part time or something while they go back to school,” he said. “That’s a ready crowd looking for opportunities throughout the United States.”
Evans would remind incoming vets that umpiring will be a test, but one that people with a military background will not find surprising.
“A mental toughness is involved; it’s one of the first things I look for. Once the game starts, there’s pressure you put on yourself … there’s more importance on Game 7 in the playoffs than in spring training, but it’s still three-strikes-you’re-out, nine innings, same job description,” he said. “You learn to control the hype and pressure you feel. The umpire’s worst enemy is surprise – that’s where training comes in, those survival skills.
“Is umpiring an art or science? It’s really both – getting proper angles, using your eyes properly, tracking pitchers and plays, reading cues, anticipating where plays could be headed and getting in position. Angle and distance – there’s a perfect place to be in for every play, and if the play breaks down, you make the proper adjustment … that’s all scientific. The art part is handling the situation after you make the call. They may not be happy with your decision; there are people skills required then. Sometimes you ignore what you hear, sometimes you acknowledge it, sometimes you issue a warning and sometimes you have to eject. That’s how you control your game.”
The next Protect the Game training sessions will be held Sept. 7-8 in Raleigh, NC; click HERE for more details