It was about fifteen years ago that I umpired my first game. I was one of those dads who was pulled out of the stands for my eight-year-old son’s pee-wee game. But then, like some few others who share this same experience, I discovered it wasn’t so bad and I stuck with it. Most don’t, but a few do.
A lot of new umpires come up this way – they get started accidentally, they discover that it’s not as bad as they thought it would be, and they end up sticking with it. They discover that it’s an avocation and a commitment, and one that rewards and repays. There’s some money in it, but not very much, so it’s a rare Blue that does it for the money. I can also tell you from experience that there are few things more thrilling than having a hard-breaking slider come screaming right at your face.
In the early days, while still newbies, we learned our first lessons by seeking out advice from more experienced umpires. That helps with picking up the basic mechanics, start learning the convoluted web of baseball rules, and begin, ever so slowly, to start feeling comfortable on the field.
And if really committed, the newbie starts attending formal training. They attend classes and workshops. Soon, they probably enroll in an extended school – one of the week-long or multi-week sessions. If they’re young and ambitious, after about three or four years of this, they go to the Pro school. By then they understand (we hope) that the learning never ends. Some experienced umpires talk a lot, but good umpires listen more and talk less.
Not everyone who umpires goes all the way. Most stick with a local league and plateau when they have the basics: they learn the start positions and basic rotations, and learn how to work with a partner; they grasp the difference between interference and obstruction, foul ball and foul tip, and they’re comfortable with fair and foul, safe and out, catch, tag, and the infield fly. But that’s about where they settle.
And that’s not a bad thing. Not at all. Because the younger kids need experienced, competent umpires, too. Far too many umpires get a taste for high-quality ball on the big diamond and forget that there are a lot more games (and a vastly greater need for umpires) on the small diamond for kids 12 and under. It’s a good thing, in my view, for umpires who came to life on the small diamond to later, after graduating to higher levels, give a little back by volunteering some time for the kids.
So here’s the field on which I umpired my first game. Federal Field in Bellevue, Washington. Bellevue East Little League. I had come to the game to watch my eight-year-old son play his first ever baseball game, but then got pulled in to umpire (kicking and screaming, I might add). I used a balloon protector (it’s what they had in the gear box at the field and that was good enough for me). I wore jeans, and I had my hat on backwards. I had zero instruction, even less confidence, and almost certainly I sucked. But the kids were eight years old, the parents were cool with it, and there were no complaints.
Now, fifteen years on, I have games in the summer college league and work the local semi-pro summer league. That’s a big arc, from eight to twenty-three. Fifteen years in fifteen years. And on fields just 25 miles apart.