An age-old question in the world of officiating is facing a new twist: how do you recruit and retain talented people coming out of a global pandemic?
It’s often a thankless job that has come under enormous scrutiny in the face of instant replay and cellphone video, but COVID-19 also opened up the eyes of potential umpires and referees to other ways to spend their summers.
Organizations like Baseball Alberta have been left holding the bag, scrambling to find enough people to service each game.
“For whatever reason, having two years off of umpiring or not officiating, it was really easy not to come back,” said Brandon Strocki, the provincial supervisor of umpires.
“Some people did, for sure, but there was a significant portion that we didn’t get back.”
He made the comments during the first “Point of the Plate,” a virtual event where he was able to deliver a “State of the Umpire Program” address.
Strocki says it’s not unique to baseball, as he is also involved in basketball and knows other officials in other sports.
What concerns him, though, is that games and tournaments are being cancelled in all sports because they can’t get enough people to perform what is arguably the most important job in each sport.
“We knew that once people were allowed to do stuff again (after COVID) that players would want to flock back in waves and that officials, in whatever sport, would be more hesitant to do so,” Strocki said.
“For most of us, we’re doing it out of the love of the game. There’s not a lot to draw some umpires back in, especially if they found other passions in that time.”
The difficulties in getting officials onto the field forced Strocki and his Baseball Alberta colleagues to do a deep-dive into the problem, and search for ways to get things back on track.
In the year before the pandemic hit, 2019, Baseball Alberta had 917 umpires behind the dish across the province.
When things opened back up in 2021, that number fell to just 536, then rebounded to 819 in 2022.
While it was a step in the right direction, Strocki says it was still far from enough to handle the more than 16,000 athletes looking for the right calls to be made.
He says they tried to host a “super-clinic” before the year for the top level 4-5 umpires, with about 60 participants and instructors. While most worked games, some didn’t.
Strocki says of the 819 total umpires who were lined up, 306 worked one or more Baseball Alberta games.
“We found that it was a real struggle to assign games this last year,” Strocki said. “It’s important that more umpires work more games.”
While all areas of the province saw challenges in officiating, he noted that it was Central Alberta facing the biggest hurdles.
He would like to see some of the smaller communities around Red Deer working to develop umpires to support their player and team needs, which might hopefully drive down shortages and travel costs.
And when it comes to the demographics of the umpires, Strocki says the worst retention is the 19-30 age range, with time commitment being the biggest issue.
He adds some former players who seem like great potential recruits seem to be really caught between wanting to give back to the game by coaching rather than umpiring.
“Competitive players often feel they can do both (play and umpire), so they give up on umpiring,” Strocki said in an email to Alberta Dugout Stories after the event.
“Players who stop playing in their youth often want to use their new free time for themselves – going to the lake, spending weekends with family and friends, golfing, enjoying their summer holidays rather than working baseball games.”
It might not be the biggest issue in Alberta’s baseball scene, but the perception of abuse being hurled at umpires is one that might be keeping some potential recruits away, according to Strocki.
Despite the increase in players and games in 2022, he says they saw 45 ejection and incident reports filed, which was down from 56 the previous year.
Breaking it down even further, Strocki says the number of incidents appears split between coaches and players, with a handful of parental issues.
He says Baseball Alberta has strict policies, especially in the younger age groups, to deter bad behaviour, adding the numbers might not be an exact science as some umpires might be facing tough situations that don’t warrant a follow-up report.
“When we do hear about these situations, they are usually on the extreme end – simply put, when things get bad for our umpires, they are really bad,” Strocki said.
“It’s quite discouraging to hear how some adults can treat not only young umpires, but even adults in a youth game.”
The bigger issue, in his mind, is the perception that, just like in any sport, the treatment of officials is overwhelmingly bad.
“People see MLB on TV or they have had coaches in the past that ripped on umpires and they don’t want to be in that position,” Strocki said.
He recalls hearing from one hockey official that they didn’t want to work in baseball because, unlike hockey, the sport comes to a stop while waiting on an umpire’s decision for every play.
IN THE ON-DECK CIRCLE
With those challenges in mind, Strocki says Baseball Alberta has been busy trying to find new ways to entice would-be umpires to at least try it out again.
He outlined detailed plans to update compensation to deal with issues like rising gasoline prices, and is hoping that getting up-and-comers moving faster through the certification process will also help.
The Baseball Alberta Umpire Academy has been created to help identify a select group of umpires that are at level one or two, and are taken into intense training to get them into higher levels.
“This wouldn’t be just a one-day, wave a magic wand over them and hope they get better kind of thing,” Strocki said.
“This would be multiple days, multiple weekends, off-the-field training, Zoom calls, all the things we can do to move our umpires along.”
One other key he’s hoping to see action on is mentorship by some of the higher-level umpires, although one of the challenges is that they, too, are working games.
“Something we, as an umpire association, are emphasizing with our level 3-5 umpires is to seek out younger umpires even if they are out of their immediate home association and provide some mentorship throughout the year,” Strocki said. “It is getting better and we strive to improve that aspect yearly.”
Finding and keeping new umpires isn’t going to change overnight, as witnessed over the last number of years, but he says he’s hopeful the tweaks and policy changes will help encourage umpires to stick with it.
“We definitely need to see more umpires and more umpires working games,” Strocki said.
“Baseball is crazy right now and that’s a good thing, but there are a tonne of players and a tonne of teams that need to be served – and games can’t go on without us.”