One aspect of high school baseball that often gets overlooked, not only in the state of Wisconsin, but nationwide, does not have to deal with participation numbers, filling coaching vacancies, dealing with potential parental problems, or trying to improve our facilities. It is the furthest thing from the mind of coaches and players alike, but without them the games would not be played.
This is something coaches quite frankly do not want to talk about. This subject is umpires. The time has come however to take this off the back burner. The problem will not go away. It will only get worse. The reality is we have a shortage of individuals that are willing to umpire. Many of you will argue we have a severe shortage of quality umpires, but I will address that later.
I am a WIAA certified official in four sports: football, volleyball, basketball, and baseball. I officiate on a regular basis during the basketball season and baseball during the summer primarily varsity legion and amateur wood bat leagues. I also coordinate umpires for a wood bat league in northeast Wisconsin so I am one of the few that get to sit on both sides of the isle. I am a member of three different officials associations so I may be a little biased toward the side of officiating more so than coaching.
I have seen firsthand what these shortage issues are causing. Some athletic directors are forced to switch schedules to umpires work more doubleheaders on weeknights. There have been instances at sub-varsity games where one umpire shows up, yet the pressure of an AD to get the game in on spring day in Wisconsin will lead to that game being played with one official (strongly ill-advised by the WIAA).
The average age of officials are on the rise. During the 2016 spring season, of the 26 games I coached, there were only 4 umpires total that were under the age of 50. Where are the new faces? As coaches we would like to see new blood from time to time. Before we can even begin to discuss improving the quality of officiating, we need to discuss ways on how to deepen the pool of officials willing to work. It is the simple concept of supply and demand. Especially during the summer months, there are more leagues, more tournaments, and more leisure activities than ever before. The strain on finding umpires in the summer is far worse than it is in the spring.
As coaches what can we do to help this problem? Many of you will say that is what your athletic director gets paid to do thus it will be their problem. Some athletic directors rely on the local associations or conference commissioners to schedule the officials, so it is easy to pass the buck onto those groups or individuals. At the end of the day it is going to take a group effort but as coaches we have the easiest access to new bodies.
We know as coaches that what we say and do can leave lasting effects on our players. If your players in your program are not going to go on to play at the next level or go into coaching, get them into giving back to the game and officiate. In today’s world, some kids may be a bit apprehensive to buy into the concept of “giving back.” Take this angle instead. Ask them if they would be interested in working a part time job out of high school or while they attend college where they can make an average of $20-$25 an hour while watching a sport they use to play?
There are many local officials associations out there that will get them off the ground and will get them working. Some will be turned off by some of the verbal abuse that comes with the avocation, but some will learn valuable lessons on improving their communication skills and working under stressful conditions and they will not even realize that until after the fact.
As coaches, connect with your local little leagues and get your current players connected. Once they strap on the gear and get behind the plate to call balls and strikes, they will realize quickly it is a lot harder than it looks. In turn it will make them appreciate high school umpires and the job they are tasked to accomplish that is much faster paced. Model behavior toward game officials by more than just saying to your kids, “You play the game, I’ll deal with the umpires.” I promise that those umpires that work your games did not wake up that morning and ponder all day at their regular job on how they were going to piss you off during the game that afternoon.
When I started coaching at the age of 19 right out of high school, I knew all the rules, knew all the calls, and would believe that I could argue with umpires like a major league manager. Fortunately, I have learned some things in the last 15 years that I am able to pass on to my players. There will always be blown calls just as there will always be errors, swinging strikeouts, and two-out walks. Let’s just make sure there will always be officials so the games can be played.
Written by Crivitz athletic director and baseball coach Jeff Dorschner, who has coached baseball for eight years at the school.