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Umpire shortage cancels Indiana high school baseball games

High school baseball games are being canceled because of a lack of crews available to officiate the contests.

INDIANAPOLIS — For the second week in a row, the Fishers junior varsity baseball team was forced to cancel its game, not because of bad weather, but because of a shortage of umpires.  

“This is second time this spring we have canceled high school level game on sunny, dry day because we did not have umpires available!” read a tweet by the school

“It’s really frustrating, especially with the weather we have had, with the snow and the rain and to get a nice day and not to be able to play,” said Matthew Cherry, head baseball coach at Fishers High School. “This is the first year we have not been able to play a scheduled game because of umpires.” 

On Wednesday, it happened again, this time to the Carmel and Center Grove junior varsity baseball teams.

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It’s a growing problem affecting everyone, no matter their age or experience.  

“This has been a problem since probably 2010 or 2011. We’ve been on a negative decline,” said Blake Hibler, scouting director for PBR Indiana and president of BullPen Tournaments. “Nationwide, it’s become the number one issue every baseball administrator and athlete director is trying to solve.” 

Part of Hibler’s role is also managing tournaments at Grand Park in Westfield. He said the shortage is only getting worse.   

“One day, for high school baseball last week, we had 16 games canceled - everything from varsity to JV to seventh-grade games. This weekend at Grand Park, we are 20 to 30 umpires short,” he said. “Saturdays are a huge problem, and umpires are being asked to work six, seven days.” 

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Teams are striking out left and right across the country trying to find officials. Hibler said one of the reasons is because of unruly fans assaulting and criticizing officials.  

Just this month, a female umpire in Mississippi was punched in the face by a mom at a softball game and in Texas a coach was caught on camera shoving an umpire to the ground after being thrown out of the game.  

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Also last year, the Lebanon Little League declared a "no tolerance" stance to try to stop the verbal abuse from parents and coaches, especially towards umpires. If someone is caught yelling or threatening an umpire, they would be banned from the park for a year.

Besides unsporting fans, Hibler said many umpires also left during the pandemic and never came back. 

“They are not supported in their profession. It’s really expensive to become an umpire and buy all the equipment and do all the training that is necessary,” he said.  

It’s something IHSAA has been trying to change by working with local and nation umpire groups, but the current numbers don’t look promising.   

“The data is staggering. The federation just put out statistics that we lost between 30,000 to 50,000 officials across the country,” said Sandra Walter, an assistant commissioner with IHSAA.  

Data shows that in Indiana, the problem is not much better. During the 2015-2016 season, the state had a little more than 1,800 umpires. This year, Indiana barely has 1,400.  

Walters said those numbers are just for baseball, saying other sports are also struggling.  

Just week, Lawrence Central High School Track and Field canceled its meet due to officiating “issues.” 

To help solve the problem, IHSAA is turning to student-athletes for help.  

“Our newest avenue is addressing it right with those kids and introducing what we are calling 'Officiating 101' into the circular day at the high school level,” Walter said.  

This year, ISHAA started offering high school students the chance to become an official through an elective class. At the end, they can receive a “provisional license” that will allow them to officiate certain games.  

Right now, it is being piloted in seven high schools in Indiana with 140 students enrolled. 

“By then, hopefully, we have trained them well enough to work in those adverse working conditions and teach them some responsibility,” Walter said.  

The IDOE has also provided a course number and course description for this elective. IHSAA is currently working toward adding it to the Graduation Pathway of Employability. 

Walter is hoping this will not only recruit more people, but also retain them.  

"Hopefully a lot of wins with what we are trying to do," she said. 

Until then, Hibler predicts teams might see fees go up or creative scheduling to pack in more games. He said his best advice for teams and parents, “When you show up to be a fan, be a fan.” 

You can find more information about becoming an umpire or referee with IHSAA here. 

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