ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
They wear uniforms and enforce rules, but they’re not associated with the police department.
And while anyone can learn the rules and do the job, it takes a special personality to do the job right.
“Umpires are supposed to take charge and show authority,” said Matt Dalke, Hillsboro Recreation Director. “I look for someone who’s out there for the kids and not for the money.
“I think a big part of the umpire’s responsibility is to help the kids learn the game and its’ rules,” he said. “If they take the time to tell the kids they made a good play or if they take the time to give them a helpful hint, I like that.”
Veteran umpire Kim Shields of Lincolnville, who has been providing juvenile justice on the play field for 21 years, agrees the umpire should be there for the kids and not for themselves.
“I have this kind of innate sense of justice,” Shields said. “I don’t like it when people manipulate the rules to their advantage.
“I saw umpires who weren’t doing a good job and I knew the rules and knew I could do a better job,” she added. “I want every child, no matter what age, to have the opportunity to have an umpire who knows the rules so when they grow up, they’ll know the rules, too.”
Shields began her umpiring career on the diamonds of Lincolnville.
“I was coaching 10-year-olds but I quit because I got so disgusted at the umpires,” she said. “They made a lot of really bad calls. They weren’t judgment calls, they were rule interpretations.
“I told the parents I thought I could help their kids a lot more being an umpire than I could being a coach.”
Being an umpire serves as an “alter-ego” at times for Shields.
“Sometimes I feel like off the field I can’t really make decisions, but on the field there’s a sense of structure and rules that you have to follow,” she said. “You have to be a decision maker and you have to be quick witted.”
Finding trained and conscientious umpires is almost a full time job for Dalke.
“We have about 18 games a week for eight weeks, so that takes a lot of umpires,” Dalke said.
Included in the hectic schedule are three separate ages of softball, three classes of baseball, and American Legion baseball.
In addition, the summer men’s slow-pitch league also needs umpires.
Recent summers have seen Hillsboro host numerous state tournaments also.
“We work with the Lions Club to find those umpires,” Dalke said. “The American Legion team needs umpires, but the Legion pays for those.”
Dalke said the need for more officials has prompted the need for additional training venues.
“Right now, prospective umpires can go to Hutchinson for USSSA training and next year we want to have a clinic for baseball umpires,” he said. “Marion had a clinic for coaches and umpires too.”
Shields takes her training a step further.
“I go to the state ASA softball clinic every year and I’ve been to two national schools and one state school,” she said. “It’s for my own benefit because I’m one of those people who wants to do the best I can for myself.
“That passes on to other people because they appreciate it if you’re doing a good job.”
Shields also thinks coaches should do their part to make the games more enjoyable.
“I’d recommend coaches attend umpiring clinics so they know the rules better themselves.”
But being an umpire isn’t always a walk in the park.
“Blocking out the crowd is easy unless you have someone that’s really riding you,” Shields said. “But the main thing is if you know the rules and have a good knowledge of those rules and how to apply them, you’re not going to get into trouble and have many people holler at you.”
While no umpire is exempt from pesky hecklers, Dalke said it’s not the umpire’s job to control the crowd.
“Either myself or (assistant recreation director) Scott Nuss will be out there and support those umpires if a situation arises,” Dalke said. “We need to be there in an administrative position.”
Shields said even crowd control has a structured policy which should be heeded.
“I’ll go to the coach if I have someone really on me,” she said. “I liked it when Mr. Thomas was at Hillsboro High School. I had someone really on me at Hillsboro one time and I went to him and pointed over to that section and he took care of it,” she added. “That’s what the athletic director is supposed to take care of.”
Rule changes also seem to be a constant part of the game for the umpires.
“In ASA softball we have to tweak the rules every couple of years because the coaches are always trying to manipulate them to their advantage,” she said. “But most rules in softball are based on safety.”
Dalke said parents of kids who play summer ball need to remember the umpires are doing the best job they can.
“Fans have to be patient because we can’t get the top umpires for every league,” he said. “We don’t have it in our budget to afford umpires from Wichita or McPherson.
“Generally, we have good fans, but sometimes when you’re passionate about the game you say some things you might not otherwise say.”
Punctuality is a necessity when wearing the blues, according to Dalke.
“The biggest problem I have with umpires is getting them to show up when they’re supposed to and being there plenty early,” he said. “My policy is if you can’t be there, you need to find a substitute .
“We don’t have the time or resources to find someone an hour before the game,” he added. “If you don’t find a substitute you’re done for the summer.”
Shields said working with rookie umpires allows a sort of training session, which she doesn’t mind at all.
“If I get assigned with an umpire who’s much less experienced, I don’t mind,” she said. “I’ll use that game to tell them what they need to do to get better.
“That’s for their own good so they don’t get yelled at and quit.”
While the summer umpiring crews are nearly recruited, Dalke said the need is usually there for an experienced official.
“We could still use some umpires for slow pitch,” he said. “We always need certified umpires for those games.”
Both Dalke and Shields agreed that games are still played for the kids.
“Seeing the kids and watching them grow into better players and knowing they know the rules better is a great reward,” Shields said.
“I think it’s fun that you’re still a part of the game when you’re an umpire,” Dalke said. “It’s a way to still participate and you’re providing a service to the kids.
“It can be a really enjoyable experience if you look at it in the right way.
Shields said her love of the game is her motivating force to don the uniform.
“I think the first thing I’d say is do you like the game because you won’t enjoy being an umpire if you don’t like to watch the game,” she said. “There’s a fine line between being confident and arrogant.
“Hopefully, you’ll see more confidence than arrogance.”