Late winter of the new year means a few things. It means football is finished and March Madness is on the horizon. It means golf is in Hawaii and that the NBA is at full throttle, and it means that pitchers and catchers have reported. And it means the start of the 2016 baseball umpire season, as all across the country umpire training days get underway.
February marks the unofficial official start of the new umpiring season. While in more southerly states, this may mean actually working baseball games, for most of us who are still under the blanket of winter, it means training days in classrooms, gyms, auditoriums, and anywhere else we can spread out for drills. Pivot drill. First-to-third. Take the runner to second. Going out. Covering home. Rotating up. Cage work. Scrimmages. Seeing balks. Rules, rules, rules. Weird situation. Game management. Handling hostility. On and on and on. If you’re lucky.
“If you’re lucky” because, let’s face it, while it’s true that many umpire associations offer quality training to new and journeyman umpires, on the whole, training for umpires is pretty weak. And sometimes completely nonexistent. And umpire training tends to be worst where it’s needed most – in small leagues hosting lower-level youth baseball. We’re talking about Little League primarily, but not exclusively.
There aren’t many truths in life, but here’s one of the real ones: There is always a shortage of competent umpires for amateur baseball. If it’s not true where you live, then you’re very lucky. Truth is, youth leagues tend to accept just about any warm body. This is sometimes a dad or mom out of the stands, or its other well-meaning adults in the league, or it’s kids in a junior umpire program. These are umpires by accident, and far too often they have little or nothing in the way of training and support. And that’s a problem.
Why is this a problem? And why is the problem important? Because this is where most of the journeyman umpires come from. From well-meaning adults who get dragged kicking and screaming onto a field to help umpire their eight-year-old’s Little League game. But then (with some support and training) they learn that umpiring baseball is not half bad; and then, with even more support and training, they actually begin to enjoy the experience. That was my path.
For the argument’s sake, let’s say that over the course of a season you get ten dads (or moms) out of the stands to umpire a handful of games. Well, roughly one of those ten is going to surprise themselves and discover it’s not so bad. And of that ten percent who actually take to the experience, about ten percent of those will start to pick it up and get involved – IF, that is, there’s a way to harness their early interest. That is, if there’s leadership, support, and training.
What’s wrong with a lot of umpire training?
On the other side of the coin, there’s the issue of the quality of the training. On this front, too, meaning well doesn’t always translate into doing well.
What’s wrong with a lot of umpire training? PowerPoint, that’s what. The umpire education slide deck. I’ve sat through several of these sessions. I’ve even presented at umpire training sessions using the same stupid slide decks that others used on me. Dozens and dozens of slide on the rules, mechanics, rotations, reverse rotations, game management – all that crap and a lot more of it rolled up into a 100-plus slide-deck of death. Ghastly. The training session lasts three, maybe four hours. And of those 100-plus slides, the student umpires retain (actually learn) … what? The substance of maybe three or four slides? What a colossal waste of time.
Here’s what I’m talking about. On the right you see an example of a typical umpire training slide. This is your basic first-to-third rotation. There’s a runner on first (R1), so at the time of the pitch the base umpire (U1) is in the B position. Now there’s a fair batted ball to the outfield – line drive to the gap, let’s say – so U1 is responsible for the catch/no-catch as well as touches, tags and plays at first and second. At the same time, the plate umpire (PU) is moving up the third base line so that, IF R1 tries for third base, the PU can easily step into position and take the call at third.
Basic stuff, not complicated. And one of the most common umpiring scenarios there is. The slide takes, at most, two minutes to cover (remember, we have 100 more slides to cover). But wait. Can you, reader, close your eyes, now, and read back the rotation we just covered? If you can it’s because you’ve done the first-to-third rotation before, so it’s second nature. If you’re a beginner, however, once they’ve moved on to the next slide, you’ve probably completely forgotten most of the details, and ten slides after that it’s completely gone.
It’s a waste of time, and it’s boring. And if you’re small league that’s struggling to find, seduce, and train (and then retain) umpires, the last thing you want to do is lock your prospects in a room and boor them to death for four hours with a forgettable PowerPoint presentation. And get almost nothing out of it.
Some elements of umpire training lend themselves to classroom treatment. But these are discrete subjects like recognizing and calling balks, interference, obstruction, and a few other discrete subjects. But even these classroom sessions can’t rely on a slide deck, unless the deck is stocked with photos or videos that demonstrate the actions you’re talking about. These are one-off clinics, really, and they don’t need to last more than one hour, and usually less. In short, the classroom is your enemy.
So where does the training take place? It takes place on the field. When I (once upon a time) ran a junior umpire program and took responsibility for training, I started out the way I’d been taught — with those stupid slide decks. But I learned very quickly that I could accomplish a great deal more in 30 minutes on the field, hands-on, than I could in four hours in a darkened room. And out on the field, no one snores.