Youth Sports Reffing…I’ve Been There Man

I guess I’m going to try and make these nonfiction nonpublished (as opposed to unpublished which to me implies that they will eventually be published) pieces a regular thing.

If you peruse Deadspin, you probably came across this today where a father, holding an infant no less, threatens to beat the crap out of another kid’s dad.  This is sadly not unusual.

I umpired Little League Baseball for four years, from 2004-2006, and again in 2011.  It was a pretty natural fit, I had played for 13 years, coached or helped my sisters’ teams for most of them, and had actually read the rule book cover to cover before even training (seriously).  Add to that the pathetically lax qualifications standards (be 18, not a felon, and attend one two-hour training session), and the relatively good pay ($25 per game when I began, $35 per game when I left, and $40 for tournament games), and it became a no-brainer.

Our training consisted of two hours of the League’s commissioner talking at you interspersed with a series of shitty videos from the early 90s.  He had the worst voice too, the kind where you need to lean in to hear anything, only to find out that none of it is worth listening to.  He was, and is a good guy, but the Return of the King of sentences…seriously, find an ending and stop.

The League always started new umpires off in the lowest leagues which at that time were 8-10 year old boys baseball and girls softball.  There are pros and cons to this.

Pros:

  • Slowest pace of game-play
  • Expanded strike zone (because the kids aren’t good)
  • Newest and generally most congenial/least competitive coaches

Cons:

  • Slowest pace of game-play
  • The kids don’t know the game at all so you can never assume they’ll make the easiest or correct play.  A ground ball with no one on and the kid threw it to third base.  What the fucking fuck.
  • First age at which the kids pitch to each other.  The skill varies wildly from that one kid on each team that throws strikes 90% of the time, and the kid that couldn’t hit the plate with anything if you gave him command of the U.S. Air Force.  Calling walks is boring and it sucks.

Most of the parents and coaches are still in that “yay just have fun” mode so they’re not too hard to deal with.  Even if you do make a bad call, or a close call goes against them, they don’t get too up in arms over it.  But there were a few weirdos.

I had one guy whose kid was literally shaking every time he came up to the plate.  He’d plant his heels in the back corner of the batters box and just stand there every time.  To make matters worse, his overbearing helicopter Red Green looking father insisted on standing behind the backstop and giving him instructions during the at-bat.  It was infuriating, not so much for me because the guy was nice enough, but for his kid who didn’t have a chance in hell with his dad looming over him.  When I finally told his dad to go away because he was a distraction, the kid eased up a bit and started swinging the bat.  Go figure.

Some of these kids are just bad at the five senses.  I was doing a game where this kid swung the bat at a pitch that was coming straight at his chest, only saving himself by connecting with his fingers.  Two innings later the same kid did the exact same thing, this time with two strikes on him.  Well it doesn’t matter what level, by rule that is a strike, and this kid just happened to get strike three while rolling on the ground crying and clutching his mangled hand.  I expected to get a ration of shit for this, but the coach was basically like, “that’s what you get, good call ump, let’s get an icepack.”  Some parents are cool.

Contrast that with a guy who had the audacity to track me down after a game and tell me, “it was a shame that the game (of 8-10 year old girls) couldn’t be decided by the players instead of the ump.”  It was like, dude, you just scored only 7 runs in a sport where most of the opposing players couldn’t field the ball if you put it on a string and tied the other end to their wrist.  I just watched the disaster and yelled occasionally.

At least I wasn’t the poor old wine loving bastard that had gotten assaulted with a soda by a parent from an inner city team at a tournament game a few years previous.  Seriously, the cops got called to a Little League game in a town of 7,000 people in upstate New York.  FOR EIGHT YEAR OLDS.

Most of the umps did multiple games too.  I had one Saturday where I had to cover for another ump so I got hit with three in a row.  It was in the 80s in the early morning, but it didn’t stay that way.  When the third game started at one o’clock and the temperature crept into the triple digits, I said through a waterfall of sweat, “I’ve been here for four hours.  If it’s anywhere near the plate I’m calling it a strike and you better not screw around getting your catchers ready between innings.”  They were fine with this, and the heat exhaustion was worth it.  Being just out of high school when the minimum wage was $5.25, $75 for just under six hours of work wasn’t bad.

The parents only get worse as the kids get older.  The next few levels of play are the Little League World Series ages, and even though no one from our small town was or is ever going to even make a regional tournament, every parent thinks their child is a superstar waiting to blossom.  Regardless of a call’s correctness, I heard it from the losing bleachers (set right behind the fence) every single game which I knew just dug at some umpires.  I figured well if that makes them feel any better, then fine so long as they’re not being a disruption.

The only guy I ever ejected was from the Majors level, the best of the 11-12 year olds.  The guy was a firecracker and I generally think that’s a good thing because the kids deserve someone who gives a shit.  Some of those guys know exactly where the line is, and you’ll never see them madder than they get at one of their own for arguing with an ump.  Unfortunately, this guy encouraged it, you know, when he wasn’t doing it himself.

It was a tie game that had gone into extra innings.  In the top of the 9th (out of six), his kid loaded the bases and then proceeded to walk in the two (eventual) winning runs with Helen Keller pitches.  When the second came in, I knew he was going to go ballistic, and I let him state his case.  Sadly it was the usual uninteresting crap, “blah blah terrible call, blah blah balls and strikes,” whatever.  The guy was mad on behalf of his kid and I get it.  It was when I tried to move the game along and he continued yelling that stuff, from on the field no less, that I had a problem with it.  I told him if he said anything else he was in danger of getting ejected.  He snarled, “good!” and I kept my promise.

Unfortunately to him I was a figure of authority when his team was winning, and when they were losing, I was just some punk kid that he didn’t have to listen to, so he refused to leave the area, continuing his tirade from the dugout.  Luckily the guy had been flagged before and several other umpires had been watching, not intent on letting one of their young go unsupported if the guy went off.  When confronted, he decided it was perhaps best if he retired to his vehicle.  That was the last game he ever coached, so it was kind of like watching Gretzky go out.  You know, if he had been a nobody and an asshole.

I didn’t do many of the older leagues on the big diamond because they were either part of the local travel league and had their own umpires, or the more established league umpires got preference.  Which was fine by me, give me a six (instead of seven) inning game on a smaller field any day of the week.  The few I did were interesting though, because that’s when the kids start talking to you.  Pitchers and catchers loved me because, as a former pitcher, I called a ton of strikes.  I knew how to read pitches so I didn’t get confused if a curve or a knuckleball broke out of the strike zone late.  And you’re left with the ones that are there because they want to be, not because mom or dad thought it would be good for them.

There was one coach – son combination that I’ll always remember.  The guy had a reputation for mouthing off at every single call, and the kid had a reputation for not putting up with any of it.  The guy was a hassle, but the team produced such gems as:

Dad (after a strikeout) – That’s okay, two of those weren’t strikes.

Kid – Dad, I swung at them…

or my personal favorite…

Dad – (after a ball) – WHERE THE HELL IS YOUR STRIKE ZONE?!

Kid (catching) – DAD SHUT UP THAT WAS A BALL!

Ah, good times.  Like I said, it was good pay and relatively easy work since I didn’t have trouble tuning out the wackos.  As for the guy in the video…chill out, you’re not standing up for your kid, you’re embarrassing him.

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About Alex

I am awesome.

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