Ground Rule Trouble
The arduous, hilarious journey of calling balls and strikes as a Granite State umpire
Step Up to the Plate
After surviving stage 4 cancer, vocal cord surgery, a global pandemic and the general destabilization of civil society, I decided it was time to have a midlife crisis give back to my community. But what could I do? Crossing guard? Blood donor? State fair parking lot flag waver?
Somehow the thought of umpiring baseball popped in my head. The local youth league always seemed to need umps. The rec department might even have a mask and those giant pillows I could borrow. I made a call.
The league organizer asked, “Are you patched?”
“You mean, like in a motorcycle gang?” (See the New Hampshire Magazine June 2011 issue for context.)
All umpires (and other officials) receive a shirt patch to signify they’ve been trained and are in good standing with an officiating organization. It’s like a badge — one that says, “I’m not wearing shin guards for nothing, people.” But how to get that 4-inch cloth disk of respect?
I signed up for the Umpire Development Program run by the New Hampshire Baseball Umpires Association. How hard could this be? I got a boating license after a four-hour course; now I can sail to Portugal if I want. All I need is a long weekend and pointers on how to remove my mask without my cap falling off. Easy peasy!
To my shock, I learned if I wanted that patch I’d have to complete a comprehensive two-year apprenticeship. The instructors were men with decades of years umping at the varsity, NCAA and minor league baseball levels. Several were graduates of professional umpiring schools. One stood behind the plate at last year’s Little League World Series. My apprenticeship would require weeks of studying rules, field mechanics, coverage rotations, evaluations by trainers, a 100-question state-mandated annual exam and then…maybe…I could be called “Blue.”
As pandemic restrictions on sports began to ease, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) reported 482,160 young men and women played baseball in 2021-2022; 2,160 of them were in New Hampshire. That makes baseball the No. 1 sport in which players wear a hat. All those games need umpires; otherwise, it’s gym class.
Most levels use a crew of two umpires to work a game: one for the plate, one for the bases (more umpires for semi-pro, one ump for some youth leagues). My first junior varsity game, I was the base umpire. This will be so easy, I thought. I just stand at first base and call everyone out after routine ground balls. In the top of the first inning, I called the third strike on a check swing and made the emphatic out signal on a dramatic sweep tag on the line. From my perch at the bag, I was having the greatest time. Plus, I was making $68!
I forgot sometimes runners actually get on base and now I’ve got a whole infield and most of the outfield to watch. I had to dive to the grass to get out of the way of a shortstop’s throw. I needed an oxygen tank running the bases after back-to-back triples. There was a rundown between first and second base in which I was zigzagging like a ping pong ball thinking, We didn’t get to this in class yet!
In preparation for working the plate, I bought all the required equipment. Rather than order it through specialty websites, I went to the local sporting goods store to get shin guards, chest protectors and the like. Those stores sell mostly to catchers whose equipment is designed to be worn over the uniform, not under. Lumbering out to the field, I looked like if Iron Man wore his costume under his clothes like Clark Kent did.
It was also dawning on me that to call balls and strikes, I wouldn’t have that computer-generated box on TV to help me. Instead, I’d have to use my judgment from my squat position between the batter and catcher on pitches all the way on the other side of the plate.
“That’s a sssteeeerrreeebaaaall?”
Coaches aren’t allowed to argue that a pitch wasn’t a ball or a strike. But they have a whole other code for letting you know how they feel.
“Hey [pitcher’s name], good miss.” Translation: that didn’t miss.
“Hey [batter’s name], that’s not yours.” Translation: that’s not a strike.
“Hey [catcher’s name], where was that?” Translation: not where the ump said it was.
“Aw [umpire’s name], you’re better than that.” Translation: sounds encouraging, but not actually a compliment.
It wasn’t long until the head coach had enough. “Hey Blue, I don’t wanna argue balls and strikes…”
(Removes mask. Cap falls off.) Then don’t argue balls and strikes, I thought.
I’ll point out that the coach did this while I was being evaluated. Not by one instructor, but six of them. I froze because it was such an absurd moment; I thought the evaluators put him up to it. The next time I got evaluated, a coach came out to argue a missed runner’s lane interference call at a jamboree. A jamboree! That’s a scrimmage with hot dogs. They don’t even keep score at a jamboree.
If I wanted that patch, it was going to take a lot more work.
Rules Were Made to be Spoken
It’s said that 80 percent of the game is played with 20 percent of the rules. If you’ve ever played in the sandlot, you know baseball can run on autopilot. But when things get wacky, the umpire plays cop, judge and executioner as the expert in the rules.
There are 27 ways to balk in baseball, and I’ll reimburse your subscription to New Hampshire Magazine if you can name six of them. *This is not a legally binding offer. Do not call me. I will not answer.
The biggest peddlers of misinformation are TV play-by-play announcers. Their knowledge of certain rules come only from other play-by-play announcers, perpetuating mendacious falsehoods we assume are canonical.
“Tie goes to the runner.” No, the runner beats the throw to the base or he doesn’t. “Hands are part of the bat.” No, hands are part of the batter. “If he doesn’t go around, it’s a check swing.” That’s a good guideline, but the rule is actually whether the batter tried to strike at the ball.
Things are going fine until a batter interferes with a catcher’s throw to a third baseman who’s obstructing a runner that failed to touch second base. That’s when you call time, leave the field and go back to bed.
Your Call Is Important to Us
Once word gets around that you’re umpiring, you’ll be recruited to work in all kinds of games. Each year in New Hampshire there are about 6,000 baseball games played. Little League, Babe Ruth, Cal Ripken, AAU. Wood bat leagues. No stealing leagues. Leagues for players under six. Leagues for players older than 60. I worked a 50+ game in which — no joke — someone pulled a hamstring every other inning.
These leagues often contract with a group, like the Granite State Umpires Association, who’ll assign officials for their games. There are roughly 300 active umpires in the state. Many of them (as well as our fellow softball umpires) are covering a game every night and six or more each weekend from April to October. On a Saturday, they may do six innings in Keene, then rush for seven more in Laconia, before ending it under the lights in Nashua. (Dude, that’s a lot of squats.)
I umped a lot for children’s leagues. Baseball is a game of intergenerational trauma. Often you’ll see a kid crying because he’s being yelled at by his father who’s working out his own daddy issues.
These games feature lots of pitches that roll to the backstop and walks that turn into triples because Asher can pitch, but he can’t catch. The catchers often can’t catch either. I always name my bruises after them. I’ve got “Jaxxon” on my forearm, “Colter” on my bicep and “Korben” on the top of my head (envision the trajectory of that pitch). I took a few off the face mask too. You can never be too careful when a foul ball might come ba…(smashes mask, cap falls off)…zzzzzzzzz.
These U10 teams also have a player-to-dad/assistant coach ratio of two-to-one. I love it when a grown man wearing the same pajamas as a bunch of the 8-year-olds comes storming out to say that I can’t be serious.
I’ve found adult players (who play through their 20s and beyond) have less fun now playing the game they found fun as a child. They’re grinding like they’re playing for a contract extension. Also many young players and parents in developmental or travel leagues — teams that cost a lot to get on — want their money’s worth. They don’t want some patchless umpire squeezing Grayson’s strike zone.
“Hey Blue, are you kidding me?!”
(Removes mask. Cap falls off.) Man, I think, Grayson’s grandma suuuucks.
You Know You Make Me Want to Shout
The one thing people want to know when I tell them I’m umpiring is whether I’ve ejected anyone. They assume I have kill marks painted on my wall. The answer is no, I’ve never ejected anyone. They ejected themselves.
Even though arguing an umpire’s judgment call is literally against the rules, it’s been normalized by our sport’s culture. We’ve come to believe it’s alright — Nay, required! — for a coach to come on to the field to yell and kick dirt until they’re removed. We don’t tolerate that in any other sport. And loving parents, many of whom may be more invested in the game than their kids are, bark like mad dogs at every adult and child (including their own) when a call doesn’t go their way.
Among those hundreds and hundreds of New Hampshire high school games last year, there were fewer than a dozen ejections. Giving someone the heave-ho isn’t as fun as you might think. And it has nothing to do with the paperwork (yes, there is paperwork). It’s usually some exceptional display of poor sportsmanship, some act that sours the game for players and spectators alike. Profanity. Malicious contact. Physical intimidation.
Since 2018, 50,000 referees and umpires nationwide have quit officiating because of verbal and physical abuse from coaches and parents. Thriving in that environment requires an extraordinarily thick skin, or, in my case, going home and ugly-crying like Claire Danes in “My So-Called Life.” We’re striving for a new baseball culture, one in which mature people show respect, keep their calm and set an example. My take, however, is if you’re a touch hole off the field, you’ll probably be a touch hole on
Blue Becomes You
The burnout of officials and aging ranks of veterans has created an existential crisis for all youth sports. A shortage of umpires, referees and judges is already forcing the cancellation of games and the shuttering of leagues. There is an effort to turn this around.
The umpires I’ve worked with are like you. They come from all walks. They’re laborers. They’re teachers. They’re car salesmen. They’re office workers. And many of them are retirees with decades of experience that need to be recaptured if these sports will thrive.
Whatever sport you played — even if it wasn’t during this century — is in need of people like you to get trained up and get on the fields and courts. Even if most of your sporting experience has been from the comfort of your couch, if you have the passion and the will to do the work, officiating can be rewarding. It’s your chance to preserve the future of that sport for today’s athletes and tomorrow’s stars.
Schools and communities offer a variety of sports in need of arbiters. In addition to basketball and football, there’s field hockey, nordic and alpine skiing, diving, volleyball, cheer and many others. Search online for those state officiating associations to learn about their apprenticeship programs. Not everyone will succeed, but all can try.
With enough effort, you can earn your patch, just like I did. Now when that 85-mph pitch is zipping straight at my face, I stay locked in without flinching, watch it curve into the zone, then come up big with a towel-ripping punch-out move and a confident “steeerike three!”
“Hey Blue! What was that?! Are you blind?!”
(Removes mask. Cap stays in place.) “You didn’t like that last call? You’re not going to like this one. YOU’RE OUT OF HERE!”
You Make the Call Answers: 1 (a); 2 (d); 3 (c); 4 (d); 5 (c) Source: National Federation of State High School Associations Baseball Rules Book