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L1.A1 - Becoming An Umpire - The Road Up ....

L1.A1 - Becoming An Umpire - The Road Up ....

First Steps
"I would like to become an umpire, where should I start?" 

It is one of the most common letters I receive. Because you asked I am going to assume you are serious about becoming a quality official and are prepared to invest the time and hours of study needed to attain a growing mastery both the "art" and the "science" of umpiring. 

My initial advise is always the same: start by attending as many games, at every level, taking place in your area as you can and second, buy a quality rule book. What? Not go out, sign up and start right away? Go right ahead. Many will agree that this may be your first, biggest and potentially final mistake. 

Why Attend Games?
Let's start by dealing with the first item: you are attending games to do two things: 1) to determine where the need for umpires exists in your area and 2) you are observing the umpiring crews as you make a decision about which group of officials is consistently doing a quality job. After several games you attend you might notice : 

  • some of the two umpire crews are wearing full uniforms. They look clean, sharp and are always on top of the play. 
  • at some games there is only one umpire. He is wearing an old baseball cap turned backward. The games go well but occasionally there are many disputed calls and everyone gets on the umpire's back. 
  • at some games the crews are wearing matching hats and badges of local associations 
  • at some games the umpires come out of the stands. 
  • you notice the equipment being used by the umpires is of high quality, right down to shiny plate and base shoes 
  • the plate umpire is wearing jeans and running shoes. He is using an external or "balloon" protector and does not wear leg guards 

The contrasts can be quite extreme. Your success and enjoyment as an official will be greatly influenced by the association you will ultimately work for. 

Your next step is to approach the umpires after the game. Determine : 

  1. How to contact their group or association 
  2. How much training they receive 
  3. How many games they might work in a week or month 
  4. What levels did they work when they first started 
  5. How many games did they work in a week when they first started 
  6. How long did it take them to move to the levels they are now umpiring at 
  7. Do they own their equipment or is their equipment supplied? 

Time To Think About It ...

There are several other considerations. Take your time to think seriously about: 

  1. Do you plan on working as a volunteer, an honorarium, or paid position? 
  2. Do you have the time available for the training and association meetings? 
  3. What are the associations policies on advancement. 
  4. Does the association adhere to the official rules of baseball or softball or do they use as specialized rule book. 

Let's briefly examine each of these considerations: 

Am I going to be a volunteer? Being an active umpire can easily cost you a thousand dollars each season. The initial cost of your equipment, clothing, its ongoing replacement costs and transportation/meal expenses are a significant investment, not to mention the value of your time. You will not become rich as an umpire, even in a paid position. 

Some leagues supply only the most basic equipment: a mask, outside protector and leg guards. You generally supply your indicator, brush and ball bag. You'll need a uniform, crests and two hats, one for bases and the other for plate. If you are not "average" you may find the mask too tight, the leg guards too small and eventually your pocketbook much lighter. 

It does not stop there however. If you are expected to work games at older levels you will have to invest in proper footwear. This can add a minimum $125 to your "enjoyment" of the game. You will probably have to pay fees to your association and should have additional insurance to cover the injuries that will eventually happen. 

Time, Time, Time. The game starts at 6:00 PM but for the umpire it means at least one hour of preparation, usually arriving at the field at least 40 minutes before hand. The annual training sessions and monthly meeting can make a significant dent in your busy schedule. You cannot be a successful umpire without time to study and prepare for each game. 

But I want to do higher level games. An umpire wrote me recently. She had been transferred into an area where all the local games were controlled by two associations. Despite over 12 years of experience, including several national championship series, she discovered that she would be doing beginner level for three years with one association and unable to work tournaments for her first five years as a member of the other association. Both groups based their advancement on "membership years" as well as experience and competence with no allowance for previous experience. 

Is this fair? Maybe not, but it is the group's policy. In some associations the graduate from a professional school, with years at the Minor level, has the same chance for advancement as the rookie. If you are signing up you have to know this in advance. 

The rule book: Not all leagues play under the professional rules of baseball. It can be very confusing to an amateur official to suddenly be confronted by rules which differ from their common understanding. Signing up to umpire for the "East Valley Ball Association" with their "must slide at every base" and "four strike and fifth ball off the tee" rule might limit your long term advancement and usefulness to other umpiring groups. 

A case in point: One umpire wrote about a series of interleague softball games he was assigned to. Both teams used totally different rule books: including ball size, pitching distances, pitching rules, adult coaches and number of players on the field! He was a baseball umpire, a completely different system, assigned because he was the only one available that night! Try to get that game underway. 

Unless you wish to stick with one league and style of play be careful not to limit your training. It is important to learn the coverage systems of any potential league you may be assigned to. It can be a very abrupt awakening if you are suddenly asked to do bases on a 90' hardball diamond when all your training and experience was in 60' softball. 

Bottom Line: Choose your league and association carefully. 

A comprehensive insurance package is as important as your mask. You would never go behind the plate without being completely protected by proper fitting equipment. This makes sense doesn't it? But too many umpires go out on the field without being covered by proper insurance. Often a league says, "We have umpire's insurance" but what does that mean? If you take a fastball off the back of your hand and break it who is going to cover the costs of missed employment while you heal? If a parent sues over a mispegged bag who pays the lawyer's fees? 

A good place to start is to investigate the insurance available through National Association of Sports Officials membership. Check out your own personal insurance policies and insurance from work. Many policies specifically exclude injuries which occur in sporting activities. 

Now to your next step, beginning your training: 

  • Contact the appropriate association or organization 
  • Determine their next meeting and training sessions 
  • Be certain you know the group's membership and game fee costs (if relevant) 
  • Be especially clear on the group's promotion policies 
  • If you are satisfied, sign up 

And that rule book ....
While you are waiting study your rule book thoroughly. Not just any rule sheet will do however. You will learn that baseball umpiring is the "art of applying the science." It is a fancy way to say that some rule books contain case materials, historical background, interpretations and even discussions on the rules. You may find yourself purchasing several books and virtually sitting with both open as you read, understand and look at the applications of the rules. 

So much of baseball stems from its understanding the rules as "being written by gentlemen for gentlemen," as Bill Klem used to say. So much of baseball stems from developing good judgment and knowledge of when to apply an interpretation. Being an umpire is not like being a police officer watching for speeding infractions. The rules of baseball assign you more to the role of a crossing guard then an enforcer. 

You have to know your rule book and know it cold however. There is no excuse for not knowing the fundamental grounds for baseball. You must also be aware of the fallacies and myths many will throw up: the famous "1+1," "hands are part of the bat," "he has to slide," and classic "he broke his wrists .... (ouch!) ... on that swing attempt." 

Study your rules daily and always know your enemy. There is nothing finer than quoting not only the text to a rule but the number, paragraph, section and even punctuation back to a coach. It will really settle an argument and get the game moving again quickly. 

Moving Up ...
Moving up, or perhaps better said, moving on, as an umpire is a function of several elements amongst which are: hard work, extensive study, a ton of games and pure luck. 

You can expect to spend several years as a novice and even longer as a journeyman. You will polish, refine and redefine your role many times. You will succeed. You will fail. The key to promotion is to be available and capable. The best umpires are not worth anything to an assigner if they are unavailable to work. In your initial years plan to keep as much time open for working games as possible. Plan on voluntarily picking up scrimmages with inter-squad all-star teams or local high school practice games. 

You will also have to plan and study in order to be prepared for the game in front of you. If this is your first game in a league know their specific rules beforehand, for example: designated hitter, substitutions, pitching rules, trips to the mound, collision just to mention a few. You can learn a lot at the plate conference but you must be prepared. 

Types of Training
It is not possible to list all the options available to the umpire wishing to improve his or her skills. The classroom is virtually unlimited, often only bordered by time and dollars. 

Personal Where is your rule book right now? What other books sit on the table beside your bed? What magazines do you read? Do you belong to any associations? Do you have a tape library to listen to in the car? Regularly scan "umpire" in the "Books In Print" computer software at your local bookstore. It all adds up and will make you a better official. 

LocallyYour local league or association will host some form of regular training or workshop sessions. Often these are a regular part of a monthly meeting, or are held at regular intervals. Attend all of them. Even if you are an experienced umpire, sitting at the back of a beginner's clinic can be an excellent way to refresh your game after the long winter. 

Do you attend many games to watch the crews at work? The A, AA, and AAA levels of baseball contain many fine examples of individual umpires and crews. Learning from watching their performance and rotations can provide valuable lessons. 

Regionally Look for clinics and workshops within your regional association or affiliate. Constantly check with neighboring groups to determine if they have an upcoming activity. You may discover that an area softball association is bringing in a speaker or clinician. 

Nationally Some leagues have national umpire training workshops held in major centers. The cost of these clinics is minimal compared with the cost of attending a "for-profit" camp. There are umpire camps which offer programs ranging from two to four days. They are often sponsored by umpire equipment suppliers and offer instructors from professional baseball. The costs vary and are usually quite reasonable. The major source for finding out about these camps is Referee magazine, the Baseball News or Baseball Weekly. 

The Jim Evans Classics Recently the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring has added two umpire training programs known as "The Desert Classic" which is held each November in Phoenix, and "The Florida Classic" held each January in Kissimmee. These seven-day programs provide the highest form of training an amateur umpire can receive with the exception of attending a professional five week school. 

The Road to The ProsYou will not be an overnight sensation and wear the coveted crests. The road to the pinnacle of umpiring is full of many long hours on the highway, poor food, cheap hotels and cramped dressing rooms. Recent promotions have spent a decade or more in the minor league systems before even getting fill in opportunities at the show level. 
You do not have to be on the road to a professional career to attend these schools. You can expect to invest a minimum $3000.00 (us) to attend these excellent five week long training programs. Only the best from these schools are selected to move on up the ladder to the Umpire Development Program while the others receive the finest training available to assist them when they return to their local area and leagues. 

Professional Umpire Schools

Each of these schools has a brochure that outlines their program. Each professional school starts in the first week of January and ends in the first week of February. You may request it by contacting the numbers below: 

Jim Evans Academy Of Professional Umpiring 

Wendelstedt Umpire School 
It is impossible to cover all the aspects of putting on the umpire's uniform. If becoming an umpire, either amateur or professional, is your dream then nothing will stop you from pursuing your goals. It is a difficult and noble pursuit with both great rewards and great letdowns. I hope this will at least give some background to the paths you might elect to follow. Remember, you are only as good as your next call. 

Good luck! 


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