I’ve written something similar before, but I feel like I can do a better job and it seems to be a topic of interest on Twitter today so here we go. If memory serves, I umpired Little League baseball and softball from the ages of 18-21 and an extra year when I was 23 or so and between ‘real’ jobs. I had grown up playing baseball, at that point having put 13 years into Little League as a player, a few as an assistant coach, and several doing the odd bit of field maintenance. Most of the League officers knew me pretty well and my dad umpired occasionally so it seemed like a natural way to earn money during the summer.
At that point umpires were ‘reimbursed’ $25 a game, which later jumped to $30 and then $35 a game (these were in-house games, tournament and travel was different). When you’re years from a real job, $25+ for two hours worth of work is not bad money especially on busy weeks when you could get 4-6 games. I had played for years and, as a somewhat obsessive athlete, already read the rulebook a couple of times so I was in good shape to start. At that point our ‘training’ consisted of one two hour meeting with the Umpire in Chief along with one or two extremely crappy videos. So if your kid’s umpire sucks, it’s probably because 1). his training sucked, and 2). he doesn’t care as much as you do anyway. (It’s much better now and does a decent job of preparing umpire, but man that was useless.)
And really the best umpire training is simply umpiring games and learning what you need to do to be good at it on the fly. As such our first few games came in the lowest division, AA (8 and 9 year old baseball or softball) with a partner. (These games were typically umpired solo.) So my first game ever involved standing in the field partnered with an umpire that was notorious for not calling strikes in an age group that was notorious for not throwing a lot of strikes. It was a walk-fest. I think I made three calls the entire night and was pretty much bored and freezing my ass off all game. It was called on account of darkness with a score somewhere in the ballpark of 27-25. Yuck.
When you’re umpiring that age group it becomes clear pretty quickly that each team has maybe five kids that are actually good at sports at that age and probably another five that are out there because of their parents and hating every minute of it. Having a wide strike zone is your best friend (and at that level the league rule officially mandated an extra ball width on either side of the plate be a strike, which is insane, but whatever). Especially early. Oh god, it is amazing what one questionable strike in the first inning can do to a team. After that they’ll swing at EVERYTHING. (Side note: in the regular season there was one coach who told his kids to swing at every single pitch in the last inning. Best friends for life.)
That age group is also good for a new umpire because the kids don’t really care how good of a job you do and for the most part neither do the coaches. You’ll get the occasional parent that is an unrepentant jackass or trying to be Lou fucking Pinella behind the backstop while his kid is at bat, but for the most part the games are easy to manage and no one gives you too much shit. At one point I had three consecutive games on a Saturday in 95 degree heat. By the third game I told the coaches in the pregame meeting, I’ve been out here for four hours, your kids better swing the bats because anything remotely close is being called a strike. No one complained. (And in this day and age I feel like parents are less “I want my kid to be good at sports” and more “I want my kid to run around for two hours so they’re tired and less annoying at home.”)
That three-straight-games policy was always in effect with the 8 and 9 year old girls who, when tasked with a completely new way of propelling an object, were horribly inaccurate. (That’s not a sexist comment, that’s a “you just spent 3 years in T-ball and coach pitch only throwing overhand and now you have to learn this new thing” comment.) Plus, high arcing pitches from kids that can barely reach the plate just about destroys the entire concept of a strike zone. It’s more of a strike bucket that they land pitches in, really. “If you can reach it with the bat, it’s a strike.” Mercifully those games (boys and girls) had 5 run limits for all but the final inning, which they almost always hit unless the batting team loaded the bases and gave the defense a force-out anywhere, or the age-old tradition of half the runners having no idea what to do when a fly-ball is caught. Yes that is a triple play, thank you Jesus.
The next level up, AAA (good 9 year olds, 10 year olds, and bad 11 and 12 year olds) was easier from a baseball/softball standpoint, but more difficult in dealing with the coaches and parents. The players are better, the hitting and fielding is better, and for the most part they throw to the correct base cutting down on the moments when you have to duck because the third baseman decided to go home with a runner on first and no outs. (“I threw to that base last inning coach, why is it not okay now?”) But everyone starts to care more and have a higher stake in the outcome.
The best game I had came in this division where there were more good pitchers than good hitters. It was between the best teams and the best pitchers and before Little League’s asinine pitch count rules (all our pitchers are ineligible so we need to pitch little Billy who can throw 12 feet at a 45 degree angle to the left) so they both went complete games. Probably 90% of the pitches were completely uncontroversial no-brainer strikes, the final score was 2-0 and it ended in an hour and five minutes.
I was the youngest umpire by probably at least five years, and usually twenty plus, but that also meant I was the most athletic (and the most relatable to the kids). When you’re doing a game alone on a diamond with sixty foot basepaths, it is essential to move around. Not just because it gives you a better view to make a call, but if the coaches and kids see you hustling and making calls from half the distance of the other guys, they give you a LOT less shit. There were coaches that didn’t like me, either because I had “screwed” them at one point or another, or because they didn’t like my liberal strike zone, but pretty much all of them recognized me as the best umpire. (Not so humble brag.) When you go from playing high school and summer ball against kids that went on to play at top tier colleges (and one that got drafted I think), following the speed of kids half your age isn’t too hard.
The worst experience I had came in the Seniors division (14-16 years old) with a new umpire (red flag), who had super expensive brand new gear (red flag!), and insisted on doing the plate (!!!!). He umped the entire game like Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun with the most ridiculous over-exaggerated calls, none of which were consistent. By the end both coaches and half the players were just shaking their heads and I would have apologized had that not by function involved shitting on a colleague. After that I refused to do upper level games (the only ones that mandated two umpires) unless I could do them with someone who didn’t suck (my dad).
The Majors division, which was the best of the 11 and 12 year olds and the occasional uber-talented 10 year old was the hardest to umpire. The speed of the games was the quickest of any of the leagues and it’s the Little League World Series age group, so half the parents are hyper-competitive and some of the coaches are even worse. You could count on fairly consistent pitching, but they’d also try and locate pitches and when they didn’t get calls they got pissed in a hurry. The only coach I ever ejected came from this division. (The girls were pretty comparable in terms of skill and intensity, but I think they only had enough participation to do an in-house league one year so I only did a handful of those games.)
So I was set to do a Majors game between a middling team and a good team and close to the playoffs to boot so there was seeding at stake. I was warned beforehand that the coach of the middling team was kind of an asshole and had been warned several times. Well okay. The game was close the entire way and ended up going into extra innings, and while I could tell the guy was OMG SUPER INTENSE, he was directing most of it at his players and all of it positive. So whatever, he cares about his kids, good for him. We went into the third extra inning and his assistant coach’s son was on the mound. The bases were loaded, I think on two errors, and the pitcher proceeded to walk in what eventually became the two winning runs on four or five pitches, none of which were particularly close. I’m not an idiot and I knew the guy was not going to be happy and sure enough he came out of his dugout to give me an earful. He was loud and an asshole, but also wasn’t really saying anything terribly inflammatory and I was kind of hoping I could diffuse him a bit by simply letting him vent. After a minute or two of this guy showing no signs of winding down, I informed him that he had said enough and that he ran the risk of being ejected with any further commentary. He yelled “good!” and stormed back to his dugout, at which point I told him he was done and to leave the field. I’m 19 or 20 at this point, and this guy was in his 30s and it was pretty clear that he thought my authority stopped when his team started losing so he refused to leave. Five or six other umpires, who had been watching the game with great interest from a few dozen feet behind the backstop began to make their way over and the guy finally figured out he was fighting a battle he’d already lost and went less noisily.
Funny thing, the League had a policy that stated that if you were ever ejected from a game, you had to go before the Board and explain yourself and probably sign a pledge or something. That guy refused to do so, so as far as I know that was the last Little League game he ever coached. With that being the worst I encountered I consider myself fortunate. Before I was of umpiring age my sisters played an all-star tournament softball team form ‘Valley’ which is best described as ‘ghetto-ass Syracuse.’ My sisters team won by one run, 8-7 or something and I guess there was some controversy involved because as the 60 year old 130 pound wino of an umpire is leaving the field, one of the hulking Valley parents takes their soda and hurls it in the guys face. The cops were called and he may or may not have been charged with assault, I don’t remember.
So I made it through my umpiring career assault-free. Calling that a win.
When I left New York I had spent 8 years assistant-coaching and occasionally head-coaching my sisters teams and it’s pretty amazing how much your desire to engage the umpires disappears after you’ve done it for a few years. There are probably 150-200 pitches in the average 6-7 inning baseball or softball game so that’s 150-200 opportunities to make plays to win the game. Don’t bitch about the 5% that might be ambiguous judgment calls. That’s not how you win.