Last year’s youth baseball season marked my return behind the plate as an umpire, reviving the career that occupied my high school and college summers.
This summer I won’t have time to call balls and strikes as I’ve been drafted to coach my 10-year-old son’s team. Fortunately, I’ve been paired with a few guys infinitely better qualified to teach the game, but I do make a mean spreadsheet to guarantee equal playing time and protect young throwing arms. Whether we’ll actually get to play games — thanks Mother Nature! — remains to be seen, but for the time being this seemed a good opportunity to share some thoughts gleaned from my umpiring experience I hope to utilize from the dugout.
The first bit of information is something I’d suggest coaches teach their young catchers: try to be consistent. An umpire’s strike zone is only as good as their positioning behind the plate, and occasionally first-time backstops set up in a different spot for nearly every pitch, or vary from batter to batter. This is compounded by the likelihood of each team running out a new catcher at least every other inning, meaning the ump is in a near constant state of trying to get comfortable in order to establish a reliable zone.
With any youth league, but especially the earliest ages, comes the potential of a wide range of heights in a given lineup. That’s enough of a challenge for the umpires, so if coaches are able to teach a degree of uniformity for catchers, it can only improve the likelihood of a consistent zone throughout the game, which ends up in a more fair experience for pitchers and hitters.
Along those lines, it’s a good idea for the coaches and plate umpire to get together before each game to assess the way the umpire plans to call balls and strikes. In a well-run league there’s a top down directive on the size of the zone that each umpire can deliver and each coach can expect. For kids early in their umpiring career, consistency can be hard to come by. But even a 30-second chat from ump to coach that amounts to “Let’s get those kids swinging out there, we’re not here to learn how to draw walks” can go a long way toward calibrating everyone’s expectations.
One of the best aspects of youth sports is the community feeling developed when players, coaches and parents work together year over year. With friendly faces all over the park, it’s not uncommon to find kids rooting for each other to succeed (perhaps silently) despite team allegiances. However, this collegiality can work against young umpires.
Many umps are quite familiar with a lot of the coaches, who must be respectful of those personal relationships and try to let the umpire do their best to be impartial. If, as a coach, you find yourself expecting calls to go your way because you coached Timmy a few years back, you’re doing a disservice to both Timmy’s authority as well as the players on the other team and ultimately your own kids.
When the inevitable conflict does arise, please try to let the umpire’s call stand. There is always time between innings (or after the game) to discuss a rule interpretation, and it’s best if that conversation includes both umpires and a coach from each dugout. This should be a learning experience for the umpires as well (almost always a youngster still playing in his own age group), and the best way to reach that outcome is to remove as much emotion as possible from the equation.
For the young umpires: work as much as possible, but don’t try to do too much in a single day. Working a 10-year-old baseball game, followed by 12-year-old softball and then 13-year-old baseball was not just physically taxing but a mental workout as well as I had to adjust quickly to different throwing motions, ground rules and field dimensions.
My summers behind the plate taught me a deep appreciation for the game and how it can develop youngsters as athletes and good people. But for that to happen depends on having quality adults leading the way. Here’s to another great season.