A friend asked me a couple of years ago to come out and join him umpiring youth baseball. “It’ll be fun,” he said.
I happen to love baseball; I played it all during my youth, and I feel like I have a good understanding of the rules. I’ve always had the same passion for basketball and enjoyed a couple of years working as a high school referee. Surely umpiring baseball would be no different.
In just two seasons as a youth league umpire, I feel like I’ve seen a little of everything: parents screaming at 6-year-olds, screaming and cussing at each other, and even fighting — all over a game.
Recently, a video made the rounds on social media and national news. It features a group of adults in an all-out brawl during a baseball game of 7-year-olds with a 13-year-old umpire. Many punches were thrown, and at least one person was seriously injured. It’s no doubt that some parents take the game way too seriously, but there are some coaches who are as bad or worse.
I’ve seen coaches vigorously debate and almost come to blows over foul balls, whether an in-fielder went too far into the outfield to retrieve a ball, batting lineup, the legality of bats and where base coaches can stand. Too many of them seem to think that their win-loss records as t-ball coaches will ultimately determine their reputations in the community. It’s as if a winning youth league season is all that stands between them and an offer to manage the Braves.
Then there are my colleagues — the umpires.
An umpire with a bad attitude is much worse than a parent with a bad attitude because umpires have authority. From the moment we step on the field, we have complete control over the interpretation of the rules, each judgment call during the game and sportsmanship of the players, coaches and fans.
That’s a lot of power, and, unfortunately, I’ve witnessed it go to the heads of some umpires. I’ve seen umpires in pre-game making plans to toss certain coaches out of the game at the slightest sign of disagreement.
I’ve seen umps make bad calls and refuse to reverse the calls because they didn’t want to admit they were wrong. I’ve seen umpires call runners out when they were safe just to get the game over sooner.
This isn’t universal by any means. For every bad parent, overzealous coach, or dictatorial umpire, there are dozens who are in it to make sure the kids have fun while letting the game teach them sportsmanship.
When I started umpiring, my goal was to make a little extra money, get some up-close exposure to a game I love and help mentor young kids through my words and my actions.
As a Christian, I believe one of the best ways to share my faith is by displaying the character of my Savior under everyday circumstances in the presence of those who don’t know Him personally (Philippians 2:5).
And, man, has youth baseball offered ample opportunities.
In one instance, there was a game between two pretty good teams in the “coach pitch” league. This is the 7- and 8-year-old age group, just beyond t-ball. A batter hit a foul ball straight up in the air and the catcher flipped his mask off, found the ball and made a diving catch.
I punched the air with my fist and yelled, “He’s out!”
The play seemed straightforward enough, except for one thing. The ball had actually ricocheted off the backstop on the way up. I didn’t miss that. I saw it. But I played catcher in high school, and I remember catching many “pop-up outs” off the backstop.
But the batter’s coach on this play challenged my call, pointing out that the rule in this league was that any contact with the fencing automatically made it a dead ball, ending the play.
I began rifling through my brain trying to remember what the rule book said, and I couldn’t recall this specific rule, so I couldn’t in good faith dispute the challenge.
On the other hand, a reversal of the call could send the other coach into a rage, plus it would take away a great play by a 7-year-old catcher.
So I called the catcher’s coach out of the dugout to conference with him and the batter’s coach. I asked him what his understanding was of the rule about a pop-up making contact with the fencing. He agreed that it was a dead ball once a foul ball touched the fencing.
I told the first coach to send his batter back up to the plate, and the swing would count as a strike but not an out. No yelling. No cursing. No egos. Just three guys trying to get it right for the fun of the kids and the integrity of the game.
Another example was a little more harried. A ball was hit into the outfield, and the runner who’d been on first base touched second and rounded third. In this league, when the ball gets back to the infield and runners aren’t aggressively advancing, the umpire stops the play, so I called “Time!”
As I did, the infielder made a bad throw to basically no one between third base and home plate. (Hey, they’re 7-year-olds.) The runner proceeded home and scored.
The coach of the defense immediately protested. Although the runner had rounded third base, my “time out” call was supposed to stop the play. Rather than pull rank and argue, I called the opposing coach out of the dugout. I explained the protest and let him know that my decision was to put the runner back on third base and take that run off the scoreboard because I had, indeed, called “time out.”
In youth league, runs for the offense can be as hard to come by as outs for the defense, so when he grumbled something along the lines of “Fine,” I took it as a win and put the runner back on third, minus the run he’d just scored.
After that inning, one of the parents on the team that just had a run subtracted called me over and said, “I wish you called all our games.”
She appreciated my efforts to avoid confrontation, to involve both coaches in the solution and the willingness to reverse a call, whether it was a flat out bad call or a close play that could have been called either way.
At the end of the day, the last thing I want to do is abuse the authority that’s been entrusted to me as an umpire. I also want to demonstrate to the kids that conflict can be resolved peacefully and respectfully.
Finally, I want desperately to be salt and light in every situation that comes my way. God is patient with me, and I want to be patient with others.
Even though Jesus was equal with God, he humbled himself, even to the point of giving his life (Philippians 2:5-8). If Christ in all His authority can show humility, then certainly the guy in charge of a youth baseball game can check his ego at the entrance gate.