Apr. 9—The national pastime is facing a national crisis, the ramifications of which are already being felt in the greater Chattanooga area.
While the upper levels of baseball are thriving as the COVID-19 pandemic begins to fade away, high school and younger players are beginning to experience the effects of an umpire shortage that threatens the health of the sport.
The numbers locally speak to the issue. Simply put, there are fewer umpires available to work and many more games needing to be covered.
"Due to work conflicts, health concerns, injuries and recruiting and retention issues, we are working with just around 40 full-time umpires this season," said veteran umpire Scott Glass, president of the executive board as well as secretary and treasurer for the River City Umpires Association, which covers all middle and high school baseball games for Hamilton County.
"Usually we have around 65 for a full season and would like to have up to 80. We also cover games in Rhea County and some in Bradley County."
Scott Gilbert, head of the association that works games for 14 high schools and 10 middle schools in northwest Georgia, said his group has lost nearly a third of its members over the years.
"We have about 35 in our group right now," Gilbert said. "Over the last couple of years we've had as many as 45. With COVID and some guys retiring we've lost a few, and it's tough trying to cover 24 schools.
"We would like to have double what we have. Sixteen or 17 years ago we had like 50, but with those 50 we had only 18 schools to cover, so you can see the problem."
That problem, which isn't a new one, is rearing its head most notably at the lower levels. Whitfield County had to cancel its middle school season due to a lack of umpires, and other schools have had to postpone or cancel games. It gets worse when inclement weather, not an infrequent occurrence for spring sports, forces games to be rescheduled.
While competition involving teams outside of recreation and youth leagues — popularly referred to as travel ball, these organizations can select their own players and sometimes make long journeys for tournaments — has grown immensely in popularity over the past decade, the cost of travel ball for a great majority of families is very prohibitive. If, as some fear, middle school baseball gets cut due to a lack of umpires, the only avenue for many future high school players will be lost.
"I don't want it to come to the point where our middle schools have to be cut, but it's coming unless we can do something," Gordon Lee High School coach Mike Dunfee said. "There has to be something done to be able to recruit guys."
That's the goal of both area associations, though each faces different obstacles to get there and has different reasons for its current situation.
A common problem is simply age. A national survey by the National Association of Sports Officials in 2017 found the average age of the 17,000 responders was 52. The average age of the nearly 7,000 baseball officials was 54. Numbers are dwindling in part because for some umpires, including Steve Ashby, it was just time to hang up the gear.
"I felt like I was still at the top of my game, but at 62 it was just time to get out," said Ashby, an umpire in northwest Georgia for more than 20 years. "Of course, the state doesn't do much to keep guys or get new ones."
Georgia, through the Georgia High School Association, pays its officials in every sport 30 days after a season ends. While the check usually is a nice payday ($80 per varsity game, $55 for subvarsity and middle school games), the umpires must pay for transportation and equipment, which can run upwards of $500.
On the other hand, umpires across the border in Chattanooga can get paid ($85 for varsity games) within three working days after a game. Even more telling is the number of travel ball tournaments — and the lure of being able to work four or five games in a single day and get paid right away.
"Why would a guy want to wait until June to get paid when they can get something in their account the next day?" asked Ashby. "That's why north Georgia is struggling. As a young guy coming up trying to get into it, you are looking for a check."
Added Gilbert: "We had a couple of new guys come into our group this year, but all of a sudden three weeks in they are calling games in Tennessee because they are getting paid. It's hard to blame them."
In Georgia, officials in every sport are also required to attend "development camps" every two years to be eligible to work varsity games. To be eligible for postseason work, officials must attend a camp each year. The camps cost $80 and are held in the Atlanta area, forcing officials to work around their everyday jobs.
Ashby has always prided himself on keeping up with the rules of the game, but he believes local associations could handle the development of their officials more economically.
"Those camps are a waste of time in my opinion," Ashby said. "I had quit doing state playoff games in part because of the requirement of going to the camps every year. For the GHSA it's a money grab, which is why they make everybody attend the camp at $80 a pop.
"So, for young guys who might want to get into umpiring in Georgia, it's not worth it for most of them. Personally, making money shouldn't be the major reason to umpire, but if it is a big deal — and it is for most young people — you are better off getting a part-time job."
By contrast, baseball officials in Chattanooga train locally and pay $65 annually, which pays for association fees and training. Postseason qualification is based on a merit system.
Out of line
Associations across the country are also losing veteran umpires and not keeping young ones because of a longstanding concern: abuse from coaches and fans. While the money, especially for a part-time job, is great, dealing with verbal and sometimes physical abuse is a huge problem.
"To umpire games, we sacrifice time with family or lose work for something that we spend a lot of time preparing for," Glass said. "Still we have to endure verbal abuse and physical threats from parents and fans when a call does not go their way. Even in the parking lot we are confronted at times. This type of abuse would not be allowed in any other workplace and has to stop."
According to the 2017 NASO survey, 59% of baseball officials stated sportsmanship is getting worse, with parents listed as the main culprits.
"I wish parents would just shut up and be positive toward the team and not target the umpires," Gordon Lee's Dunfee said. "They are human, and the only way to do it well is to keep doing it. Some of these rookies can't because you're hammering them every game. That's no way to treat people, and it's no way to develop new umpires."
The solution? According to veteran umpire Ashby, it's doing the work to not make yourself an easy target of abuse by not knowing the rules while also knowing how to handle the tricky situation when it comes up.
"You have to do the hard work and don't give them a reason to get on you, but you also have to be thick-skinned," Ashby said. "It's hard for young people to deal with it.
"I never talked to a fan. That's the cardinal sin. If you talk to a fan, you deserve everything you catch. In Georgia there are game managers, and it's their job to keep things civil. I would meet with them before the game and would tell them that if you think somebody is getting rowdy, please take care of it before I have to."
There are no such game managers at most youth tournaments, where the majority of new umpires cut their teeth. Altercations in the parking lot are common occurrences. One bad moment can end a promising umpiring career. Too many more lost careers, and baseball's crisis deepens.
Who's on deck?
To help, local associations are actively recruiting and are hoping others can get involved. Anyone wishing to get started can visit the National Federation of State High School Associations at https://highschoolofficials.com, contact the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association or GHSA or ask a current umpire or coach about getting started.
"We try to recruit 10 to 15 new umpires a year," Glass said. "We have loan programs to help mitigate the prices of equipment, and we can even provide training for those who are interested in umpiring but aren't yet 18 years old.
"We want to partner with the baseball community in and around Hamilton County. We have to partner with the coaches and get them to recommend some guys to us. For example, someone who loves the game and wants to stay involved in the game even once their playing days are over. The key is we have to get younger guys that understand and love the game."
Gilbert knows something has to change — and soon.
"We need some new blood," he said. "I wish we could get the county or the city or school systems to throw a flier into their senior packets where they have information on how to become umpires for the summer. If they like it, they might stick.
"Getting new blood is the only way to avert this crisis."