Rainouts and rescheduling may frustrate baseball and softball teams, but this spring’s showers have brought another problem: a shortage of umpires.
It’s not unique to Wichita or Kansas — the number of registered umpires is trending downward across the country. But the rain (and snow in western Kansas) has condensed the schedule, meaning more games and more umpires needed on the same day.
“Everyone wants to play, but you’ve got to have officials before you can play the games,” City League athletic director J. Means said. “When you’re trying to reschedule a game but can’t find any umpires, then the kids are going to start losing out.”
The limited number of umpires is already affecting high school sports this spring because it limits days on which athletic directors can reschedule games.
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“I know for us at least, we’ve had one soccer, two baseball games, and a softball game where us and the other school have found a day that works for us, but we were told there were no registered officials to work on those days,” Derby athletic director Russell Baldwin said. “Now we’re having to stack games closer and closer together, which can lead to problems, especially with the pitch-count rule in baseball.”
Josh Schepis, a collegiate official in basketball and baseball, is responsible for assigning officials for City League baseball games. He says not only is the number of umpires declining, but the average age is increasing.
“This will be a major problem in the next five years if we don’t get a good, new group established soon,” Schepis said. “If we don’t see our numbers start to go up, then we are going to be in serious trouble when the core of good officials we have now start to retire.”
Why are officials leaving?
Fran Martin, an administrator for the Kansas State High School Activities Association, has been following the trend but isn’t sure there is an easy fix to stop umpires from leaving.
“We’re trying to pinpoint exactly what can be done,” Martin said. “So far we haven’t come up with any great answers.”
The three common complaints she hears from umpires are poor pay, lack of respect from teams and fans, and the hours.
Depending on the league, umpires can earn $110 to $125 for a varsity doubleheader. Mileage is not typically reimbursed. Many work day jobs, meaning they sometimes have to leave as early as 1 p.m. to make it to a doubleheader that lasts 4-6 hours.
But another major issue is the lack of respect umpires see from coaches, players, and fans.
Martin says most of the problems reported are from games below the varsity level, where less-experienced umpires are assigned.
“These officials have to start and learn somewhere and most of the time it’s at sub-varsity games,” Martin said. “You get these overzealous fans that think they can say and do whatever they want, then sooner or later the official is going to say, ‘You know what, I don’t need this.’ ”
Schepis said umpires have told him the process of becoming an umpire is too much of a hassle.
To become a registered KSHSAA umpire, applicants pay a $50 registration fee, complete an open-book test and fill out other forms. Martin says the process is less rigorous than other states, but Schepis thinks the process should be easier.
“I think KSHSAA makes them jump through too many hoops,” Schepis said. “Using the system is a little overwhelming, especially for some of the older guys who aren’t used to doing that. I think if it was a little more user-friendly, then more people would register.”
What changes need to be made?
It’s intuitive to think the quick fix would be to increase umpire pay, which would make the crowd and hours more tolerable.
But where should the money come from?
Means says his budget for the Wichita school district was slashed again this school year and he’s had to pull funds from other areas to cover expenses. Umpires are paid from money generated by ticket sales, which Means says is down this school year and he’s already dipping into that fund to help pay for schools’ travel to games.
“If things keep going the way they’re going and then you want the cost of umpires to go up, then at some point you’re going to reach a negative balance,” Means said. “So that’s the struggle we’re facing right now. I feel like I’m getting squeezed from both sides.”
If a pay raise isn’t likely, then showing more respect toward umpires is where Gary Schuster, a 41-year umpire from Wichita, suggests to begin.
“Respect comes at the teaching level,” Schuster said. “The players need to learn it from the coaches, but they also need to learn it from home, too. If you can’t accept the outcome of a judgment call, then that’s not very good sportsmanship.”
The KSHSAA has addressed the issue with administrators across the state and it is starting to become a focus at sporting events.
Schepis says it will take time and diligence to change that kind of behavior.
“It’s in our fabric to go to the game and boo the official,” Schepis said. “For so many years, it’s been that way. But now it needs to change.
“I think the administration at game sites can be a little more active in going over and addressing a fan when they’re out of control. Sometimes they’re scared maybe or don’t want to confront an angry parent, but I just hope our administration can feel empowered in the future to step in and handle those parents.”
But longtime official Bob Benoit, who is the AV-CTL commissioner for officials, says that’s not the biggest reason it is becoming harder to recruit new officials.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with crowds, I just think it’s harder and harder to attract kids these days,” Benoit said. “We try to tell them this is a way to give back to the game, but these young kids don’t have the same drive anymore. Now they’re leaving faster than we can bring them in.”
Given the limited number of umpires, larger leagues such as the City League and the Ark Valley-Chisholm Trail League can benefit from working together in their scheduling. Currently there are only a handful of doubleheaders being played on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, while the two leagues typically combine for more than 10 doubleheaders on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“Maybe we need to start looking and using all five days of the week,” Schepis said. “The leagues can work together and try not to schedule more than eight doubleheaders on any one day, so then you would only need 16 umpires.”
“Everybody wants to get their officials first, so then one league feels like they have to one-up the other and schedule their games a day earlier,” Means said. “It just feels like we’re almost fighting each other for the same umpires versus trying to work together to figure this out.”
For those interested, the KSHSAA has a section on their web site on how to become an official. Schepis encouraged those interested in becoming an umpire to visit a youth league near them and ask a supervisor how to get started. Youth baseball leagues such as Westurban, League 42, Southwest Boys Club, Northeast Baseball around Wichita and in Hutchinson at Fun Valley are looking for help during the summer.
It won’t make you rich, but it’s a job that Schuster says is worthwhile.
“I’ve been umping games for 41 years and it’s because I love the game of baseball,” Schuster said. “I started playing baseball when I was 5 years old in 1955 and I do this to stay connected with the kids and the coaches and I have a good time with all of them. You put up with a lot of crap, but it keeps me young.”