“What? Are you blind? That ball was a foot over her head!”
“Which game are you watching?”
“You’ve got to be kidding!”
The grass is sweetly new-mown and the thonk and ping of ball off the bat are heralds of the approach of spring. It’s a season of renewal and hope.
The first job for which I ever got paid actual money was as a softball umpire for high school girls’ games. The pay was $2 and it was, well, an experience.
Anyone – and you knew who you are – who ever berated an umpire or other sports official should take a turn behind the catcher, or by the goal posts or baseline. It will give you a whole new perspective.
This was back in the day when there were phone booths and dinosaurs still roamed the land. Me and another clueless volunteer were assigned to officiate junior varsity games. I was – for some reason – the home plate umpire, and my compatriot worked the field, stationed in the neighborhood of second base.
Now, bear in mind that these were teams of freshman and sophomore girls in the pre-feminist era. I somehow expected a genteel contest between squads of polite young ladies-to-be. Not so much.
Every call I made behind the plate drew hissing and catcalls from one side or the other. The team benefitting would sometimes clap, but the team suffering would launch into a volley of barely non-obscene insults and criticisms.
To make things worse, the dugouts were so intimidating that the field umpire refused to make any calls at all. I had to decide balls and strikes as well as anything hit to the infield or outfield. To put that in perspective, this guy later joined the Army to become a door gunner on a Huey helicopter, a notoriously dangerous military occupation.
It reminds me of the line from the movie “Lone Star,” in which one character says, “I was married for five years and did two tours of duty in Southeast Asia. I can’t honestly tell you which was worse.”
Now, to be perfectly fair, I was fair but not perfect. Baseball and softball are similar but not identical. Some things that are legal in one game are illegal in another. I also made the mistake of anticipating a play. If the pitch came sailing in at about eight feet high, I would automatically sing out with “Ball one!” However sometimes the batter swung anyway and I had to backtrack. This happened more than once, I am ashamed to admit.
As imperfect as I was, I was trying to be impartial. Two dollars or no two dollars I was a 17-year-old pillar of integrity. But not to the partisans on the sidelines.
I bring this tawdry episode of my past up because there is a quiet crisis developing in youth sports.
Become of spectator misbehavior – both from fans and benches, but more from fans – it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find officials to work the games. Would you want to be subjected to insults, threats or even physical intimidation for $35 or $50? Would you like your honesty and vision to be loudly mocked by a spectator who never met you, pronouncing judgment on you from an observation point 50 yards away from the play?
Imagine your place of work with strangers – amateurs at that – wandering in off the street to critique what you’re doing. No wonder so many umpires, referees and back judges are hanging up their whistles and walking away. The problem has become so acute that some games must be cancelled. One solution that’s been floated is to allow coaches to officiate. Imagine how popular that would be!
One more thing. I have seen literally hundreds of live sporting events, often from close up. Never have I seen a game decided by one play alone. Some coaches and parents will say “That bad call cost us the game.” However, they forget about the 15 missed free throws or four dropped passes or fly balls which could have otherwise kept the contest from being a nail-biter.
This is an old message but one worth repeating. Parents and others, hear me: the officials are not a) on the take, b) blind, c) biased toward one team or another, or d) the father or mother of one of the players on the field, court or diamond. None of that is true.
With a very few exceptions, the officials are a) trying their best, b) impartial, and c) vastly underpaid and d) underappreciated. All of this is true.
If that doesn’t resonate with you, put down your nachos and diet Dr. Pepper and come out here and officiate a few innings or quarters. Your eyes will be opened even if your former colleagues in the bleachers don’t think much of your eyesight.
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts column appears on alternative Wednesdays. For the historical record, this column began in his high school paper 50 years ago this week.
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