Many miss hearing “Play ball,” especially those who shout it out.
The stoppage of baseball and softball games have left umpires missing out on a source of income, but more importantly, a big part of their life is amiss.
“When we do this, most of us aren’t doing it for the money, I mean, really we’re not,” said local baseball umpire James Meyer, who has called games for three decades. “We’re doing it for the love of the game. We’re doing it to give back to a game that we love. And we’re doing it to help kids out so they can play their games and have their moments that we had when we were their age.”
More than a 100 local umpires who work high school diamond games are on the couch with all University Interscholastic League activities suspended until May 4 due to the coronavirus.
The College Station baseball chapter of the Texas Association of Sports Officials has 66 members who call games for 44 high schools. Along with the local high schools, they call games at Brenham, Elgin, Fayetteville, Groveton, Montgomery and Round-Top Carmine, and all the places in-between. The group also calls subvarsity games, so the number of games they call for a season “is overwhelming,” said Meyer, who also assigns games.
The Bryan-College Station softball chapter of TASO calls all the local high school games along with Centerville, Giddings, East Bernard, Rice Consolidated, Sealy, Columbus, Royal, Navasota, Brenham, Caldwell, Snook, Burton and the towns within that area. They call 1,200-1,300 games per season.
Chapter scheduler Kent Gardner said there’s basically a shortage of officials in every sport and they have 55 this season, about 25 lower than normal. Gardner said most officiating chapters tend to be veteran oriented, which leads to attrition.
“A bunch of us are retired and we don’t count on it as our normal income,” Gardner said. “It was all just part-time work. It’s secondary income.”
The local baseball chapter has a few who do rely on umpiring for a living, Meyer said, especially the college students who use it for tuition and expenses. Meyer, who started calling baseball games in 1987, speaks from experience, because calling games was his source of income during a time he was unemployed.
“So this is very important when we’re not able to be out there calling games,” Meyer said. “Don’t get me wrong, you’re not going to make a living calling high school sports, but [it is a source of income].”
Veteran local umpire Doug Williams is one of 5-6 local umpires who work collegiate games. Williams, who worked the 2014 College World Series, is lucky because it’s not his main source of income.
“Some of my friends, that’s all they do,” Williams said. “And I’m sure this is extremely difficult since we are independent contractors. There’s no union, we don’t get any kind of [relief]. Nothing.”
Williams and the local collegiate umpires belong to the Collegiate Baseball Umpires Association, which has 2,800 members. Williams typically calls 65-70 games, but he’s done only 18 this year.
Gardner said his chapter already has lost approximately 200 games.
Gardner has no feel for what the long-range affect this stoppage will have on the organization.
“Several umpires were expecting money from games they’ve already called but since the school districts went down [they haven’t been paid],” Gardner said. “We’ve probably lost another 2-3 weeks of games that we haven’t been paid for.”
Meyer said that’s also the case in baseball, with some expecting checks of $600-$700.
“I’m praying that this is a one-time deal,” Meyer said. “And, recruiting is always, very, very difficult in sports [officiating], these kind of days.”
Officiating softball or baseball has a steeper financial commitment than basketball and football. Newcomers have to buy shin guards, a chest protector and mask. Add in shoes, slacks and socks and the cost could be $400 and that’s not including the various state and local dues before even taking the field.
“Then when you’re season’s cut three weeks into the season, it’s kind of hard to make up the money you’ve put into it,” Meyer said.
The local chapter had nine new umpires this season, one of the biggest and best newcomer classes in recent years.
“Hopefully, we don’t lose them because of this for next year,” Meyer said.
The UIL extending its suspension of all activities Thursday, made the projected softball calendar obsolete. The district certification had been April 28. Bi-district play had to be completed by May 2 with each progressive round the following week culminating in the state championships June 3-6 in Austin.
“This has never, never, never, never happened before,” Gardner said. “It obviously affects the season, I don’t know how yet — if we’re even going to have a season. I guess we are at the starting end to the first round of district play [in most districts].”
Williams, who was the local scheduler for the high school chapter for 25 years before focusing on just the college game, has filled his void by spending more time with his family.
“The number one thing is this, everybody is heart-broken and down, because this is what we like to do,” Williams said. “My friends, my peers that I work with all the time, they are just stunned because we do it every spring, every summer. To see that it’s pretty much gone for the year, you really can’t fathom, it yet, but it’s getting easier day by day.”
Williams says he’s lucky, because he’ll have a next year.
“How would you like to be a 17-year-old senior and baseball is your love?” Williams said. “How would you like that? That’s awful. What do you think they are thinking?”
The national umpiring organizations are reaching out to umpires through emails and magazines.
“There is little we can do to replace the lost money income but at the same time there are things we can do to continue to benefit from the psychic income officiating gives us,” said Barry Mano, National Association and Sports Officials’ founder and president. “We can take the time off to study rules, mechanics and game administration. We can reach out to those in the officiating community to have remote impromptu meetings, just to keep in touch. Consider short conference calls with your crew or local members to chat about what is happening. Build that community bond stronger than it is today.”