CARMEL, Ind. —
It's a sunny spring day and baseball teams can’t wait to hit the field. Recently, though, there’s been one thing missing: umpires.
“We’re filling the void the best we can. It’s a numbers game at this point. You either have the bodies to match the number of games or you don’t. I am working every night and on weekends,” said Brent Hunt, a high school umpire.
This season, multiple high school games have been canceled because of a shortage of umpires.
“This year, specifically, it’s been the worst I’ve ever seen since,” Hunt said.
Hunt has been an official for 19 years, doing baseball, basketball and football games. He said in recent years, students have chosen to do only one sport, which can create greater expectations and pressure from parents.
“I think that is just a little too much expectation, too much pressure on the kids. It’s taken the fun out of the game,” Hunt said.
That pressure from the stands often leads to outbursts toward officials. One time, Hunt had to clear a whole stadium because of a disagreement.
“With two innings to go, we cleared an entire stadium. It was teams and umpires for the last two innings of the game,” he said. “That was my first and only time in a police car being escorted to my vehicle after the game.”
The hostility is even happening in little leagues.
Just this month, a female umpire in Mississippi was punched in the face by a mom at a softball game. In Texas, a coach was caught on camera shoving an umpire to the ground after being thrown out of the game.
“I had a scorebook thrown at me one time. That was one of the first,” said Teresa Zimmerman, an umpire for New Palestine Youth League for 25 years.
She also had a Coke thrown on her by a grandfather after a call. Since then, she learned to be more alert to the fans and coaches. When something does happen, she takes control right away.
“If you don’t like a call, call time out. We will discuss it. If you come at me, you get your warning. After that, you are gone,” she said. “Let your kids play. Let them have fun. Let them learn the game, whether it’s baseball or softball, because that’s why we are here.”
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Zimmerman is also concerned about the young players. She said one time, a mother of a runner verbally abused a fielder who was 10 years old.
“I still wonder about her, I really do. I wonder if she ever played again,” said Zimmerman.
In recent years, she said she’s thought about leaving the game as the atmosphere changes but said it’s the kids and relationships that keep her coming back.
“It’s been fun. It’s been a journey. It’s been a fun journey. The kids I meet, they just stay within you,” she said. “It’s just a game. This is not the World Series or a state championship. This is just where it all begins.”
The youth league’s Opening Day is this weekend and Zimmerman said they are short umpires.
If leagues don’t get more officials soon, Hunt predicts more games will be canceled and players will start losing interest.
“It will correct itself, number-wise, but the number it will correct will be the number of teams and players,” he said. “We are even asking things like can the freshman or JV team do a five-inning game so the umpires here for the varsity game can stick around and do a few extra innings just so those kids can get a chance to swing the bat and throw the ball.”
As fear on the field grows, many are also calling for legislation in Indiana to better protect officials. It’s something more than 20 states have already done, according to the National Association of Sports Officials. Until then, they are hoping former athletes and parents will step up to the plate and help.
“There is no better opportunity to be involved in the game,” Hunt said.
You can find more information about becoming an umpire or referee with IHSAA here.
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