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Bad behavior, high costs contribute to umpire shortage

When Jeff Siegel was an 18-year-old baseball umpire in Morton Grove, a coach angry with a call he made started yelling at him. Then the coach grabbed Siegel by the arms and shoved him.

Police were called to the ballfield, and the coach was arrested. The charges ultimately were dropped, and Siegel continued working as an umpire.

“He had to go to court, and that was enough for me,” Siegel said. “It made me stronger as an umpire.”

Not every umpire shakes off something like that as easily as Siegel did. Actually, most don’t. Bad behavior by coaches and parents at youth sporting events has contributed to an umpire shortage in the suburbs, which has increased officiating costs for most leagues, league officials say.

Many youth leagues now outsource umpire jobs to regional “assigner” companies or associations, which is far more expensive than having in-house umps recruited from within the community, a common practice in the past.

Umpire costs vary depending on the age and playing level, and whether the umpires are certified by the Illinois High School Association.

While an in-house umpire might cost around $25 to $30 a game, an association or IHSA umpire is a minimum of $50 a game, said Adrian Steinberg, who managed the umpires in Lake Zurich’s baseball and softball leagues for many years.

Working as an umpire once was a popular job for high school and college students. But teens now represent a small percentage of umpires, league managers say.

“It’s a shame. These are perfect jobs for high school kids,” said Kevin O’Donnell, youth athletic coordinator for Mount Prospect Park District’s youth baseball leagues, which now use an assigner to provide umpires for the 683 kids signed up to play baseball this spring. “These are kids 16 and 17 years old who are just trying to make some money. Then you have these older gentlemen or women who really scream at them and make them feel bad about themselves. It deters them and terrifies them. How do you come back every weekend and want to do that job?”

The umpire shortage also can be attributed to higher startup costs to do the job, said Siegel, whose run-in with the coach was decades ago. Now he’s an assignment supervisor at UMPS.org, which provides 375 umpires – mostly adults – to sports leagues across the Chicago area. For certain leagues, it’s necessary to be an IHSA-certified umpire, invest $300 in your own equipment, have medical and liability insurance, and pay for training clinics, he said.

The upside of the umpire shortage is that training is improving and badly behaved coaches are more likely to be disciplined in some way.

Umpire and coaching associations are addressing the situation both from an education standpoint and by encouraging leagues to enforce rules for misbehavior.

“Historically, people sort of just let (bad behavior) go. But there is less tolerance for it now,” said Tai Duncan, executive director of the Positive Coaching Alliance in Chicago, which partners with dozens of suburban leagues for coaches training, workshops and support. “There need to be stronger penalties, but it comes down to the education part of it.”

The alliance emphasizes “honoring the game” in its programs, teaching coaches how to respectfully disagree with a call and be a positive role model for the players.

Since poorly trained umps only worsen the problem, many leagues are improving their umpire training, including lessons on conflict resolution and game management.

Bret Curlin, an umpire for 30 years who runs the Area Umpires Association in South Elgin, trained 45 umpires for this season. Six or seven one-hour sessions not only cover the rule book, but what to do when coaches or fans get unruly.

First, Curlin reminds them that they are the officials, they’re in charge of the game, and the association will have their backs 100 percent.

Curlin tells them to start out by warning a coach to cool it, or use humor to diffuse the situation. If people yell, “You’re blind!” – a common umpire critique – they might respond, “Oh, I forgot my glasses. I’ll bring them next time.”

If the disrespect continues, or gets personal, an umpire can call a timeout and have a quiet one-on-one discussion with the coach.

If the problem is with a fan, the umpire can have the coach ask that person to quiet down or go sit farther down the sideline, Curlin said. An umpire has the option to eject a coach, which is automatically reported to the league.

Curlin, who was once belly-bumped by an angry coach, reminds new umpires that any type of physical assault is a crime.

“If a guy’s giving you a hard time, you can put him back in line. And you can do it with a smile on your face and they don’t even know what hit them,” Curwin said. “You’ve gotta have thick skin.”

While this is hard for new umpires, especially young ones, he said the payoff is big – it’s a job that will build tremendous confidence and self-esteem.

“The more experience (the umpire) gets, the better he becomes. Every situation you’re going to handle early in life is going to make you better down the line.”- by Jamie Sotonoff, Chicago Daily Herald

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