FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – James Payne wears a huge grin as he strolls into Blackhawk Christian’s baseball field for a late April contest between the Braves and Northrop. The head umpire is officiating his seventh game in as many days, nothing new for the nearly 20-year veteran.
Payne bounces between his main job as a school resource officer with Fort Wayne Police and umpiring. Over the years, Payne has bumped into former players that thanked him for officiating their games.
“It means a lot, because they don’t have to say anything to us. A lot of them do and it really helps us a lot and it really encourages.”
For many umpires, those encouraging moments feel nonexistent.
Umpiring is a stressful job. With so much pressure to make the correct call and instant feedback from fans and coaches, that pressure can take a toll on an official’s well-being.
“Even though we’re masked up and have thick skin, it still hurts when we leave the dugout or the game,” Payne said.
Because of those uncomfortable moments, many umpires are opting to step away.
What they receive in a two or three hour span is nothing but grief. That is a hard, dare I say, impossible sell.Sandra Walter, IHSAA Assistant Commissioner
Across the country, high school baseball and softball teams are feeling the consequences of an umpire shortage. That labor problem has had direct consequences in Indiana. IHSAA Assistant Commissioner Sandra Walter admitted that some schools have had to play games with only one umpire due to a lack of available officials that day. A few junior varsity games in central Indiana were even canceled in mid-April because no umpires were available.
The problem has even reached northeast Indiana.
There are just over 100 certified baseball umpires throughout northeast Indiana, according to Northeastern Indiana Officials Association President Joe Rudolph. These officials, like Payne, are officiating a handful of games every week and are spread thin. With umpires being asked to officiate several games a week and facing constant criticism, many of them face burnout.
“It’s definitely a survival of the fittest with new people, and it’s been a struggle,” Rudolph said.
Recruiting new umpires is an even bigger challenge. Too few people are willing to register, according to Rudolph. Those that are interested leave the profession after a few years because of the intense scrutiny.
“What (umpires) receive in a two or three hour span is nothing but grief,” said IHSAA Assistant Commissioner Sandra Walter. “That is a hard, I dare say, impossible sell.”
Administrators like Rudolph and Walter implore parents to be patient with umpires. Otherwise, the number of certified umpires will continue to decline.
“We’re human too. We bleed and we cry and we hurt like other people,” Payne said.
Finding a grand slam solution to fixing the umpire shortage is difficult. Yet administrators are trying to piece together ideas to address this problem.
Walter believes one key to fixing the umpire shortage is fostering empathy. That involves getting coaches, even players, to understand the difficulties of officiating a baseball or softball game.
Some athletic directors are encouraging coaches to become licensed officials. Even if they don’t officiate games, those coaches can be sympathetic to the difficulties of umpiring.
Walter and the IHSAA want to take this idea one step further, bring licensing opportunities into the student-athlete’s classroom.
The IHSAA plans to pilot an “Officiating 101” program for student-athletes starting next school year. While the immediate need is for umpires, the program extends to officiating in any sport. The program would be offered as an elective course with opportunities to be mentored by current officials.
By licensing student-athletes, Walter and officiating organizations hope to address two issues. Licensed student-athletes could potentially officiate little league games on days where they aren’t playing. It would also allow the students to empathize with veteran umpires.
“It stands to reason that the level of empathy that that young person has on their own officiating crew would absolutely grow exponentially,” Walter said.
18 schools are part of this pilot program, including two in northeast Indiana: Central Noble and East Noble High School. East Noble Athletic Director Nick David says there’s been strong interest so far. 13 students have signed up from baseball, with a total of 51 students enrolled through basketball and volleyball.
“If we can get these students in the high school interested in that more schools might jump on board and we might take care of the problem,” said David.
If you are interested in becoming a licensed high school sports official, visit the IHSAA website to get started.