So, you want to be an ump? Some people might think that’s masochistic. Between players learning new skills, coaches who think they’re managing a Major League squad, and crazy parents hellbent on living vicariously through their kids, umpiring youth baseball is no easy assignment. But without the men and women in blue, the game simply can’t be played — well, at least, not without a fair bit of fighting.
Different leagues have different rules, and umping at the various levels of the game requires a new approach depending on who’s on the field. It may look easy — post up behind the catcher and dramatically yell, “Striiiiiiike one!” — but in reality, it’s a finely-tuned profession that requires constant concentration and an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball’s rules.
To help sort out the differences, Fatherly called Dan Simon, president of NCUA Baseball, an organization that trains and contracts umpires for baseball leagues from Tee-ball to the MLB’s minor leagues. Simon started umpiring when he was 10-years-old (as a fill-in base umpire for a semi-pro game his dad was calling) and is about as close to an authority on the subject as one can find. He didn’t go into the minute differences between league rulebooks — between high school and the MLB, for example, there are 143 differences — but offered helpful tips and hints for anybody who wants to start calling balls and strikes.
Learn the basics of umpiring in a fun, less formal environment like Tee-ball. If this is your first time calling runners safe or out, no matter how good of a coach or player you are (or were), you’re going to need experience. “One of the biggest problems with umpires is that they sign up and want to do the big games right away, without a basis of basic rule knowledge,” Simon says. “If you want to become a good umpire, you need to start small.”
The goal is having fun, not enforcing the rules.
It may seem counter to being an umpire, but encouraging fun and generating a love for the game is the most important thing at this level. “You don’t want to be too strict with the game,” Simon says. “The main thing there is the kids having fun.” Maybe you call an out when someone was barely safe because a defense is really struggling. Or safe when they were barely out because the kid hasn’t gotten a hit yet. You’re not there to make aggressive “GOT HIM!” as if you were in the big leagues; you’re there to make sure everyone’s learning the game and having fun.
Study the rules, practice the calls.
Once you’ve moved up to more competitive games in kid-pitch Little League divisions, you’ll need to serious game knowledge. “We train in September, October, November,” Simon says, after most regular summer-ball seasons are over. “We go over official Little League rule,s as well as the specific rules we use in our own leagues.” Memorizing the official Little League rulebook and physically practicing skills like calling balls and strikes are important. In fact, Simon regularly takes groups of umps to the batting cages ⏤ not to hit but to watch the strike zone as someone pitches to a batter. The biggest complaint Simon hears about umpires is, of course, that they’re not calling the strike zone correctly. In Little League, the strike zone measures from a player’s knees up to just above the letters on the jersey.
When it comes to Wiffleball, take the focus off strikes.
Wiffleball can be a fun backyard game or a deadly serious adult sport. The original game was designed to be played with a small number of players — even just two — but it’s long since been adapted to traditional baseball, with similar rules in most competitive leagues. There are a few key differences, though, including a narrower diamond and five-person teams. Calling outs is different as pegging — hitting the runner with the ball — is allowed. In some leagues, there are no balls or called strikes and batters don’t have to swing at any pitches. They can, however, strike out swinging. In others, like Golden Stick Wiffle Ball, strikes are determined if the ball hits a physical backstop. Most competitive wiffle ball teams call their own games, but if you are an ump, learn the league’s rules and focus most of your attention on plays in the field.
Call outs with your ears and your eyes.
When it comes to close plays at first, umpires are trained to listen for the smack of the ball hitting the baseman’s glove and the thump of the runner’s shoe touching base. In fact, student umpires are often blindfolded and then told to make calls at first, because it hones their other senses.
“Your eyes will lie to you sometimes,” veteran major league umpire Mike Winters told the New York Times. “You put the blindfold on, they can’t miss one. You take it off, they [student umps] can’t get it right.”
Wear your protective gear.
It sounds like a no-brainer but you’d be surprised at how many umps at younger levels don’t feel compelled to wear safety gear. If you’re umping in a hardball league, you’re going to need protective equipment: a face mask, chest protector, and cup at the very least. Some umps also wear shin pads like a catcher, but usually, it’s just a heavy chest protector and a mask — those are the areas most likely to get hit. Many MLB umps also stand with their hands behind their backs or behind their knees, so their hands don’t get hit with the ball.
Grow a thick skin.
As the games get more competitive and you climb the umpiring ladder, the attention from the dugout and bleachers is going to get decidedly more intense. Part of the protective gear you’ll need is a thick skin. “You have to deal with kids, you have to deal with coaches, and sometimes you have to deal with parents,” Simon says. “It’s kind of a balancing act.” You’re going to have to make some tough calls, and not everybody is going to be happy. But remember, there are no instant-replay or coaches challenges on America’s youth baseball fields — you are the law in the ballpark. Be confident in your calls and stand your ground. (Unless, of course, you know you screwed up. No sense being pigheaded just to save face ⏤ it’s not the Major Leagues after all.)